Since 2004 Fatima has been President of the Afghan Red Crescent Society, arguably the most powerful woman in a position to bring positive change on the ground for the Afghan people. Fatima returned to Afghanistan at the beginning of 2002 after 23 years in exile, dating from the Russian invasion when she and other members of her prominent family fled to safety in a last-minute escape complete with family jewels hidden inside baby’s clothing.
During exile Fatima was a media personality in London and a spokesperson for the National Islamic Front of Afghanistan, a political party founded by her father Pir Sayed Ahmad Gailani (Pir Saheb), prestigious leader of the religious order of Qadiriyyah Sufi in Afghanistan.
How I met Fatima: Days before returning to Kabul, Fatima was at my home outside of Washington, DC where she and other women experts in the nature of peace spent three days answering the question “What is peace, and how can women build it?” That meeting led to my founding Peace X Peace (“peace by peace”), the first social network connecting women to other women around the world. It grew to include thousands of members in 130 nations. Also in my family room were the novelist Isabel Allende, Susan Collin Marks, executive vice president of Search for Common Ground; Barbara Marks Hubbard, author and founder of the Foundation for Conscious Evolution; and Dr. Azizah al-Hibri, professor of law, Qur’anic expert, and founder of Karamah: Muslim Women Lawyers for Human Rights.
I had called Fatima, as a stranger, at her home in Providence, RI where she lived with her husband Dr. Anwar ul-Haq Alhady, a tenured professor of political science at Providence University. After hearing my request, she turned to Anwar and said, “I don’t know why but I’m supposed to be at this meeting. I know we set our date to return, but I need to delay a few days.” She arrived with the others through a snowstorm, and her grace, humor, and wisdom infused our days of finding answers on how to build peace through women.
The documentary: Eight months later I went into Afghanistan with an all-women crew to document her work and the education of girls and women. The film, “Peace by Peace: Women on the Frontlines,” debuted at UN headquarters in New York in the fall of 2003. It showed women building the social components of peace in Afghanistan, Bosnia, Argentina, Burundi, and the U.S. It aired on PBS television and around the world.
The Gailani compound: When the crew and I flew into Kabul, we were with Fatima on her second return. On landing she was greeted by an entourage with red roses. The Gailani family is revered, and I was to learn that she takes such recognition in stride and with grace.
The family compound where she was raised was taken over first by the Russians who used a large secondary building to hold prisoners and then by the Taliban who used the same building for torture and imprisonment. After the Taliban’s fall the compound was returned to Pir Gailani who used the same building for tribal leaders who were temporarily displaced. They sat in a circle under a large tree Fatima had planted as a girl and told me they became accustomed to women in the workplace during the Communist rule.
Reading Fatima’s comments, keep in mind a woman who combines confidence with a whimsical sense of humor that serves her well in one of the world’s most difficult jobs.
Fatima, was it a decision of your heart or your head to return to Afghanistan?
For me it was not an option. I was forced to leave but every second of my life was to prepare myself so I could come back to help my country. I was so sure I would return that I would dream about my house in Kabul. I knew the details of the curtains and the chairs I would buy. My mother would say “Are you crazy? The Russians are there, we are in exile, and you are decorating your house in Kabul!”
Later when I married Anwar, I would tell him about my garden in Jalalabad. At first he thought it was a joke and went sort of “ha ha.” I said, “It’s not ‘ha ha.’ What trees do you want in our garden in Jalalabad?” Anwar said, “Are you crazy? The Taliban are sitting in Kabul. Do you even have a piece of land in Jalalabad?” I said, “No, but I will be having a piece of land in Jalalabad. What trees do you want to plant?” He said, “Thank God we are already married because if we had had this conversation before, I would have thought you were absolutely crazy.” I said, “I am crazy but for my country and I will be going there.”
So we came back and after a couple years my father gave me the most magnificent piece of land in Jalalabad, huge and beautiful, ruined totally of course. It had seven mature palm trees, but nothing else except a panoramic view of the Spin Ghar, the white mountains. Imagine palm trees where your surroundings are mountains full of snow!
Today we have all the citrus trees you can imagine. Two weeks ago we got our first grapefruits, we got our limes from there, we had only six oranges but we will have more.
I knew I would be building things. I knew that I would be working in Afghanistan. The only thing I was praying to God was for health and enough lifetime to return.
Do I get tired? Yes, and there are times I miss sitting in a café without being recognized. I miss going to a supermarket, choosing my own fruits. I miss the freedoms one has in the West but I would do it again. I would come here again – and here I am.
Has the last decade affected your dreams for Afghanistan?
I never thought that I would find a rose garden. When I returned after almost 24 years of war and the Soviet invasion, and fighting over language and ethnicity, a civil war, the competition of Shias and Sunnis, the competition with the neighboring countries . . . no, I knew I would return to a totally destroyed country.
