“In our society there is a belief that you can’t do things because you’re a woman…” The three Afghan vets changing the course of animal welfare and women’s rights in Afghanistan

An all female team of Afghan veterinarians is not only changing the course of animal welfare in Afghanistan, but resetting the course of history for women in society too

Story first published in the Guardian: https://www.theguardian.com/global-development/2017/sep/18/afghanistan-team-female-veterinarians-hope-to-cure-inequality-kabul

Unpredictable and indiscriminate bomb blasts don’t deter the three women heading up Afghanistan’s only large scale animal shelter and veterinary clinic. Neither do the attitudes of the people who told them they couldn’t, or shouldn’t, be vets.

Afghanistan is one of the lowest ranked countries in the world for gender equality. In this stringently patriarchal society women are still traditionally married off soon after school age and remain housewives for the rest of their lives, while women can face imprisonment for running away from home and many are still behind bars for so-called moral crimes.

So for Dr Maliha Rezayi, Dr Malalai Haikal and Dr Tahera Rezaei to be at the helm of the Nowzad Conrad Lewis Clinic in Kabul, founded by former British Royal Marine Pen Farthing from Devon, they are not only changing the course of animal welfare in Afghanistan, but resetting the course of history for women in society too.

It is their lunchtime when we talk via Skype. Three winsome, determined, faces beam back at me, their hair swept back under headscarves. Dogs bark intermittently in the background. The women, all in their 20s, are “always busy” at the clinic. These are Afghanistan’s next generation women, the millennials changing the future of their country, animal by animal, person by person, through a gradual but potent ripple effect.

Dr Maliha’s parents were born in Iran after her grandparents moved there to escape the civil war (1989 – 1992). When she was 13, the family, including her six siblings, moved back to Afghanistan. Although her parents – a shop keeper and a housewife – were supportive of her steely determination to attend school and go to university – and become Afghanistan’s female boxing champion while still a teenager – her extended family were unremittingly scornful.

“My parents and brothers and sisters supported me and made me feel that I could be anything I wanted to be,” says the 27-year-old, who had an amicable arranged marriage two years ago. “But my wider family members were not supportive,” she stresses. “Most of them grew up in Afghanistan and thought girls can’t go out. This is not a good culture here.

“Of course it was hard, but it made me work harder, to prove everyone wrong.

“The attitude was that girls can’t do anything and I wanted to show them that girls aren’t less than boys.”

When Dr Maliha went to Kabul University in 2012 there were around 20 women and 140 men on the course. Her experience was mixed; she talks of both supportive tutors but also about a culture of oppression towards female students.

“Afghanistan does not have a good culture,” she says again. “Some of the teachers didn’t want us to do well and would mark my grades down.

So when I go out to help someone’s animal, sometimes people don’t want me to touch it. But after I get them to trust me, they thank me.”

For three years the trio has been leading clinic based sessions with the next wave of veterinary students giving them vital experience.

“The women are happy to have a female teacher,” Dr Maliha continues. “But the men often ignore us at first and don’t want to listen to us. But then when we start teaching them interesting information they start to listen.”

The women live with the constant fear of civil unrest. When we speak, Dr Maliha’s uncle was recovering in hospital after being severely injured several weeks before in a truck bomb explosion that killed upwards of 150 people on May 31, making it the deadliest single attack since the start of the war in 2001. Dr Maliha was only a few hundred metres away from the blast.

“The situation is hard,” she says shrugging. “Our families are always worried about us. But we’re used to it. It is normal for us.”

Dr Malalai was home educated in Pakistan, where her parents went to flee the civil war, and upon her return to Afghanistan under Taliban rule, she was confined to the family home. When the 24-year-old was at university she says people, “especially men”, didn’t want the girls to do well out of fear they would become “stronger” than them.

Dr Tahera grew up in Iran with her nine siblings as refugees of the civil war. Now 26, she moved to Afghanistan aged 15. After graduating she worked at Kabul Zoo where visitors were dumbfounded when she told them she was working there.

All the women concur that the single most important thing, other than family support, that will help change attitudes and stifle gender inequality is education.

“The only solution is education,” asserts Dr Maliha. “The media can help, but the main thing is education.

“When I first went to uni, some members of my family said it was a bad thing. But when I graduated, they started saying to their daughters, you need to go to school so you can be like Dr Maliha.”

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