Interview: I am a woman in Afghanistan

As part of a college assignment last semester, we were asked to write a report on an issue of our choice, that is effecting a developing country. I chose to the theme of gender equality and with the magic of the internet, I managed to get in touch with an inspirational female vet in Afghanistan. She told me her story and how she and many others won’t let the force of inequality crush them. 

The Nowzad veterinary clinic in Kabul is revolutionary in many ways.  The clinic, which relies on donations for the work it carries out, is the only official animal shelter in Afghanistan. They offer practical training programmes for veterinary students and they provide vaccinations and care for animals, that have been adopted by soldiers in war torn parts of Afghanistan, Iraq, Ukraine, Libya and Kuwait. The clinic also proudly boasts that its staff include Afghan female veterinarians, something that is considered a ground breaking achievement in Afghanistan. One such vet who Nowzad put me in touch with, is Malalai Haikal.

Malalai, who loved animals as a child, always dreamed of becoming a vet. But from a young age, she had to fight to turn these dreams into a reality, because she was simply born a girl.

“When I was a child in Afghanistan, the Taliban were in power, so it meant I couldn’t go to school. However, I wanted to be a student so my mom took it upon herself to teach me instead.” Malalai explains to me.

Before the Taliban rule of the country, Afghanistan had been relatively progressive for women’s rights. Something people may not be aware of, is that Afghan women were first eligible to vote in 1919, only a year after women in the United Kingdom and a year before women in the United Stats were allowed to vote.

But because of coups and the Soviet occupation in the 1970’s, civil conflict between Mujahideen groups and government forces in the ‘80’s and 90’s, and then under Taliban rule from 1996-2001, women in Afghanistan found their rights increasingly dwindling. After the Taliban were overthrown, Malalai was able to attend school in Kabul and after passing her exams she successfully went on to Kabul University to study veterinary. In college Malalai continued to be subjected to unfair treatment because of her gender, but this time it was from her classmates.

“There was only five girls in my class, including myself. If we had a question the boys would interrupt us. They used to say to us ‘why are you studying veterinary?’ You can’t treat animals. If you treat them, the animal will shoot you.”

“The boys saw us girls as weak, but I didn’t care. I finished my studies and got a job in my field and I showed them that I can treat animals, that I can perform surgery.” she says proudly.

Malalai has travelled outside of her country and knows that what she experiences shouldn’t be the norm. “Last year when I went to India and stayed in a small town. I saw a difference in the way women were treated, they were free to walk the streets and women were allowed to work alongside the men.”

“In Afghanistan there are some people who think that women are very weak and that we are only for house work and raising children. Some men don’t like that they’re women working outside of their homes, but I disagree with these kind of views. If it wasn’t for us these men wouldn’t even exist!” continues Malalai.

Something Malalai strongly believes is that not all men view women in this way, “there are some people who try and encourage their daughters to become doctors and pilots. My fiancé is a man and he is my supporter in everything I do,” she says.

And though the human right of equality is still very much balanced in favour of men, a change has started to be seen in Afghanistan.

A 2017 report by Afghan Women for Afghan Women, an organisation dedicated to securing and protecting the rights of Afghan women and girls, show that as of 2016 females made up 20% of the nation’s doctors. While 72,000 female teachers are employed and teaching Afghanistan’s next generation.

Back home in Ireland, life a a female vet tells a different story. Though women are struggling to gain certain rights in the country, when it comes to women educating themselves for future careers we are only striving.

Eimear Glesson, a recently graduated veterinary nurse, explained the situation for women in Ireland working in the same profession as Malalai.

“Veterinary nursing is quite a female-heavy career in my opinion. Generally being a female doesn’t affect how I do my job. In my previous practice my work involved communicating with a lot of old fashioned farmers some of whom where inclined to want to speak to the vet, who is a male, only for advice despite a nurse being capable to offer it. But I feel that it is more because the vet is more experienced than because of his gender. In general though, in the field, I have not experienced any inequality because of my gender.”

Afghanistan has a way to go before they can confidently say the same words as Eimear, but for now Malalai strongly believes Afghan women must keep on fighting for their rights.

“If a woman decides she can change the world she can. She shouldn’t wait around for a man to change her life. I believe women can change things by changing the way their husband, fathers and brothers see women. My hope for the future of Afghan women, is that they will be their own heroes. There are a lot of amazing and brave women out there and they are able to be the pattern that changes the world.”

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