But did I think that Afghanistan would be in the list of most corrupt countries of the world? Absolutely not. I remember a very clean Afghanistan, people who were so honest. I remember a king who would walk on the streets of Kabul like a Swedish king or a northern European king. So it is devastating to see my country in the list of most corrupt countries. I am devastated we still supply more than 80 percent of the drugs in the world.
I expected the collapse of the juridical system, education system, and health system, which are repairable. But when the morality of a people is destroyed the people have to rebuild it for themselves. These things break my heart. But will I give up? Absolutely not.
What is the relationship of the Red Crescent to the Red Cross?
The Afghan Red Crescent is partially self-funded through vast properties it holds within Afghanistan, while certain projects get additional funding from the Red Cross/Red Crescent Societies of different nations in the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies. Some projects are also supported by the International Committee of Red Cross.
Responsibilities of the Red Crescent Society of Afghanistan
- Disaster preparedness and response
- Emergency health care
- Youth and volunteer training
- Support for war victims
- Health services
- Welfare houses in Kabul, Mazar-e-Sharif, Herat, Kandahar, and Jalalabad
- Dissemination of information on Red Cross and Red Crescent
- Raising mine awareness
- Treatment of children with Ventricular Septal Defect (having a hole in their hearts)
What is the initiative for children with holes in their hearts?
Tens of thousands of children in Afghanistan are born with this condition. Finding out why is the job of the UN and the Ministry of Health, but I found the way that thousands of these children have been sent abroad to be operated upon. These things make me so happy that to be president or a minister or to be in the political wheeling and dealing, . . . I don’t think I am interested.
But when I was in your father’s home in 2003 you said you might run for President of Afghanistan. You smiled, but I think you were not completely joking. You asked your brother if he would vote for you, a woman, and he hesitated.
I don’t know if my brother hesitated about voting for a woman or voting for me, or because he thought if we both ran, I could win.
Under our constitution a woman can run for the presidency, but the reason I don’t want to run for the presidency is not because people will not vote for me. I assure you among the 11 people running for the presidency today – I hope it wouldn’t sound too pompous – but I have much more chance than they have. The reason I don’t want to run for the presidency is, as I said, that I find things more important in my work with the Red Crescent.
I remember like yesterday, Patricia, when I came to your meeting and looking outside and seeing the beautiful snow. I called to tell you afterwards that maybe those days in your house changed my life. Well, they did change my life. The future of women became more important for me than my own political future.
Then, in the Red Crescent another eye opener happened. When I came here, it was not only women who live in misery.
A huge number of people live in misery, the majority of children live in misery. Sometimes families are cruel to their children. People produce children without any thought and they can’t feed them and send them to the streets so they will be a source of income. We have to rescue these children. This is so unacceptable that changing this is much more important to me than being in politics.
Outside the four walls of my garden or my parents’ garden or my sister’s garden, I see the people’s poverty, their discomfort, and the extraordinarily expensive city that Kabul has become. Afghanistan is too expensive and not affordable for the people of Afghanistan. These are the things that bother me.
Are you in personal danger?
I never have armed guards. I don’t even have guards, I don’t have anyone with weapons around me. I have one person who sits in the car next to the driver without a weapon so if the car doesn’t work or we’re in a traffic jam, I have someone with me. Yes, I have been twice in great danger and it was from a huge explosion at the Indian Embassy because I live next to the Indian Embassy. Was the target me? Of course not.
In Afghanistan, like in Iraq or Syria or many countries, it is very important that you take precaution. Don’t go unnecessarily to places that are not safe. And if you happen to be in a wrong place at the wrong time, then it is your luck. That is it.
What is Anwar’s position now?
He was Governor of the Central Bank, and then Minister of the Department of Finance, and then Minister of Commerce and Industries. He wanted to run for the presidency, but for whatever political reasons that is not happening. This was sad for me because as the first lady of Afghanistan, I could have done a lot. As President of Afghan Red Crescent Society, I am doing things that are appreciated by the people of my country, but had I been an example for women of Afghanistan as the first lady, I could have changed lots of things for women and children. I could have opened the eyes of women outside my country to see that together we could change the situation of the people, especially of women and children.
If you are serious about changing the situation of women in any country, you have to start with your own family. One reason that in the late king Zaher Shah’s time the situation of women improved was because all the women of the royal family were involved. Princess Belqees was the head of women volunteers and worked with people directly. Her daughter Princess Maryam was a maternity nurse who would go and take the hand of a woman villager giving birth, so changes came faster and were more accepted.
Today the women in their own families are kept locked with the expectation that changes should come through other people’s wives and daughters and sisters and mothers. It cannot work like that. In my family all the men and women are involved in social work.
What will happen in the upcoming presidential elections?
The candidates are almost equal and are known to the country equally. They are also known equally to the Western media, which makes a huge difference for the outcome. Almost all have worked with the government at a very high post, and they either did well or they did not do well or they could have done better.
