In order to address the promotion of women’s rights in Afghanistan, WISE collaborated with the Noor Educational and Capacity Development Organization (NECDO), a non-governmental development organization dedicated to helping women and children in need. Jamila Afghani, NECDO’s director, was inspired to create a project to train Imams—religious leaders—on women’s rights after learning about a similar program in the Philippines during the 2009 WISE global conference. In Afghanistan, Imams are highly influential in shaping society and can be key allies in tackling gender inequality.
Because structural violence against women has become deeply woven into Afghan society, Jamila faced a difficult challenge in educating Imams about the relevance and importance of women’s rights in Islamic teachings. However, Jamila and her team were able to successfully promote women’s rights awareness through the Imam training program, which was implemented in two phases.
In November 2009, the program began as a six-month pilot project focused on training and mobilizing Imams from twenty influential and populous mosques. The Imams met regularly at NECDO to learn about patriarchal violence associated with marriage, inheritance, ownership and property, and political and social participation. Specific attention was given to the prevalence of violence, accurate related scriptural interpretations, national laws and instruments on women’s rights, international human rights instruments on gender, and strategies for change. Imams were advised to use these themes to develop Friday sermons, which were monitored by university students.
Jamila faced significant challenges throughout the project, including criticism from some Imams who thought the program too “Western.” The training sessions demonstrated that numerous harmful traditional practices against women were a result of patriarchal (mis)interpretations of the Quran and Hadith (sayings of Prophet Muhammad). In supporting women’s human rights, the sessions utilized the Afghan constitution, other national and international legal treaties, and the WISE Compact, which encapsulates the WISE mission and defends gender equality through the objectives of Islamic law. Jamila later won over the doubting Imams after deciding to conduct sessions in smaller workgroups with a balance of moderate and conservative Imams and foster extensive discussions.
In phase one, twenty participating Imams delivered more than 300 sermons during the six-month project period to approximately 117,600 congregants, of which an estimated 12% were women. Media attention and coverage were extensive, with an estimated 9.5 million people being exposed to sermons on women’s rights in Islam. The NECDO and the Imams also developed a series of booklets on the five women’s human rights issues in simple Dari. 10,000 copies of the booklets were printed and distributed throughout the community.
In June 2010, supplemental funding was secured to extend the project for a year in the twenty mosques in Kabul and ten new mosques in Jalalabad. The project proposal objectives included hiring thirty university students—both male and female—to monitor the Imams’ Friday sermons, and publishing and distributing 15,000 copies of the booklets on women’s rights. The extended program also aimed to establish formal women’s sections in the ten participating mosques in Kabul and to appoint twenty women as leaders of these sections. Lastly, the program sought to expand women’s rights in Afghanistan by further developing the communication, presentation and networking skills of the Imams, university students, and women’s section leaders.
WISE agreed to establish and facilitate systems for the monitoring and evaluation of the project; disseminate information globally about the projects’ operations, outcomes, and replicability. NECDO agreed to implement the project as proposed, provide reports of monthly progress and consultant site visits, and solicit local media coverage of the projects’ successes.
Both phase one and phase two exemplified the efficacy of mobilizing Imams for women’s rights in Afghanistan. In phase one, the program achieved the following results:
Phase two further provided further evidence of using a religious, cultural framework to reduce violence against women: