Political Landscape

AAN Obituary: Unfaltering women’s rights activist Soraya Parlika (1944-2019)


Soraya Parlika (1944-2019) – with her trademark white chiffon headscarf – at the front of a demonstration in Kabul against sexual violence. Source: AAWA Facebook page (undated).

Soraya Parlika, political and women’s rights activist, has died at the age of 75. She had, said Sahraa Karimi, Chair of the Afghan Film Organisation, who made a documentary about Parlika, “dedicated her life to the life of women of Afghanistan and never left her motherland even during the hard years of civil war and Taleban regime.” This earned her the respect even among many who opposed her for having been a leading member of the People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan (PDPA). AAN’s Thomas Ruttig looks back at her life.

Soraya Parlika was more than just an activist. Referring to her lasting achievements, Afghan news website Khabarnama described her as “a founder of freedoms and human rights for women of the country.” Judith Huber, a Swiss journalist who wrote an extensive portrait of her in 2003, described the “communist, Muslima and unfaltering women’s rights advocate” as “self-assured and proud,” “sparkling from energy,” humorous and with gripping oratorical skills” – a woman “with charisma.” (1)

The defining focus of Soraya Parlika’s decades of activism was women’s rights. However, as a former stalwart and leader of Hezb-e Dimukratik-e Khalq-e Afghanistan (People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan, PDPA), her politics were unmistakably leftist. She said: “To fight for women’s rights is politics. Without politics, the problems of women will never be solved.” She placed her feminism as part of a wider struggle, saying “I’m interested in women and in their life development, but not just women. I’m interested in all people.” She would stick to this even under the most forbidding circumstances, when women’s rights were rolled back under the mujahedin and Taleban regimes (1992-2001). In contrast to many from her part of the political spectrum, she prayed regularly. “I was raised religiously,” she said “and always remained religious.”

There have been many tributes to Parlika, including one from President Ashraf Ghani who had been her former political adversary. In 2002, as United Nations advisor to the Emergency Loya Jirga Commission, Ghani had tried to prevent “this communist” from becoming a member of the commission. In 2019, however, he said he was “saddened” by news of her death, that she had “bravely fought for the rights of women in the last four decades,” and that her name would “remain among the heroic women of this country.” Chief Executive Abdullah Abdullah also issued a statement of commemoration.

Soraya Parlika is credited with various achievements resulting from her decades of activism. Of particular significance was the adoption under the monarchy of a law that gave Afghan women the right to 30 days’ maternity leave (other sources say 40 days). At the time, she was a member of Sazman-e Zanan-e Dimukratik-e Afghanistan (the Democratic Women’s Organisation of Afghanistan, DWOA), (2) which, although not legal, was allowed to operate publicly and had, in cooperation with the first women in government and parliament, successfully lobbied for this law. Some years later, in a quasi-governmental position when Parlika’s party was in power, the length of maternity leave was further extended.

Soraya Parlika’s Facebook profile photo.

Family background and education

This renowned women’s activist was born Soraya  – she later replaced it with Parlika, and used both names combined after 2001 (3) – in 1944 in a well-to-do Pashtun family from Kamari, a village in Bagrami district to the southeast of Kabul. (This still photo from Karimi’s documentary appears to show her there as an adult.) She was the only daughter, with three brothers, one younger (died 1991 in Kabul) and two older (the eldest brother died in the US in 2015). Her father, Muhammad Harif, was a high-ranking government official under the Afghan monarchy whose professional career between 1933 and 1973 led him to become the head of the construction department of the Ministry of Public Works; he died in 2007. Her mother, Bibi Shirin (died in 1994), worked in the house. The family lived in the capital Kabul but still owned land in their home village.

Kamari was also the place of birth of Babrak Karmal who became state and PDPA leader after the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan over Christmas in December 1979 (AAN background here). Soraya’s second-eldest brother, Abdul Wakil, was finance minister under President Karmal and foreign minister in his last year and then under Najibullah, from 1986 to 1992, (4) and signed the Geneva Accords in 1988 that led to the Soviet withdrawal completed in 1989. Both families did not only come from the same village, but the families were related to each other: Soraya Parlika’s father was the brother of Babrak Karmal’s mother, making Parlika a first cousin to Karmal.

The political opening under King Muhammad Zaher (r 1933-73) and, in particular, the ‘decade of democracy’ that followed the relatively liberal constitution of 1964, came just at the right time for Soraya. Graduating from the prominent Zarghuna High School in central Kabul in 1963, she became part of an increasing number of women who enrolled at Kabul University.

She studied economics, obtained a bachelor’s degree in 1966 and started working in Kabul city’s housing department. She said about her choice: “The economy is the basis of each society. Only a solid economic situation allows a society’s development and political change.” In 1971, she took up an administrative post in Kabul University’s international relations department.

