Sitara Achakzai: Fearless campaigner for Afghan women’s rights & peace 1956 - 12 April 2009 Print E-mail
 London ~ Monday 13 April 2009, page 16

Taliban shoot dead Afghan politician who championed women's rights

• Two gunmen behind killing in Kandahar
• Legislator's colleagues had warned her of attack
A leading female Afghan politician was shot dead yesterday after leaving a provincial council meeting in Kandahar, southern Afghanistan, which her colleagues had begged her not to attend.

Sitara Achakzai was attacked by two gunmen as she arrived at her home in a rickshaw - a vehicle colleagues said she deliberately chose to use to avoid attracting attention.

The Taliban claimed responsibility for the murder. The two gunmen were apparently waiting for Achakzai, a 52-year-old women's rights activist who had lived for many years in Germany when the Taliban were in power in Afghanistan.

Officials said she returned in 2004 to her home in Kandahar, which is also the birthplace and spiritual home of the Taliban.

One of Achakzai's friends, speaking anonymously, said colleagues had begged her not to attend the meeting, which takes place twice a week.

"She knew the danger she was in. Just a couple of days ago she was joking about the fact that she had a 300,000 rupee price on her head," she said. "Like other women she would always travel in a rickshaw rather than a big armoured Humvee because it's less conspicuous, but it also made her easier prey."

Achakzai's life was in danger because she was not only a women's rights activist but also as a local politician. Taliban militants target anyone associated with the government of Afghanistan and last month launched an audacious assault with four suicide bombers on the provincial council building in Kandahar city, killing 17 people.

There have been many other attacks on women in the province, including the assassination in 2006 of Safia Amajan, the head of the province's women's affairs department.

Malalai Kakar, a top policewoman in the city, was killed last September, and schoolgirls have had acid thrown in their faces as punishment for attending school.

Achakzai had put herself at the forefront of the women's rights struggle in Kandahar, and last year organised a "prayer for peace" demonstration in one of the city's biggest mosques on International Women's Day.

About 1,500 women attended the event, although this year the women were banned from entering the building and instead held a meeting at the city's human rights commission.

Ahmed Wali Karzai, head of the Kandahar provincial council and brother of Afghanistan's president, Hamid Karzai, said he had seen Achakzai earlier in the day before she was murdered, and had granted her leave from her duties so she could visit a sick relative in Canada.

"I had just said goodbye and joked that it was a good time to leave because our offices have been totally destroyed and need to be rebuilt."

Karzai added that Achakzai had for the past two years held the post of secretary in the provincial council, which, until her death, had four female members of the 15-strong body. She was married to an academic who taught at Kandahar University.

Wenny Kusama, country director of the United Nations Development Fund for Women, said the murder of Achakzai was an attack "on all freedom".
Toronto ~~ Sunday, 12 April 2009

Targeted killing of women's rights activist shocks Afghans


KANDAHAR, AFGHANISTAN ­ In the hour before her killers pulled up beside the rickshaw and shot her at close range, Sitara Achakzai turned to a female politician riding beside her with a strange look.

“I'm not afraid of death,” said Ms. Achakzai, a well-known women's rights advocate and one of three elected women sitting on Kandahar's provincial council. “I can go and get killed and it's no big deal.”

Ms. Achakzai's friend, a provincial councillor who narrowly escaped death in a bombing at council headquarters less than two weeks ago, was so stunned by the comment, made just before the rickshaw pulled up to her stop, she got out without asking what prompted the revelation. Not long after, news came yesterday that she would never have another chance.

Ms. Achakzai, a dual Afghan and German citizen who returned to help rebuild her country in 2004, was shot at close range by gunmen on motorbikes before her rickshaw could finish the slow crawl back to her home.

The late Sitara Achakzi, one of four female members of the Kandahar Provinical Council, attends a council meeting in Kandahar City on March 11, 2009. (Paula Lerner/Aurora Photos)

Within minutes of the killing, news of Ms. Achakzai's death had spread like wildfire across Kandahar. The killing has both horrified and terrified many educated women in the city, who looked up to the councillor as a role model.

“She is someone who was very well educated and understood what she was doing,” said a prominent businesswoman in Kandahar who has known Ms. Achakzai since her childhood.

“As I woman, I was proud to see someone who was so proud of herself. In any meetings, even when there were men around, she just put her head up so high with such pride it made me proud to be around her,” the businesswoman said.

Although outspoken about women's rights in the past, Ms. Achakzai's friend asked last night that her name not be published for fear publicity would increase threats to her own life. Gulping for air at times and choking back tears, the woman was audibly struggling with disbelief over Ms. Achakzai's death, which has already renewed fears among the burgeoning class of progressive women in this ultra-conservative city. “I want the world to understand how every person in this crazy place is feeling because this is a wake-up call to all of us that we could be next,” the woman said, sobbing. “The sad thing is nobody cares, it seems.”

