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Interview with Ms. Sveto M. Ishoq - Chadari - Afghanistan

Updated: Jul 4, 2023



Ms. Sveto M. Ishoq


On September 22, we interviewed Ms. Sveto M. Ishoq in class.

Ms. Sveto M. Ishoq is a women’s rights activist and social entrepreneur from Afghanistan. Her professional work has centered around her goals of empowering women and dismantling the single-story surrounding Afghanistan and its people. While pursuing these goals, in 2019 Ms. Ishoq co-founded Ayat, a modest clothing brand designed to empower Afghan women, and in 2020 she founded Chadari, a platform for Afghan women to share their stories of empowerment with the world. Ms. Ishoq’s interview will relate to her interests in human rights, with emphasis on women and youth, as well as the importance of education for women.


Gender Equality Statistics


Afghanistan

Gender Development Index: 0.659 deviation

Gender Inequality Index: 0.655

Group Classification: 5, low equality in human development amongst genders

Largest Disparity: access to economic resources


 

Interview with Ms. Sveto Muhammad Ishoq (Shortened Transcript)


Juan Sola-Corbacho

How did the Taliban’s victory affect your life? Were you in Afghanistan when they took Kabul? Was your family there?


Sveto Muhammad Ishoq

It's been one and a half years [now] that I don't live in Afghanistan. I moved to Kyrgyzstan and from there to the UK, where I am now. Nevertheless, I have my extended family and friends in Afghanistan. The Taliban took one by one all the provinces, and nobody expected that they would do it so quickly. It was shocking.

At that time, actually... I got accepted to LSE and I was supposed to be happy. I was supposed to be happy, and I wanted to come. But at some point, when I learned about the things that were going on back home, I wanted to give up. I was like Okay; I am losing my hope no matter how positive I try to be.

But slowly again, I just tried to remember why I started doing all of this in the first place. I started my career and journey for the Afghan women. And that became a big motivation for me again. I was like, if I give up- if someone else gives up- who will continue? Who will keep fighting for the country? And especially now when there's so much need.

We need to give the people of Afghanistan more hope, more positivity, more dreams for the future. And we need to work on it, we need to act, we need to raise awareness, we need to speak out.


Hayley Vasquez

What does it mean to be an Afghan woman in your eyes? Where do you see the status quo of Afghan women in 10 years?


Sveto Muhammad Ishoq

So, to me, Afghan women are the bravest, the most powerful, the strongest, the most resilient... Seeing Afghan women and their struggle, seeing what they're facing on a daily basis is something that actually motivated me to do what I'm doing.

And, it is very, very difficult to predict how I will see them in 10 years. I’m positive, I'm hopeful. Despite the circumstances, despite the things that are going on right now in the country, I'm still hopeful.


Bri Castillo

What was it like to experience hardships due to the gaps between men and women? And this could pertain to everyday life, relationships, and simple day to day activities, etc.


Sveto Muhammad Ishoq

I would say it is difficult. It is difficult... It doesn't matter if you're a man or woman, it affects both. But, of course, mostly women, as we know. For example, there are many families that prioritize boys' education over girls’. I don't think they should prioritize it, but they also have their own reasons, because usually boys become the breadwinners of their families, and girls get married. And, of course, there are other factors: due to security issues, some families don't allow girls to go to school.

So far, the Taliban opened the school for boys, but not for the girls. And everyone is panicking and asking why are they not opening the schools for girls? The Taliban are saying: We will. We're working on it and we will reopen it as soon as possible. So, I still have hope. I'm still waiting for them to reopen the schools for girls as well, and I hope they will do as they say.


Ana Bernal

What are the disparities in education between men and women in Afghanistan?


Sveto Muhammad Ishoq

So, if we look at the last 20 years, I would say the disparities have been decreasing over the last years. Especially in higher education.

I would love to give you an example. We have to take this national exam before going to college. It is called Kankor. During the last years girls have made the highest grades in the whole country. In 2020, Shamsia Alizada, a daughter of a coal miner in Afghanistan, made the highest score. She competed with 170,000 students and she made the highest grade. Shamsia gave us hope again. A hope for a better Afghanistan.


Emily Burk

Have there been any efforts to change what it means to be a “traditional Afghan woman?” Or are there still very few opportunities for women?