Soraya later said: “My mother, mainly, often said that not all Afghans lived as comfortably as we did. That motivated me to engage politically. I always carried this unconsciously in my mind.” She added that it was only later, under the Taleban, that she realised how advanced women’s rights had already been before the PDPA revolution.

Soraya Parlika at an international conference during the PDPA regime. Photo: AAWU Facebook page (undated).

From opposition to government

Soraya and her brother Abdul Wakil were among the early members of the PDPA  (there was no women among the 27 founding members). The party was founded on 1 January 1965 when she was 21. By that age, according to one profile, she was “already leading meetings of female party members.” According to Judith Huber, six months later, in June 1965, she and five other women founded the DWOA. It was led by Anahita Ratebzad, who was 12 year her senior, prominent as only one of four female members of parliament and very close to deputy party leader Karmal.

The DWOA supported female victims of domestic violence, tried to mediate with families and helped the women to go to court. It organised literacy courses, and tried to encouraged women to seek employment and to send their children to school. It mobilised women to take part in the 1965 parliamentary election, which Soraya was actively involved in, also going  to the countryside to teach women how to read and write. In 1968 she participated in demonstrations against a draft law proposed by conservative Islamic members to ban girls and women from traveling abroad to receive an education without a mahram. After one month of protests, including an occupation of the parliament, the bill was dropped.

After Soraya’s Parcham (Banner) faction of the PDPA came to power in a coup d’état in 1973 in an alliance with former prime minister Muhammad Daud, who became new head of state, she received a scholarship to study in Kyiv, then the capital of the Soviet Ukraine. With a Master’s degree in international economic relations, she returned to her job at Kabul University in 1977.

After the PDPA takeover in April 1978, Soraya became the leader of the now legalised DWOA, as Ratebzad moved to become education minister. But it was not for long: in August 1978 Soraya was thrown into jail by the Khalqis, Parcham’s intra-party rivals. The Khalqis had sidelined them, and accused them of plotting a counter coup. Soraya was tortured in the notorious Pul-e Charkhi jail in Kabul (AAN background here). Scars from cigarette burns were still visible on her hands, and she said she had more elsewhere on her body. When the Soviets sent troops to Afghanistan in late 1979, toppled the Khalqi leadership and brought Karmal to power, Soraya returned to the top position in the DWOA. But again, she was relegated to second position in Ratebzad’s favour in June 1981.

During this period, the PDPA government – thanks in large part to the DWOA and Soraya’s work – extended maternity leave to 90 days, with 180 days of possible additional unpaid leave. (5) Women were legally allowed to retire at the age of 55. These were big achievements, even though for women in the countryside and in mujahedin-controlled areas, these rights remained theoretical. Her advocacy also resulted in the establishment of nursery schools and kindergartens in workplaces. In that time, Soraya experienced the first attempt on her life. She was shot on her way home and severely wounded.

In 1986, Soraya moved to become the head of Afghanistan’s Red Crescent Society. In this capacity, she was instrumental in bringing the International Red Cross (ICRC) into the country, shuttling between Kabul and Geneva. She was removed from this post when the mujahedin took over power in April 1992.

Logo of the All-Afghan Women’s Union, established by Soraya Parlika in 1992.

Underground and civil society years

During the 1990s she remained in Afghanistan, in contrast to many PDPA members, including her brother Abdul Wakil, despite her being a well-known and easily recognisable figure. She turned down various offers from family members to join them in Europe. Judith Huber quoted her as saying: “How could I have borne leaving the Afghan women and only returned when they would be better? How could I have then talked with them with my head held high, looked into their eyes and discussed their problems and suffering as I do today?”

She changed her name into Parlika, which has no meaning in Dari or Pashto and seems to have been chosen for exactly that reason. She told a German news magazine that ‘Soraya’ was too common, and her activism could have put other women with that name into danger. She started her women’s rights work again, using the cover of the burqa to remain undetected.

In September 1992, Parlika founded Ettehadiya-ye Sarasari-ye Zanan-e Afghanistan (own translation: All-Afghanistan Women’s Union, AAWU; in some sources ‘Association’ and AAWA). (6) She had to operate undercover, talking to women in places where they could meet without raising suspicion, at shrines, weddings and funerals. There she would discuss the need to organise for the improvement of women’s living conditions. This led to the establishment of a network of underground home training courses, in literacy, handicrafts for income generation, health and hygiene and, later, English and computer skills. When the Taleban took power in Kabul in 1996 they closed almost all state-run girls’ schools and dismissed female teachers, so AAWU began to run home schools for girls, employing a number of the laid-off teachers. The schooling and the courses were held in private homes, which were changed weekly, with teaching often starting at 4am, to prevent detection.

