An Insight into Leadership with Ms. Khandan Dhanish

Bibusha Pathak

Dec 15, 2021


Today, in this interview in the Women in Leadership series, we will be joined by Ms. Khandan Dhanish, yet another inspirational female leader from Afghanistan. She has been serving as the Country Director of IYAP Afghanistan and is holding several leadership positions in several organizations. She is also a recipient of the prestigious Chevening scholarship and is currently pursuing her Master’s degree in International Development and Gender at the University of East Anglia in the United Kingdom.

We are happy to have you on board. Many thanks for joining us. To start off, how would you like to introduce yourself?

Khandan Danish: I am Khandan Danish. and I am pursuing my Master’s degree in International Development and Gender at University of East Anglia (UEA) in the UK on a Chevening scholarship funded by The Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO), UK. I did my bachelor’s degree (LLB) in an American University in Afghanistan supported by the US Embassy in Kabul. I worked for the Aga Khan Foundation on a development project empowering women to be self-financed and after that, I worked for 3-4 years with the Afghan Organization for the Civil Society on developing projects providing capacity building services for the local NGOs, at the time of program implementation and program delivery. After that I joined the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA), political mission of the United Nations, and worked there for 3 years during the implementation of the 1325 resolution of the United Nations Security Council which empowers and promotes women peace and security agenda in Afghanistan.

The situation in Afghanistan seems a bit uncertain. What is your assessment of the current situation and its impact on girls and women, especially their human rights?

Khandan Danish: I think the current situation is not only uncertain for the Afghan people, it’s uncertain and a shock for the whole region and the entire world. Especially after 20 years of state-building, peace building efforts, promoting democracy and human rights; especially women rights in Afghanistan, a sudden loss of 20 years’ efforts and achievements is really a shock. So, considering the situation, the situation of women rights seems uncertain, especially as we are not aware what the future plan or future policy regarding women rights in Afghanistan including education rights and right to work is. As we all know, currently the girls are not allowed to go to school “post” grade 6. So, it means girls can only go to school until grade 6. We have had hundreds of female teachers but now they’re at home. So, this is an alert, this is an issue. Obviously, it has a negative impact on the future of Afghan girls; especially those who are at the university but have not been able to finish or get their degrees, those who have been to school but haven’t been able to finish, and those people who are dreaming to complete school and go to university. The government institutions do not have women working because the Taliban are saying that women are very vulnerable to harassment.

Considering the current situation, current political instability, economic instability, and security instability; where people are starving and dying of hunger, it is very difficult to believe that the Taliban would be able to create procedures and policies for women to enjoy freedom. People now are struggling to survive. We have so many internally displaced people and children who are dying of hunger. So, this has a negative impact on the future of Afghan women and their rights to education, work, access market, and basically everything. In the meantime, 20 years of efforts on building women’s capacity, promoting women’s rights, promoting women’s political participation, and women’s leadership roles have vanished. It seems like we need to deal with the face of the government, a group of people who do not believe in women’s rights, women’s political participation, and social participation. Also, women who have been working, educated, active in society are out of the country. So we have lost resources not only financially but we have lost human resources, human capital. For Afghan women, who are now out of the country,  it will take time to get themselves established in a new environment and restart their life, restart their advocacy and help other Afghan women who are left behind. 

The Taliban are claiming that they will look into these things. The question of how they will do it still remains because they don’t have any money now. The international support has frozen. Thus the current uncertain situation has negative implications for women and girls.

Our purpose today has been to talk about female leadership. What do you think is the impact of these developments on female leadership in Afghanistan in this context?

Khandan Danish: As I mentioned before, we are facing many groups of people who don’t believe in women leadership at all. The basic rights such as the right to education and the right to work are deprived. How they can let women play the leadership role is very uncertain. As I have mentioned before, we worked for 20 years and we haven’t been able to fulfill the 20% of women leadership which was promised by so many international partners. The former government of Afghanistan pledged at the international conferences and to the UN, that they would fulfill 20% of women representation in leadership positions, but we haven’t been able to do so. So, considering this context, I would like to emphasize again that currently, Afghan women are struggling to get access to education and to work and hence, the leadership role is not a part of the discussion at this moment and neither it is going to be acceptable for a group of people who never ever believed in women’s roles and women’s participation, especially in political decision making or leadership. There is no one to believe in women.It is not feasible to demand for women leadership, for now, to be honest. That is the sad reality. Obviously, when one does not have access to education and work, how can you claim that a person demands access to play a leadership role?