Sveto Muhammad Ishoq

I would say, in general for Afghans- not only Afghan women- there are few opportunities. For example, applying anywhere for grad schools or other things is very difficult. First of all, they see your passport and they're like, “Okay, you're from this

country.” And it's so difficult to get in. I struggled with it. My visa was rejected once by the UK and once by the US.

But, even with fewer opportunities, Afghan women try to seize those they find. A very good example of that is the Afghan robotics team. Imagine this group of young girls who were in high school. They lived- they used to live -in Herat province, and they created a robot to purify water. That was their first project. During the worst moments of the pandemic, there was a shortage of ventilators. They designed one out of Toyota car parts. It was approved by the authorities and used during those days. That's an amazing example of the initiative and creativity of Afghan women and girls and how they seize the limited, very limited opportunities they have.


Juan Sola-Corbacho

Well, going back to the idea of traditional Afghan women- a couple of weeks ago, we had in class another amazing woman: Dr Mahmoud, Olfat Mahmoud, from Palestine. We were asking her about the role of woman in the family. She was telling us that they still have the idea of women taking care of children and working at home, but nothing about going out and getting a job. Is that the case in Afghanistan and, above all, is that changing within the family?


Sveto Muhammad Ishoq

Yes. Definitely. Definitely. We do have this as well. Life in Kabul, the capital, is very different from life in some other distant rural area. In Kabul, just like in any other capital in any other country, there are more opportunities and people are more open to letting their children, and especially daughters, pursue higher education or just go to school. Whereas in other areas, it is very common for girls to get married at a young age and not go to school.


Juan Sola-Corbacho

You are in London right now and you're going to begin a masters there. That is amazing! What was the reaction of your family when you told them I'm going to London. I'm going to study there, being an Afghan woman?


Sveto Muhammad Ishoq

I'm very grateful that I have a very supportive family. They have supported me since the beginning. Everyone was very happy when I found the opportunity to go to the United Kingdom.

I would also love to tell you a short story. Before coming to the United Kingdom, I studied in China for my first masters. Going to China was a bit challenging I would say. Because it's not common for Afghan girls to go abroad and live alone. I also understand families [when] they don't allow it. They have their own reasons. They're afraid of their safety, especially in a country where you don't know the language. And then I was a child, I didn't understand it. And I was the first girl who actually went abroad to study

But I believe that through dialogue and discussion, you can solve anything if you really work hard for it. So, we were discussing for almost eight months. I didn't give up, I repeated once and again No- I’m going, I'm going, I’m going! And I gave them arguments and everything. And then, there in China when I graduated, my family was so happy... So, I could convince them. I could change this- how our family works-. And I did it because I really wanted to become a role model for future generations in my family.


Ana Bernal

What options do women who are victims of domestic violence have to find safety, such as resources for therapy and organizations for support in divorce or criminal charges, etc.?


Sveto Muhammad Ishoq

We had the Ministry of Women to provide some support for the victims. The Ministry of Women created safe places where women could go and ask for support.

Since its origin, the system had numerous issues. One of the most important was the high number of unreported cases. It was a very high-risk situation: to be seen entering one of those offices, the people working there… Women could not trust them, they were like their abusive husbands.

Unfortunately, the Taliban have abolished the Ministry of Women.


Hayley Vasquez

What inspires you to lead change through fashion with modest clothes? Do you see yourself broadening the scope of the type of products you sell to help benefit and bring about change in the community?


Sveto Muhammad Ishoq

I started Ayat Modest Clothes one year before I graduated. I started this with a friend. Then there were few options in Afghanistan. China and India almost monopolized this market. They did not consider the demand of the Afghan, what they wanted to wear. And so, that is why we created this. Then we knew that there were many talented and ambitious women but illiterate looking for a job. So, we tried to connect these two ideas together: we created a social enterprise to help the Afghan women to become economically independent.

So, we designed the clothes, and we hired some women to work from home, and finally we would sell online what they produced. Currently my business partner is running it in Afghanistan.


Bri Castillo

My question is, how was it starting your own clothing line? You mentioned that you wanted to be an all women team, but did you ever have to work with men before and, if so, what complications did you face?


Sveto Muhammad Ishoq

We have an all-female team. Nevertheless, it's impossible not to work with men. Because you will need them at some point. For example, drivers. We wanted to have women drivers as well, but there are not so many women driving in Afghanistan above all in minor cities and rural communities. This situation is common in other economic sectors (marketing, printing, delivery…).


Juan Sola-Corbacho

You were talking about the problems you find trying to find women who can drive a car. Is that because that is not a role identified with women in Afghanistan, Ms. Ishoq?