Also, lots of military changes are happening but, above all, huge financial changes will happen because lots of people will lose their jobs when the NGOs (non-governmental organizations) run away from the country. Most of the Western barracks of the soldiers will close down, and most of the men and women who work for them will lose their jobs. So we will have a very bad financial shock. This makes it a little bit dangerous. Will the candidates be able to go to the provinces and to the villages? Will they meet with the people directly or introduce themselves only through media?
Do you believe the government needs to be based in religious law?
We have a constitution. You don’t change the constitution every day. It doesn’t happen in other countries and it will not happen in my country. The Afghan constitution is based on Islamic law as it is in many other countries.
If democracy is the rule of people then this is the wish of the people. If you knock at the door of any Afghan person, they will tell you exactly what they want, and this is what they want.
I was one of the commissioners for the constitution. I traveled to five provinces and in every district of that province, a constitution based on Islamic law was what the people wanted. So if we claim that we want democracy, then this is democracy because it is what the people want.
When I was in Kabul twelve years ago most women still wore the burka, but they were organizing, going back to school.
The changes for women are a revolution. Millions of educated girls are rising every day. I don’t think anyone could lock these young women up. They are educated, in touch with the people, and don’t like the imported feminism. They have their own feminism with roots in this country. They are very active, and very visible in our parliament, both the upper house and lower house. And they are visible in civil government, and in universities, especially private universities where they are almost 50 percent of each class.
The women are eager to do much better than men because, like anywhere in the world, a woman has to be better than a man to get the same job. You know it is a fact that, with the exception of a few northern European countries, everywhere in the world you have to be much stronger and better than a man to get the equal job.
Has equality come? Not yet. But in the constitution women and men are dealt with equally. On paper, in laws, and in new laws to come the voice of women is being heard. If we are ignored, we make sure we just impose ourselves so we will be equal with all other members of the society.
The burka is not an issue. We want educated women with burka or without burka. If a woman wants to wear a burka, no one should be allowed to tell her not to wear a burka. If she doesn’t want to wear a burka, no one should be forcing her to wear a burka.
We have a new fashion, very elegant outfits, very conservative but beautiful with matching scarves. You will be surprised at the fashion that has come that suits our environment, our religion, and the requirements of our country.
But we hear of terrible things still happening to women.
Terrible things happen in Kabul and outside of Kabul. They happen because it takes a long time to stop these in any country, but the most important thing is that now people have the courage to report them, to say something wrong has been done to their daughter and they want justice. Instead of being ashamed and killing their daughters to hush up a dishonor, now reporting horrible things that happen to women has become common.
But there is a huge difference between the big cities – Kabul, Mazar, Herat, Jalalabad – and other provinces, districts, and villages. But even in the districts, because of the radio and other information, people know how to report abuses. Nonetheless, bad things happen and we have to find ways to stop them.
What is really difficult to accept is that still women mostly don’t get their inheritance rights because, especially outside the cities, the inheritance is land and men are reluctant to lose the power of owning the land of their fathers and forefathers. This is why more than 80 percent of women in villages don’t get their rightful Islamic inheritance as written in the Quran. This should be among the easier things to fix.
Has anything changed regarding the poppy crop?
I don’t know where cultivation has changed or hasn’t changed as this is the responsibility of the Ministry of Counter Narcotics. But in defense of most people who cultivate poppies, I have been saying for 12 years that our people have very little land, and nothing has been done to educate them not to produce too many children. They have to feed their children and there’s no governmental social welfare to take care of their children. So they cultivate what makes the best profit from their little land. Unfortunately in the majority of places, it is still poppies, even though the poor man who is cultivating them doesn’t get much money.
Rose oil is worth more than opium. Saffron is too, and the saffron of Afghanistan is the best in the world . . . but did we do anything to open a market for it? Did we help the farmers to pack it? Did we help them to collect it? For one or two years farmers grew the saffron, but at the end the farmers had to leave their towns to sell the saffron at a very low price.
That same saffron when it goes across the border is sold at a very high price in the name of Iranian saffron. So very little has been done to help these people to sell their alternative crops. If we help them, I think at least 50 percent of the problem could be solved.
What are you most proud of in your work at the Red Crescent?
Maybe my expectations of myself are a bit too much, as no matter what I do I feel I’ve only fulfilled one of my duties. But I am proud of the comradeship I have created. Most of my employees are much younger, but we can communicate with each other. If they have a critique, they express it openly.
If you have a complaint of your mother, you say “Mother, I don’t like the way you cook your cake. Put in a little more sugar or less sugar” or “I don’t like the topping.” So they tell me how to change things and most of the times because they are connected to regular people, it improves my work, so I am proud I have that open door with my employees.
A last word?
There is one thing that I am proud of for myself that is not directly to do with the Red Crescent – I have killed the desire of political aims and political gains and political wants that a human being may have. Today I can honestly tell you I have no political ambitions. All I want is to help these people who have no comrades to help them. That’s all I want.
That was not an easy thing. This I am proud of for myself.