Is there anything that Afghan women and civil rights organizations or the international community can/should do in order to safeguard the liberty of females to advance in their education and career?

Khandan Danish: Of course, I think we have been emphasizing this for years and years, and in so many international conferences and gatherings it has been the voice of Afghan women. They have been asking the international community, especially the UN, that if they really want to promote women’s voices and safeguard their rights in Afghanistan, one of the important ways is to put pressure on the government. What I really mean is that the government of the Taliban, they’re solely dependent on the international community’s support, and in the meantime, the Taliban needs to be recognized by the international community. The Taliban wants to show a good relationship with their regional partners; especially with the neighborhood of Afghanistan. So now this is the time for the neighbors; for example Pakistan, India, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, and the countries in the region that we have economic or political relationships with and the international community who are providing support in Afghanistan and the countries around the world who really want to promote safeguard for Afghan women, to conditionalize.

Any support that they’re trying to give to the Taliban should be provided on the stipulation that safeguarding the rights of Afghan women, especially the right to education and the right to exercise economic activities will be ensured. So that is the one thing that the international community can do. In the meantime, Afghan women should continue their advocacy, they should continue bringing together women leaders around the world. They should raise their voices at the United Nations. I believe that there was a call from the President of Iceland that they are trying to get together and have a network of female leaders around the world to support Afghan women. So, this sort of network for Afghan women to raise their voices at the international level especially at the United Nations should be formed. So, this is the role of Afghan women who are in the country working on the ground or who are working from outside the country. They need to continue their efforts, they need to raise their voices at the international community level alongside other female leaders so that the country would not get recognition for the Taliban without a guarantee of safeguarding the Afghan women’s rights. I think that’s the only solution now because obviously, the Taliban are looking for support and that support should not be given without any guarantee of safeguarding the Afghan women’s rights, from their end.

Where do you see yourself in this?

Khandan Danish: To be honest, my future seems very uncertain. If we didn’t have this situation now, I would have told you something like, ‘oh! I see myself in 5-10 years working in a leadership position in Afghanistan because that was my dream and I came to the UK with that promise to return to Afghanistan and serve my country. But, since the situation has changed and is now very uncertain, nobody knows the answer, neither me because I don’t know whether women will be able to work in Afghanistan. 

The Taliban said, “We don’t have any expectations of people who have been educated and who have graduated during these 20 years. We don’t expect anything from them.” Do you know what they meant here? They meant that people who have been educated, who have worked, who have skills, experience, degrees, Ph.D. degrees will not be serving the purpose of the Taliban. So, they said they need to educate people based on the values that we will develop later in the education system. It means they are reforming the education system and they would reform that based on their values and beliefs. If they don’t expect anything from us, anything from people who have been educated for 20 years, do we even have a place in society? It seems we don’t. And everyone is looking to see what would happen next. Will they have a place in the system that the Taliban are trying to rule? 

But for me personally, I won’t give up. I would at least continue my advocacy from here. I will continue my education to a higher level. Even if I cannot do anything now, I can continue my education to Ph.D. hopefully and be a resource to my country in the future because we are very optimistic that the situation will change and we are hopeful to change it because we have experienced these sorts of situations which have been forcibly brought into Afghanistan. We believe somehow it should be changed with the people, with young people’s ideas, and by the pressure of the international community. We are hopeful that the situation will change and we can continue serving the country. But currently, I have no clear answer to the question. But I can tell you that I won’t give up. I would continue at least my advocacy, continue my education and be prepared for any sort of situation.

To speak a bit about your leadership journey, what areas have you been working in? What has been your most significant work in these areas?

Khandan Danish: I have been working on youth empowerment, environment, peace and gender equality. I have been working with different associations and different groups in Afghanistan who are working on promoting peace and youth capacity development. I have been working to provide a safe space for young people and strengthen their capacities and bring them to the table for making their voices heard. I have been working with different networks and different people on youth empowerment and promoting peace activities, education, and also on my professional level, I have been working mostly on the area of female empowerment and gender equality.