In recent months, security in Kandahar has markedly deteriorated – even international forces working to secure the province have admitted the city is experiencing a low point. In addition to regular kidnappings of locals and foreign contractors, the downward spiral in the city has had a particular impact on women. In recent months, many prominent women, including famous policewoman Malalai Kakar, have been brutally murdered in public by assassins on behalf of the Taliban. Shortly after Ms. Achakzai's killing, Qari Yousef Ahmedi, a spokesman for the Taliban, claimed responsibility for the attack. Ms. Achakzai's husband, a German chemistry professor who has been teaching at Kandahar University, confirmed his wife's death to friends and fellow councillors.

In a sad twist of fate, the couple, growing weary of dangers in Kandahar, had just purchased tickets for a May 1 trip to Toronto, where Ms. Achakzai's ailing mother lives.

“They both said they were tired of this place because it's so violent and so messed up. They were just taking a trip to get away, but they were going to see after the elections if things were going to get better,” Ms. Achakzai's friend said. “Now she's gone forever.”

In her short absence, hope for a renaissance in Kandahar has severely dimmed. “Obviously, we've had a brain drain. … Now when we're slowly trying to think for the future of the country …this is how our country repays people,” Ms. Achakzai's friend said. “I have no faith in my government. I have no faith in the Taliban. I have no faith in the international community.”
  April 14, 2009

Sitara Achakzai, Martyr for Muslim Women

By Kamran Pasha

This weekend, the Taliban murdered Sitara Achakzai, Afghanistan's leading activist for women's rights. She was gunned down in broad daylight by assassins in front of her house. Ms. Achakzai was an instrumental figure in promoting women's rights in the war torn country that has become the symbol of everything that is wrong with the Muslim world today. Earlier this year, she led a nationwide sit-in of 11,000 Afghan women in seven provinces who gathered to pray for peace on International Women's Day.

As a Muslim man, as a believer and as a voice in Hollywood and the media, I am here to say to her killers: you are evil, twisted men, and you will not escape the consequences of your crime against our Muslim sister, who stood for peace and justice. Even if you flee into the protective arms of your Taliban sponsors, Allah is the Lord of justice, and you will never escape Him, in this world or the next.

And you will not succeed in destroying Ms. Achakzai's legacy. In fact, you have only given it greater power. For you have made Sitara Achakzai a martyr. She died for the same reason as the first martyr of Islam, a woman named Sumayya bint Khayyat, who was killed for speaking truth to power.

In my novel, Mother of the Believers, I detail how Sumayya's killer, the Meccan leader Abu Jahl, thought that the murder of an innocent woman would terrify the poor and weak followers of Prophet Muhammad into rejecting monotheism and returning to the idolatry of the Arabs. Instead, Sumayya's death ignited the fire of resistance that would one day topple the proud Meccan overlords who ruled Arabia with an iron fist.

Like Sumayya, Sitara's death will only cause those of us who believe in an Islam of compassion, justice and human brotherhood to fight harder against those who would return us to the Days of Ignorance, as Arabia before Islam is called. The tragedy we now face is that the enemies of Islam, those who wish to defame and destroy our great faith, no longer speak out against it. Instead, they wrap themselves in its robes and proclaim themselves its leaders. Somewhere in the depths of Hell I know that Abu Jahl is laughing.

In my novel, I show how Islam was born as a proto-feminist movement, with Prophet Muhammad championing the rights of women in a primitive and hostile world. I portray incredible Muslim women, like the Prophet's first wife Khadija, who was a wealthy businesswoman who hired young Muhammad and then proposed marriage to him. I show Aisha, whom the Prophet married after Khadija died, and who went on to become a scholar, a statesman and a warrior who led armies. I show Sumayya, who was killed in front of her son for refusing to worship idols. I show Nusayba, the courageous housewife who defended the Prophet with a sword and a bow when he was nearly killed at the battle of Uhud. I show Fatima, the Prophet's daughter, who would feed enemy prisoners of war with her own hands to make sure that they were treated with dignity. These are the true women of Islam, the women of courage and faith without whom our religion would have been stillborn in the desert wastes. These are the women who inspired Sitara Achakzai and millions of other Muslim women to stand up against the forces of darkness and hold forth the torch of Islam. Not Islam as the fundamentalists and the Islamophobes want it to be, a religion to oppress mankind, but as it truly is - a faith that lifts up the poor and the weak and brings human beings together in the bonds of love and justice.

The Taliban and those who share their twisted, primitive vision of Islam do not know the history of their own faith. And as a result, they have become the very monsters that Islam was sent to destroy. But as long as there are courageous Muslims like Sitara Achakzai who refuse to accept the false Islam that the extremists try to ram down our throats, the true message of Prophet Muhammad will never disappear from this earth.

The last thing the Prophet said in his famous final sermon before he died was that men and women have rights over each other, and that the Muslims would be judged by how well they treated women. His words have come true, in a tragic way. Islam, the religion that began as a women's rights movement, is now seen by much of the world as a bastion of misogyny. We have been judged, and we have been found wanting.

