Hosna Jalil, then deputy minister of the interior, at a government meeting where only one other woman, Kabul's deputy governor, was present, in Kabul on June 20, 2020.
Kiana Hayeri—The New York Times/Redux
March 8, 2021 6:10 AM EST

Before even taking a seat, Afghanistan’s newly-appointed deputy women’s minister Hosna Jalil plunges immediately into why she recently refused a job.

The role would have continued her participation in Afghanistan’s security sector, where until recently she was a deputy interior minister. Jalil was the first woman elevated to such a high-ranking position in the ministry responsible for law enforcement, in a country approaching two decades at war.

But the job, as a senior advisor to the chief minister, was a box-ticking exercise in terms of women’s inclusion, she says, stripping her of the ability to continue work that delivered tangible change. “I was told I would be transferred to the position,” Jalil says, seemingly amused. “These men just assumed I would accept it because as a woman my opportunities are limited.”

The 28-year-old makes coffee as she talks, barely skipping a beat as she asks a member of staff to bring in a spoon. Appointed deputy minister of policy and strategy at the interior ministry two years ago, Jalil’s job was to reform policing to be more oriented around the community, and to increase women’s participation in the force.

Yet every step of the way Jalil says she herself has had to fight for opportunity. “I’ve been quite bold about it,” she says, adding with a smile that she considers herself a bit of a troublemaker. “[Men in authority] are not afraid of the Taliban but they are afraid of anything related to women.”

A rare story of progress

Growing up in the small, southeastern city of Ghazni at a time when the Taliban were in control meant she was not entitled to an education. She was fortunate in that her father used his stature within the community to normalize girls being able to attend a madrassa, or religious school. It was her only option for an education before community-based initiatives were established by international organisations.

She went on to achieve a BA in Physics before completing a master’s degree in Business Management at the American University of Afghanistan (AUAF). She launched three businesses – joining the tiny 3 per cent of woman-run licenced businesses across Afghanistan – before going on to work in policy planning at the Ministry of Mines and Petroleum.

Hers is a rare story of a woman making progress in the heavily patriarchal south-Asian country. Women faced severe oppression during the reign of the Taliban, barely leaving their homes due to the group’s strict rules and forced to remain covered beneath burqas when in public. Following the toppling of the Taliban by U.S.-led forces in 2001, progress on women’s rights has been hard-fought yet slow to manifest itself. In 2011, ten years after the war began, a poll of women’s rights experts found Afghanistan was the world’s worst place to be a woman, and conditions have not meaningfully improved since then.

In joining the interior ministry at the age of just 26, Jalil knew she was working to help change that. “It was a big risk to take the position. Not just for my own career but on behalf of the next generation, on behalf of women across Afghanistan. If I was to succeed, it would mean keeping the door open for other women,” she says as she leans back into her chair, cradling her coffee cup.

It wasn’t easy. She says she struggled sometimes to be taken seriously by male colleagues who often showed resistance to changes she tried to implement or delayed their responses to her communications – sometimes up to weeks at a time. “As a woman you have to work longer hours and twice as hard as men,” she says, although she is quick to praise men on her team whom she worked closely with.

But she did not hold back when it came to keeping her police officers in check. She once left a meeting for 90 minutes to reprimand a police commander, after receiving a report that no one had stepped in to help a female officer while she was attacked by a prisoner.

Doing her job effectively made her a target for harassment. Jalil explains how a disgruntled, low-ranking male colleague sent her emails attacking her ethics and calling her a prostitute, during her final months at the ministry. “I took the issue to the minister and he transferred the man to his chief of staff,” she says. “That’s a promotion, not a punishment. I didn’t have the minister’s support at all.”

Yet despite these kinds of structural obstacles, she distinguished herself by travelling to 26 of Afghanistan’s 34 provinces – something none of her male colleagues have done, she says. While deputy minister, Jalil successfully implemented policies that aimed to transform the police’s mandate from the battlefield to guardianship, bolster women’s recruitment, and make the insititution more efficient. This was in addition to child protection and gender policies, as well as many others.

The now-wilting bunches of flowers filling up the large windowsills in her office are testament to what she achieved, sent to her by generals and uniformed colleagues from both the police and army whose respect she won. “I feel I’ve shown men in the security sector that a woman can sit together with them and produce something they admire. I’m proud that I’ve been able to demonstrate being a woman and being feminine is not a weakness.”

Creating a national strategy for women

Jalil felt confident enough to decline the advisor role, in which she felt she would be sidelined. Instead, on Feb. 11 she accepted a new role as a deputy minister focused on policy and planning at the Ministry of Women’s Affairs (MoWA). Only weeks in, her plans are ambitious – she intends to transform how the ministry works, by redefining its portfolio. Jalil says the ministry’s current focus is on directing women with complaints or concerns to other institutions.

Instead, she wants the ministry to establish and lead a unified national strategy for Afghanistan’s women, improving women’s access to services and increasing participation across society by expanding the ministry’s remit so that it brings women’s rights to the fore at district and village level. “We want to make the [ministry] an umbrella for all women’s issues, to go beyond signing paperwork for a woman to divorce her husband,” she says. “The issues I faced in my previous posting, I can now tackle head on in my new position.”

For as long as it lasts, that is. Jalil speaks frankly of her fear that a potential power-sharing deal between the Afghan government and the Taliban could wipe out the small but important advances made for women’s freedom since 2001 – including her own. “I have obtained a high level of education, I’ve had the opportunity to travel abroad, I’ve been able to raise my voice, to stand on my own two feet and to find my purpose. But that feeling of freedom is very shaky and that shakiness is a result of the peace talks,” she says. “I have a deep fear of what my life will look like if a deal is agreed and I know many other women have the same concerns.”

With her coffee cup now empty and the afternoon sunshine having long given way to early evening darkness, Jalil concludes with an anecdote about a schoolgirl she met whose father hoped his daughter would one day achieve what she had. “Why aim just for deputy minister?” she says. “Aim for minister. If a father can dream for his daughter to become the Minister of Interior one day, then that’s a success story, that’s not even something my parents dreamed of.”

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