You seem to have done a lot within a very short period of time. When did you start working?

Khandan Danish: I started working when I was in school. I was not even 16, I was in grade 7. I started teaching at school because I was living in a very remote area back in Afghanistan and there was no proper teacher, especially people who can teach English. So, I was in grade 7 teaching at a school as a teacher, I taught at the school I was studying. I was going to school in the morning and I was teaching in the afternoon. When I attended university, I started volunteering at one of the organizations.

What were the challenges you faced in your leadership role? What are the challenges that a young girl or a woman would face in a leadership role in today’s world?

Khandan Danish: I think I’m not talking in terms of the current situation because the current situation has lots of challenges. I’ll start from the experiences that I have. From my point of view I think one of the most important challenges that women in leadership face is, there is no belief in women’s capacity. Wherever women work, they need to prove that they can do it. So that is why women are competing to prove themselves. That is the challenge the Afghan women face. I believe it is a general issue but it is more frequently seen in Afghanistan. These beliefs on women’s capacity and ability: they are systematic and traditional-based discrimination. So, I think that is the worst part. They put women in very difficult situations. In a society that is most often male-dominated, for women, it is required to prove themselves as the society does not believe in women’s capabilities.

How would you overcome such challenges? How should young girls overcome these challenges that they face?

Khandan Danish: I think it is confidence: one’s confidence to work, to deal with the challenges and advance forward. For example,from my point of view, from the day that I started working I have never felt dependent on anyone. First, women should believe in themselves, in their capacity and in their ability. Once you believe in yourself and in your capacity, you don’t expect others to believe in you. Like once you stay strong and believe in yourself, you can bypass the others’ beliefs. I had trust in myself and confidence in myself.

Once you have the confidence and the trust in your ability, you work to put those trust and confidence into practice. Then, to be honest, you could bypass the males or other people that you feel dependent. Once you bypass them with trust and confidence, you overcome the challenges. The others around you consider you’re no such woman/girl who feels dependent. You’re the one who is needed. Not them. They’ll think they need you. That’s how you can overcome the challenges. So, the most important thing is to believe in yourself, trust in yourself and put your trust and confidence into your practical life. You show them that they need you.

Are you satisfied with female participation in your field? What are your views on female participation in Leadership roles in our community?

Khandan Danish: The whole of South Asia, they have a similar culture: especially in terms of behavior towards women. In comparison to the Western countries, in the South Asian countries, when we look at advocacy, economy, projects which have been implemented, and gender equality index, the female participation is comparatively low. I mean it’s not very satisfactory. For example, in Afghanistan we worked for 20 years, but we weren’t able to bring a woman as a judge at the Supreme Court. We have been advocating gender equality in Afghanistan for years and years. It is not satisfactory because we haven’t been able to change the perspective of the people towards women and equal rights and gender equality in Afghanistan. So, for me, we still have a long way to go.

What steps should we do to enhance female leadership in our community? What can we do to empower more female leaders?

Khandan Danish: I believe all the South Asian countries share a similar culture. In these countries, discrimination and misbehavior towards women can be commonly seen. There is disbelief about women’s empowerment in the government system. So, the first step that we should take is to tackle institutional change. It is very critical because if you don’t change the institutions and if you don’t change the environment within the institutions the things won’t change. Changing the system within the institutions and creating a respectful equitable atmosphere within the institutions, is the first step. It can promote women’s leadership. For example, before the collapse of the country (Afghanistan), we made a lot of efforts to promote women in leadership within the government institutions. What the government did is that they established several independent commissions; the Afghanistan Independent Civil Reforms Commission, to cite an example. This organization puts an obligation on every government institution, for example for developing gender policies. They put an effort to have a gender unit, to have a woman in particular positions, and develop a quota for women representation. These sorts of institutional reforms would help to bring change. I believe that policy reforms and institutional reforms and a push to put these policies into action would help in enhancing women leadership.

What is your view on the role of men and boys in empowering female leadership?