It will be up to Muslims like Sitara Achakzai, myself, and the millions of others like us who remember what Islam was meant to be, to put us back on track.
Kamran Pasha is a Hollywood filmmaker and the author of Mother of the Believers, a novel on the birth of Islam as told by Prophet Muhammad's wife Aisha (Atria Books; April 2009). For more information please visit HERE:

Rohan Venkat ~ September 15, 2009.

The Life and Death of Sitara Achakzai

Providing compelling content on the internet requires the careful selection of appropriate tools from the immense number of available options – everything from plain text to flash graphics and tag clouds – and then translating all of those into a simple, efficient presentation that manages to grab the audience and keep them occupied for the duration of the piece.

Just because its easier for creators to use audio, pictures and video – which do tend to be more attractive to the eye than just text – doesn’t mean viewers will suddenly pay attention; the journalist still has to tell an engaging story if the audience is expected to remain beyond the first multimedia moment.

In April 2009, Paula Lerner, a journalist working for Public Radio International’s The World, in conjunction with the BBC and WGBH, put together a multimedia package titled “The Life and Death of Sitara Achakazai.

The project, a simple, nearly four-minute-long slideshow accompanied by narration from Lisa Mullins, host of The World, and interspersed with audio clips, briefly chronicled the life of Sitara Achakazai, an Afghani women’s rights activist and member of a regional parliament who was assassinated by the Taliban earlier this year.

As a subject, Achakzai is undoubtedly important and serves as a valuable anchor for the audience who might not understand the complex history of war-torn Afghanistan. Through a single person’s life, Lerner is able to briefly trace some of that convoluted past, beginning with Achakzai’s childhood and taking the audience all the way forward to the Taliban occupation, followed by the American invasion and subsequent rebuilding efforts which Achakzai herself took part in.

The narrated parts of the piece follow basic radio package rules, which are then matched to Lerner’s photos, such that if the host is talking about Kandahar, or Afghani women, the photo displayed will correspond to the phrase being spoken.

As a result, even though the technique is a basic trope of broadcast journalism, viewers are able to put audio and visuals together so they have a more complete idea of what the story is. While this occasionally upsets the rhythm of the photos – viewers might not have as much time to take in a wideshot, which has more for the mind to process, and might linger for too long on a closeup – it still succeeds in that the combining of audio and visual elements manages to push the story forward.

The package then gets more interesting when the host’s narration is followed by an audio clip of Achakzai herself speaking, translated from the original Pashto. We’re treated to a first-hand account of how, as a child, Achakzai’s family was among the first to allow women to ride bicycles, and the multimedia nature of the piece means we’re also looking at old black-and-white photographs of her family with bike et al.

Achakazai goes on to describe her decision to leave Afghanistan for Germany, and later return to the country to help in its reconstruction and her experience with being politically involved in a country where women are unlikely to take part in anything that puts them in the public’s eye.

This ends up being the most compelling part of the package; We are told at the very beginning that Achakzai had been shot and killed by the Taliban, so we are keenly aware that the voice we hear is almost coming from beyond the grave. This raw, direct connection to the subject matter, coupled with rich, well-composed visuals, form the bulk of the piece and is also the reason it happens to succeed in telling its story.

The piece originally aired as a standalone radio package on PRI’s The World, using the information and interviews that Lerner had put together. In that sense, “The Life and Death of Sitara Achakzai,” also serves as a useful example of how to turn old-school journalism pieces into engaging multimedia presentations that add significant value to the product.

All the producer had to do was pick the best and most appropriate photographs that would go well with the original radio package, and then put it all together using a basic flash application that offers y0u the usual tools that slideshows provide, and suddenly you have content that goes beyond what a traditional outlet might have had to offer.

On the flip side, because the piece essentially takes a radio broadcast and updates it to fit into a new media framework, it doesn’t take advantage of all the possibilities that an internet package would allow. Achakzai’s story is a perfect jumping-off point for a quick rehash of recent Afghani history, told through the lens of a tragic, personal story. Unfortunately, the way the package is produced doesn’t allow it to serve as a launch pad to anything else, because it doesn’t link to anything else.

If the piece did pique a viewer’s interest in what the situation in the country is now, or what has happened since Achakzai’s death or even a further more in-depth pieces about the situation in the country, that sort of content would ideally be highlighted and linked to at the end of Lerner’s piece, but instead only lets you re-watch the same package again.

On the whole, Lerner and The World have found a simple, efficient way of taking a staid, traditional piece of journalism and making it into a compelling multimedia package, without major computer know-how or flashy presentation.

The piece ends with a quick note about Achakazai’s death, reminding the viewer one last time how much more of a connection a personal story can bring to a broader, regional issue, while appropriately closes the package that was, after all, called, “The Life and Death of Sitara Achakazai.