When Shahba Shahrukhi told her parents that she intended to run in Afghanistan's parliamentary elections on October 20 -- the country's first in eight years -- they laughed.
"No, I am not joking," she told them, defiantly. "I must run. I have to run."
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Once they realized she was serious, they quickly stopped laughing and forbade her from doing so.
But, for the first time in her life, the 28-year-old psychologist refused to obey them.
"I know I have to do this to show other women that you can be a leader and you can fight. This country needs new blood," Shahrukhi, who is running in her hometown of Samangan, a province in the north, told me.
The first female in her family to have graduated from college, Shahrukhi is committed to advancing education among women, or what she calls "Afghanistan's biggest wound."
According to the Independent Election Commission, she is among the 16% of parliamentary candidates who are women. In a country that's been called "the worst place in the world to be a woman," the elections are a referendum on the way Afghan women are regarded in society, usually as second-class citizens.
During a reporting trip to Afghanistan last winter, I met many young women like Shahrukhi who are disillusioned by a government they feel has largely let them down -- women who are determined to take matters into their own hands and lead the charge, no matter the cost. As our news cycle continues to center on an increasingly autocratic US administration and worldviews become more insular, their fights cannot be ignored.
"The world sees Afghan women as helpless, but it's up to us to save our country," she tells me. "We have no more time to waste."
'Enemy number one'
Afghanistan's long-delayed parliamentary elections are taking place under high stakes as the Taliban maintains its grip on more than 40% of the country and the civilian death toll has reached a new high: 8,050 fatalities in the first nine months of this year.
The elections will be a measure of many things, including how far women have come in society. In 2013, Afghanistan's parliament passed a law lowering the proportion of provincial council seats reserved for women from 25% to 20%. Human Rights Watch called it a "broad-based attack on women's rights."
"Sometimes it doesn't seem like the government thinks the Taliban are the main enemy of the people," Lima Ahmad, a research scholar at NATO Defense College, told me. "Instead, women are still seen as enemy number one."
Almost exactly 17 years after the US-led military intervention in Afghanistan ousted the Taliban -- a war problematically framed by the West, in part, to "liberate" Afghan women -- much remains to be done to ensure Afghan women's equitable place in society. And Afghan women themselves, too often patronized as mere victims, are best suited to meaningfully effect change and rebuild their country.
"Instead of handing money to contractors or the government, the international community needs to invest in us personally," says Shahrukhi. "Our government needs to take us seriously. We have so much potential, yet so few opportunities to be anything but second-class citizens."
For Shahrukhi and other female candidates, reforming education is the priority in a country where an estimated two-thirds of Afghan girls still do not attend school. An October 2017 Human Rights Watch report warned that as security in the country has deteriorated, the proportion of students who are girls is falling in parts of the country and gains may soon be reversed.
"In educations and all areas, Afghan women must be the drivers of change on the ground," Palwasha Hassan, founder of Afghanistan Women Education Center, told me. Last spring, Hassan collaborated with Mina's List, a group that partners with in-country organizations to help prepare female civil society leaders to run for office through workshops and mentorships. Tanya Henderson, executive director of Mina's List, said they trained 29 parliamentary candidates including Shahrukhi. She noted that four other women have since dropped out because of death threats.
"Now is the time for us to keep pushing and we have to be the ones who are pushing," says Hassan. "We can't have international groups or others come here with far removed realities from the ground."
To her point, a recent report by the Special Inspector General for Reconstruction of Afghanistan criticized USAID's Promote program -- the agency's largest ever investment in women's empowerment globally -- for having spent $89.7 million in three years but having made little progress in efforts to improve the employment status of women, other than the placement of 55 women in government jobs.
Sakena Yacoobi, renowned education activist and CEO of the Afghan Institute of Learning, told me she is worried that global attention on Afghanistan has drifted. As President Donald Trump turns inward and champions a myopic America First approach with focus spent only on militaristic endeavors, activists are afraid efforts to bolster civil society are falling by the wayside.
"We need to have the world paying attention and monitoring what is going on," she says. "The women are the ones who will save the country and the world can't look away."
For Shahrukhi, who spends most of her days running from meeting to meeting and hosting town halls, the true indicator of how far Afghanistan still has to go is its perniciously high rate of violence against women. Nearly 87% of women in Afghanistan have experienced abuse.
A United Nations report released in May took the Afghan criminal justice system to task for ignoring violence against women. President Ashraf Ghani has frequently said he has a zero tolerance policy, but activists say he hasn't been firm enough. One of the government's most harrowing tests came in 2015 when 27-year-old Farkhunda Malikzada was beaten to death in broad daylight by a mob in Kabul after being falsely accused of burning the Quran. Critics say Ghani's government did little to leverage the tragedy into enforcing the violence against women law more vigorously.
"I want to have faith, but sometimes it is difficult," said Shahrukhi while rushing to speak with a group of male teachers in her village who are skeptical of her candidacy. "Even if I don't win, it's still important for me to show people that I am here, that I am not scared and that Afghan women will not stay silent. We are survivors, and we will keep going always."
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