Parlika continued living in a modest Mikrorayon apartment, with income from the family land in Kamari helping her survive. The author first met her during that time, when AAWU and other illegal political and social organisations used access to Pakistan to contact the UN and other members of the international community.

Within a week of the downfall of the Taleban regime in 2001, AAWU and Parlika – now using both her names as Soraya Parlika – came out into the open and planned a women’s march in Kabul. She told the Guardian: “We wanted to call women from all the streets of Kabul and go to the UN [headquarters in the city] and we were going to demand our rights. If we demonstrate we will throw off our burkas and we will throw them out for ever.” De facto interior minister Yunos Qanuni, whose faction of the ‘Northern Alliance’ had just captured Kabul, warned her that they could be “attacked by al-Qaeda” and the women were persuaded not to march. According to the BBC, AAWU held several smaller meetings city-wide instead. The Guardian described it as “the fastest growing women’s organisation in Afghanistan.“

The association successfully pushed for girls from home schools to be integrated into state schools at the appropriate age level (rather than the age when official schooling had been interrupted). She proudly told visitors that girls from home schools performed much better than those who had been able to continue schooling in the country (7) or abroad. She started a campaign for women’s equality to be included in the future Afghan constitution, demanding mandatory education for girls through secondary school, equal representation in parliament and the judiciary, equal pay with men, a minimum marriageable age of 18, the criminalisation of domestic violence, sexual harassment and abuse, and a ban on baad (the practice of giving women or girls as brides as ‘compensation’ for crimes committed by one family against another).

At the end of 2001, Time magazine selected her as one of its global ‘people of the year’. At the same time, she was appointed to the 21-member Preparatory Commission for the 2002 Emergency Loya Jirga after female Afghan employees of the UN mission in the country voted for her in a non-representative snap poll against another candidate favoured by later president Ghani. This Loya Jirga was tasked with organising the transition from an interim to a fully-elected government (read AAN background here).

Parlika at the Constitutional Loya Jirga in Kabul 2003 (to the left, in profile; to the right: later presidential candidate  and women’s affairs minister Massuda Jalali). Photo: Thomas Ruttig.

In 2002, Parlika was elected to the board of the Afghan Civil Society Forum, one of the most active Afghan umbrella groups. Over the following years, she participated in the establishment of an independent journalists association and in work for a new media law. (8) She supported Afghan businesswomen and campaigned for measures to prevent the mass self-immolation of women. This brought her much acclaim, particularly among Afghan women and abroad, including a correspondence with Senator Hillary Clinton. In 2005, she was a candidate for the Nobel Peace Prize as an Afghan participant of the worldwide 1000 Peace Women initiative. In 2011 and 2014, Parlika was elected by civil society organisations as a member of delegations representing them at the Bonn and London donor conferences for Afghanistan (AAN background here and here).

Parlika also went back into party politics. She participated in the failed attempt to bring together the various political groups established by former PDPA members into a single party (see the chapter “The ex-PDPA Left“ in this 2005 paper by the author). This resulted in what critics called the premature foundation, in early 2003, of Hezb-e Muttahed-e Melli-ye Afghanistan (the National United Party of Afghanistan, NUPA) under former PDPA-general and super-governor of Greater Kandahar, Nur ul-Haq Ulumi. Parlika was elected as one of the two deputy heads of the party. In 2005, she campaigned for parliament as one of 68 NUPA candidates, on a women’s rights platform, but failed, in an atmosphere of increasing violence against women. However, Kabul’s women elected her as a delegate to the 2004 Constitutional Loya Jirga.

Throughout her political career, Parlika remained true to her communist ideas, calling the April 1978 coup that brought the PDPA to power a “revolution.” A German radio correspondent wrote in 2005 when she was running for parliament: “Soraya Parlika does not deny her political roots.” But she was not uncritical, admitting that the PDPA initial reforms – among them land distribution and co-education – were “too fast” and too radical.

Her prominence as a women’s rights advocate and leftist put her at risk. In September 2003, armed men raided the AAWU office, smashing furniture and stealing the membership list. Phone threats followed. In 2006, she told a US media outlet that she had been shot at twice in the post-2001 years (one media report here).

A struggle unfinished

“I will continue my activities until Afghanistan has democracy, peace, equality between women and men, social development and the involvement of women in political, economic and social affairs,” she once said. In her last years she was sceptical about the prospects of her country, and particularly of peace talks with the Taleban. As early as 2012 she told the authors of a paper published by the German Heinrich Boell Foundation: “I am not optimistic at all. We do not know the agenda of the talks and this worries all women in Afghanistan. Women are at risk of losing everything they have gained.”

After struggling for many years with cancer, she finally left the country to join her family Switzerland after suffering a stroke, where she died, in Geneva, on 20 December 2019.