Sveto Muhammad Ishoq

It's not common to find women driving cars… We have so many problems and issues that we don't focus on driving cars. I also feel that very few can afford a car. So, when I see one, I think Wow, this girl is driving a car! Nevertheless, some people might not do that. They might just say why is she driving a car? For example, I remember when I was an undergraduate student, one of my classmates [worked] driving a car. Then she told me some stories about how some guys reacted when they saw her driving… That's why, after a year or so, she just stopped driving.

In these circumstances, it is famous a woman who became the first and only female taxi driver in Mazar. She is the breadwinner in her family, she had no alternative. She's very brave. Very brave.


Renee Hollis

You mentioned in the Lens of Passion interview that all the women you met were brave, powerful, and inspiring. Is there a particular woman's story who really stood out to you?


Sveto Muhammad Ishoq

I lived in Central Asia until I was 15, and then we moved to Afghanistan. That was when I met my aunt. She was the first person who inspired me to choose the path that I have chosen. She is illiterate. She has six children and her husband is addicted to drugs. I witnessed how she left her place early in the morning. She worked in a bakery. She did not come back until late at night. She had to provide for her children. She was a hard-working woman. She was such an inspiration… She was such a resilient woman… Knowing her story has been very, very [important] for me. That was the first woman that inspired me, but there are many, many more...


Bri Castillo

If you had the opportunity to talk to your younger self, what would you say to her?


Sveto Muhammad Ishoq

I think I would just say don't give up. Keep fighting, keep moving forward, keep going. And I would say, no matter how hard it is sometimes, how difficult it is, or how many challenges you will face on the way of getting where you want to get, just don't give up and just have a hope.


Renee Hollis/Juan Sola-Corbacho

If you had one minute to say anything to every young female in Afghanistan right now, what would you say? What would you say to every young female in the United States?


Sveto Muhammad Ishoq

I think I’d say something similar to what I would tell myself: keep fighting. Keep fighting and keep doing the things that you're doing and never lose hope. Don't give up and hope for better days. I would say not only to those living in the United States but anyone living anywhere in the world: have an open mind, do your best to understand what you consider different. Listen, be compassionate and supportive.


Juan Sola-Corbacho

How important is to be open minded?


Sveto Muhammad Ishoq

I went to China after having been living in Afghanistan for 10 years. I had been living there surrounded by Afghans and according to Afghan values during those 10 years. So, when I left, I didn't know what to expect. Then, just after landing at the airport my fellow classmate came to me and introduced himself. He wanted to hold hands. I was shocked because I did not expect that. As a practicing Muslim woman, I don't shake hands or hug the opposite gender. I thought people knew it.

It is the same about wearing hijab and the modest dress code. Everyone should know that there is an Islamic dress code for both men and women. Not only that, people do not understand why I am wearing it. It is my choice. I feel confident and I feel like it’s my identity and I'm very happy with it. I think most Muslim women who choose to wear it are comfortable with it. I mean this is a very, very different view of what the media sometimes is showing.

It doesn't matter the country they come from. There is always this kind of negativity. They always identify me with Afghanistan, where they believe there is no room for peace. This is what they think because that is what they watch and read [in the] media. To change that prejudice is my motivation to develop my projects.

Specially the storytelling platform I created for the Afghan women to share their stories. It is very important for the people from other countries to find the opportunity to connect, read, and learn from the Afghan women’s own experiences. I think it will eventually provide them with different perspectives, and not only those that are published in the media.

Most of the most popular media comes from the West, so I feel we need more representation from this side of the world to spread our own stories, to offer the opportunity to listen to our own voices. That is what I did when I was studying in China: I represented Afghanistan, Afghan culture, and Afghan women on different platforms. I was invited to different conferences in cities like Shanghai and Hangzhou, and I represented Afghan women and I was happy to do that, because I could give them our own perspective.


Juan Sola-Corbacho

We have time only for one more question, and we usually finish our interviews in class with the same tricky question, regardless of our guest. Imagine Ms. Ishoq that tomorrow you wake up and you realize that you are the new President of Afghanistan. How would you begin your presidential term?


Sveto Muhammad Ishoq

Oh, I didn’t expect that question! It is difficult, it is so difficult. I think the first thing I would do is to improve the economic situation in Afghanistan.


 

To obtain the password to the complete Zoom recording of this interview, email womenwhochangetheworld.org@gmail.com.

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