Khandan Danish: While working with the United Nations, we were working on delivering projects focusing on female empowerment involving women and girls and providing training to build their capacity. However, at the end of the day, we saw that from the people’s point of view, there was no progress, there was no belief in gender equality and promoting women leadership. So what is the solution? The solution is for boys and men in several organizations to promote gender equality because we have experienced and learned that until we involve men in the process. We need men to give us a hand and go along the journey together. You empower me and I’ll empower you. If you involve both men and women, girls and boys it will create balance. They will develop a sense of ownership and responsibility for doing this. Men and boys play a critical role in promoting the agenda that we need to take into consideration when promoting female empowerment.

How do you balance your work and personal responsibilities?

Khandan Danish: Back in my country, I didn’t have many personal responsibilities because I had my family supporting me throughout. There are lots of women who have family responsibilities and professional responsibilities as well. They need to have a balance. Most of my time was spent on education or professional life because I had less family responsibilities. Yet, financially I was responsible for my family and I was fulfilling those. But now I’m realizing that I need to think of my life and keep the balance of my personal life and professional life.

Have you drawn inspiration from other women? Tell us about someone who has inspired you.

Khandan Danish: For me, my inspiration and my role model, it was my mom. I would say professionally I got inspired by many women out there. My mother was not that literate yet she had a very clear vision of the future. I was 7 years old. I remember it was 2001, the time when the Taliban were there in Afghanistan, and girls weren’t allowed to go to school. So I was 7 years old and wasn’t able to go to school. My brother was going to school and once he came back from school, my mom would tell my brother to teach me whatever he learned. And that was really inspiring for me because from an illiterate woman we would not expect that. The most interesting thing was that when I was in grade 4, my mother would suggest that I should learn English. She would say ‘you must learn English’. And I would ask ‘why mom?’ She would answer ‘if you don’t know English, you know nothing’. Now I think about how my mom had a long vision. Now I’m using English as a language of work, language of study, language of everything in society. When I reached grade 7, I was already an English teacher. After I graduated from school and passed TOEFL and went to an American University and after I got my professional job because of my English, I realized how she had such a great vision of the future. Since then, my mother has been my source of encouragement. I’ll give all the credits to my mom. She was the one who showed me the way to reach all these heights. She was the one to show me the beginning steps in the first place.

What would you tell young women who are just starting to work? What would you like them to know?

Khandan Danish: When I started my university, I started thinking about my career. I was thinking that if I graduate from my university, any work that I’m going to do will require experience. So why not get some experience? When I was in university, I started to volunteer in one of the organizations. So, while I was studying, I was using that opportunity to get some experience. Later on, that experience helped me to start my professional career. When I graduated from my university, I was a person with 5 years of work experience plus a degree, which is why I easily got a job at the United Nations. If I didn’t try at that time and if I didn’t challenge myself at that time, I wouldn’t be able to get a job at the United Nations after my graduation. But I challenged myself. I went to work around 6 AM in the morning and then came to the university and studied until 9 PM and then came back to do my assignments, have dinner and sleep around 1 AM and would wake up again at 6 AM. I obviously challenged myself. I think women should start to invest in themselves, invest in their capacity, invest in their experiences. If women have the capacity, if women invest in their skills and their experience, to be honest, they can easily get through everything. But if women don’t invest in their capacity, growth, and improvement they might have to be dependent. So my suggestion is to start as early as possible and invest in their skills, experience, and capacity.

Thank you so much for such amazing words. Your story has been very inspiring and we believe that it will inspire many more young girls and women out there. Thank you for joining us and sharing your story with us! We are proud of leaders like you, we celebrate you and we wish you all the best for your future endeavors.

The interview was conducted on the 12th of October 2021

About the Author:

Bibusha Pathak

Bibusha Pathak is an individual full of confidence who stands up for equality and unity. Her keen interest in volunteering is an inspiration to many of her friends. She has been involved in literacy awareness, liberty, justice, equality and peace for a very long time. She believes that writing is a way to raise awareness in people in the best possible way. She tries to use her words to connect with her audience and voice out her beliefs. Bibusha’s constant involvement in volunteering proves that she is a very kind and generous person who is not afraid to help other people. She has been a part of organizations like IYAP and I4C that work for world peace, equality and youth development. Bibusha is not afraid to speak out for herself and others when she senses something wrong.She has knowledge about mental health and she strongly believes in rooting out the stigmas following mental health issues. Bibusha is an enthusiastic person with a great personality, leadership skills and most of all, she has a huge heart.

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