Like many leading Afghan women’s rights activists, Soraya Parlika put her political work ahead of her personal life. In one interview with Judith Huber she said of her decision not to marry: “I just did not find the time for it. Always when I wanted to marry a new problem occurred and I forgot about marrying. My [political and social] activities were more important to me.” She will be remembered for a lifetime of women’s rights activism, and according to film-maker Sahraa Karimi, for her selflessness:

Parlika was a very strong woman; she fought against her illness for many years, at the same time fighting against injustice. Her main priority in life was the women and girls of Afghanistan, their wellbeing, access to education, awareness about their rights. She was a true and unique woman who really lived the values that she deeply believed in.

Soraya Parlika, women’s rights activist, born 1944 in Kamari village, Bagrami district, Kabul province; died 20 December 2019 in Geneva, Switzerland.

Edited by Rachel Reid and Kate Clark

Correction included 16 January 2020: According to family information, the family was of Pashtun (not Tajik) ethnicity, and the father’s name was Muhammad Harif not Hanif. We added the name of the late mother and her, her late husband’s and two brothers’ dates of death, and a detail on the relation between the Karmal and Parlika families and corrected detail on Abdul Wakil’s role in the PDPA and his ministerial assignments.

Read another obituary by Malek Setez (in Dari) here.

For further reading on the subject of women’s rights in Afghanistan, go to this 2019 (updated) AAN dossier.

Poster of the documentary film about Soraya Parlika’s life by Sahraa Karimi.

 

(1) When not specifically pointed out otherwise, the biographical information comes from the following sources: portraits by Judith Huber (in: Risse im Patriarchat: Frauen in Afghanistan, Rotpunktverlag, Zurich 2002) and by Suhaila Muhsini (“Profile: Suraya Parlika – Champion of Women’s Rights,” Institute for War & Peace Reporting, ARR issue 129, 3 March 2005), the Afghan Bios website and notes from several meetings the author had with Soraya Parlika. As noted, there is also a documentary film about Parlika’s life by Afghan filmmaker Sahraa Karimi, who was appointed head of the Afghan Film Authority in May 2019. Her film was shown at the 16th Dhaka International Film Festival in 2018 and received the ‘best documentary’ award.

(2) There are contradictory sources about whether the DWOA was independent or a PDPA affiliate from the very beginning. While official PDPA sources claimed the DWOA as its ‘mass organisation’, various other sources – including Soraya Parlika herself – said there were non-PDPA members in DWOA. This was also supported by Afghan poet and contemporary of the events, Rahnaward Zaryab (see his article here).

(3) This is similar to the National Unity Government Chief Executive who resigned himself to the ‘western’ need to have a ‘first’ and a ‘second’ name and added a second ‘Abdullah’ to his original first. Many Afghans, particularly women, have only one name. Many chose a second name (takhallos) which is different from western ‘family names’ (although some Afghans have started using them as family names now.) As authorities have only now stared registering births more regularly, Afghans had been able to change their names.

(4) In 1986, Babrak Karmal left the country to exile in the USSR after Najibullah was appointed new party leader, which happened on the initiative of the Soviet leadership and against Karmal’s will. After Karmal officially remained  in the position of head of state for a while, his (non-PDPA) vice president Haji Muhammad Chamakanai then officially took over in an acting position between from 20 November 1986 and 30 September 1987.

(5) The current Ministry of Justice website shows the maternity leave law, published in the official gazette on 5 June 1979, as still in force. According to Article 1, maternity leave is 90 days. According to Article 2, the mother can have altogether 270 days of unpaid leave if she requests it. According to Article 3, unpaid leave does not harm her promotion.

(6) It seems Parlika made AAWU’s name resemble that of the All-Afghan Women’s Council (AAWC), into which DWOA was restructured in 1986 under President Najibullah’s programme to “broaden the base of his government” and placate non-PDPA and non-leftists. AAWC included non-PDPA members and was led by 1960s democracy activist Massuma Esmati. AAWU initially operated out of the destroyed AAWC office in Kabul’s Shahr-e Nau in 2001 before it was able to rent another office with German funding. In the 1990s, AAWU’s name had an addendum, Dakhel-e Keshwar (inside the country), to reflect that it was able to operate in Afghanistan, in contrast to the many exile organisations.

(7) In contrast to most reports, there were state-run schools open for girls during the Taleban time – but only a limited number. For an example, see my chapter in this book: Bittlingmayer UH, Grundmeier AM, Kößler, R, Sahrai, D, Sahrai, F (eds): Education and Development in Afghanistan: Challenges and Prospects, Bielefeld: transcript, 2019).

(8) Again in 2013, see this AAN background.

 

 

 

 

 

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