On November 14, 2017, an awarding ceremony at the 10th Anniversary conference of IWEC will take place in the headquarters office of Microsoft in Redmond, Washington. This year’s theme is “Inclusion of women in global business: growth acceleration with the help of innovations and technologies”. Manija Paktin is the first Afghan woman to receive this award. A few days ago, she visited ARGO’s offices in Almaty and talked about the situation regarding women’s rights in her country.
Manija, we are happy to see you as our guest. We know that you are one of the few Afghan women who have a higher education degree. As I understand, you come from an educated family. Please tell us about your family and your parents.
I was born in Kabul. When I was 2.5 months old, my family went to Moscow. My dad was a diplomat and my mom was a TV anchor. Until I was 6 years old I grew up in Russia, and attended a kindergarten and school. However, every time I saw news about Afghanistan I had the feeling that I wanted to return to help build my country. My parents tried to give us a good upbringing and education. They did everything so that we would study well. I have three brothers. Two of them became doctors and the youngest one is like his father – a diplomat. My family, including my brothers and parents, have always supported me even during my most difficult times.
As we know, the situation with women’s right in Afghanistan is complicated. That’s why you founded your public organization that helps women, girls and boys. Could you give us more details?
I personally experienced all the difficulties that Afghan women must face with while studying in university, while working as a construction engineer, and while going through my divorce. At a certain moment, I realized that I must somehow help our women and girls. That was my impetus for starting an NGO that works for women’s rights. In 2013, I founded the Stand Up for Afghan Women Organization (SAAWO) which works in more than 25 provinces of the country. We work in four areas: health and sports, agriculture, women’s rights, and IT.
It is interesting that as soon as we registered our organization, three days later we received a grant from the Embassy of the United States. We started our work with trainings that facilitate women’s development. For two years we educated our compatriot women on legislation, interaction with police, and many other things. Then we had another great project: we provided school children with school uniforms, organized competitions between boys and girls, and awarded prizes to winners. Once, we invited two sportsmen from the capital. They were the winners of international championships to motivate other students. It was a great project, and people are still asking if we are going to repeat it.
With help of GIZ (German Society on International Cooperation) we held trainings for police workers in the North of Afghanistan. We told them about violence against women, and breaches of their rights.
We currently have a grant from USAID. You see, for the last 25 years Afghanistan has been in the state of war. Many men died, and many women were left alone. We have to help them, so that they can live on, work and bring up their children. We help to raise their social and economic level. In our country, 80% of women and men are illiterate. We want to increase the level of education. Thanks to my construction company, I built a 5-story building for our organization.
Manija, tell us what difficulties you faced while you were studying in university and later when you started working in construction, which is a traditionally men’s industry?
Since I was a child, I dreamt to become a construction engineer. I wanted to build the country, build kindergartens, schools, clinics, roads and buildings. Many years later I realized the dream. It was very difficult. I was the only girl among 42 boys. Nobody believed I would be able to graduate and moreover work in an exclusively ‘male’ industry. But I graduated with a bachelor’s degree with distinction.
However, there were more difficulties after graduation. Many asked me why I did not study to become a teacher or a doctor, but instead preferred to become a construction engineer. In Afghan society women are deemed to be lower than men. A woman can only give birth and bring up children. Of course, everyone thought that it was not for a woman, and that it was a man’s profession. I had one 45-year old worker that time. I was 18 then, and he did not want to listen to me. He thought I was stupid. Two years later, after he realized that I have knowledge, and that I can resolve complex issues in construction, he changed his mind and even became my friend. It is interesting that after his granddaughter was born, he named her Manija and said that he wanted her to become an engineer and build her country. Thus, I proved to everyone that a woman in Afghanistan can work in any profession of her choice and that she has the same rights as men.
What reasons forced you to leave your country? How much time have you been in Kazakhstan?
When I founded the organization to protect the rights of women, there were more problems than before. Many men did not want their wives to study. They said that it was not necessary, useless and prohibited by shariah law. Once I found a life-threatening note under my door, which warned me to stop my activity. Since 2005, I have been an instructor in the construction faculty at Balkh University. There I received a grant to study at a master’s program in Kazakhstan. I came to Almaty to improve my knowledge and qualification. In the beginning, I had problems bringing my children here, but resolved those. I completed the masters’ program and I have gotten an opportunity to start a doctorate program.
I like Almaty very much. 25 years ago, I live in Moscow, I was an Oktyabrenok (communist children’s organization) and then a pioneer. I chose Kazakhstan for my children, so that they could grow up here and get their education. I want them to have a good foundation. Nowadays, my native Afghanistan is dangerous for me and my children. My activity to protect rights of other people is full of risks, and I can’t put my children under risk. I have two sons, who are 10 and 7. Besides me they don’t have anyone. My deputies in Afghanistan now work, and I plan their activity from here. When I come to my country I have to close my face with a shawl, so that nobody would know that I am there. I am connected to Kazakhstan for the foreseeable future. I want to study and work here, and make certain that my children receive an education.
What are your impressions of the country and its people? As I know, you teach at the Academy of Architecture?
Our countries are in Asia and they are both Islamic. Our cultures have a lot in common. Honestly, I like it here very much. I like the people. They are very hospitable, kind and very hard working. Citizens do a lot for their country. When I graduated from my master’s program I was offered a job teaching at the engineering faculty in English. I am glad that they took me as an instructor. Kazakhstan has become my native country. It has very good and kind people. I found trust, love and respect. I enjoy living and working here.
What did you feel when you learned that you received an award?
I was in Turkey at the 8th conference of IWEC. There were a lot of us women from Afghanistan and Pakistan. Just from our country alone there were 25 people. This year they called me to let me know that I am the first Afghan woman who will receive the award. I was very surprised at first, but then of course happy. I was very pleased that my work has been evaluated. Tomorrow, I am flying to USA to take part in the conference and to receive the award at the ceremony that will take place from November 12-14. Women from 52 countries will take part in it. These are women who want to bring change to their countries.
What are your plans for the next few years?
If the situation in Afghanistan changes I would want to return to my country to continue my work. The for our women and girls is still quite difficult. I also plan to find an international partner from Asia or Europe. Maybe our organization could enter the international community to work together. But I will only be able to return when conflicts and battles in Afghanistan are over. I hope that my children and I could be safe and that I could work and help others to move forward.
Please tell us about your plans and hobbies?
I like playing volleyball. I used to play in school. I like reading books. I would like to engage in networking, to meet and receive new friends, learn new cultures, make friends, and share and exchange experience and ideas. Generally, I like meeting new people.
Manija, thank you for an interesting conversation. We wish you a successful trip and we look forward to meeting you once you return with your award.