During a working session with the political chancery team, we discussed the various cooperation projects that the Embassy was running to promote the rule of law: could we come up with an initiative that the general public would view as symbolic of the importance of human rights? The idea of a prize was mentioned.
July to September
The project began to take shape, as we discussed ideas with our partners to identify needs and avoid retreading old ground. It was widely agreed that the prize should be linked to women’s rights.
Since 2001 and the fall of the Taliban, huge progress has been made but there is still a long way to go. The statistics offer dry, mathematical proof of this, whether they map the rate of mortality or the level of female illiteracy. Statistics aside, the same can be observed simply by visiting the schools or health centres that we support. Moreover, although nothing has come of current debates on reintroducing death by stoning or prohibiting people from testifying against a family member (which would, in practice, prevent legal action in the case of domestic violence), they show that the most conservative sectors of society wish to undo some of the progress that has been made.
Throughout history, Afghanistan has been home to exceptional women: in literature, with Rabia Balkhi of medieval times, who sang of her love for a slave and became known as one of the first great poetic voices, but also in politics, with the powerful 15th-century queen Goharshad, whose tomb is still admired in Herat, not to mention all the women who taught in secret under the Taliban. Today, women are excelling in all areas of society: skilled street-artists and rappers, a regional public prosecutor, policewomen, fashion designers, not to mention those, like Chékéba Hachemi, author of L’insolente de Kaboul, who have returned to their country to set up schools for girls…
Discussions were held with the Embassy’s culture department, due to its familiarity with the intellectual sphere and, from a practical perspective, because it would be responsible for managing the financial aspect of the prize.
Final quarter of 2013
By now, we had a clear idea of what we wanted but several questions remained to be answered. The first concerned the prize itself. It would consist not only of a trophy, decorated by a calligrapher, but also a sum of money, which would enable to the prize-winner to carry out a project of her choice.
We also had to decide on the award criteria and we chose to define five areas: arts and culture, politics and government, social issues, science, and economics. Each year, a different field would be selected. We decided to start with arts and culture.
Only the final, most complex, decision remained: choosing the jury. After testing out ideas and discreetly gauging opinions, we opted for a scholarly combination of Afghan and international members. The chairperson of the jury would be an uncontested leader of the intellectual world and civil society: the chairperson of the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission. She would be accompanied by the Minister of Women’s Affairs, the president of the Afghan Red Crescent Society (which was giving us access to the entire country) and the chairperson of a group of non-governmental organisations committed to promoting women. On the international side, in addition to the Embassy, we requested support from UN Women, a United Nations agency, and AFRANE, a French NGO specialising in education, which has thoroughly studied the reasons why girls drop out of school.
- Photo : Amina Hassani
A meeting was organised with our German counterparts, as the German and French Ministries of Foreign Affairs were encouraging the Embassies to develop joint projects. We invited them to participate as observers. If they liked what they saw, they could join us in 2015. They reacted enthusiastically and were keen to get involved immediately, adopting the rules that we had established without reservations. From then on, the prize was called the “Franco-German prize for Afghan woman of the year”.
We officially launched the prize at the French Institute in Afghanistan, in the presence of journalists who were interested enough for the news to be shown on most television channels and even to appear on the front page of a daily newspaper.
As soon as the press conference was over, the jury met to select a prize-winner. The rules were simple: each participant was invited to put forward a name and had five minutes to explain the reasons for this choice. A vote could be held if necessary, but we hoped to reach a conclusion by consensus. After we had gone round the table, it was noticeable that the candidates put forward by the international members of the jury, although excellent, were already relatively well-known. Our Afghan colleagues, meanwhile, were suggesting women who had never been in the public eye. It was not easy to choose between these two options. Of course, it was tempting to break new ground. But if we awarded the prize to someone the public had never heard of, how would this be perceived? As just another instance of behind-the-scenes discussions leading to a decision influenced by personal, ethnic or local considerations? Or as proof of our ability to recognise talent without simply being dazzled by (modest) fame? We decided to trust our Afghan colleagues.
This did not shorten the debate, for it was a difficult decision to make. Aside from the candidates’ respective profiles, there was another fundamental issue to be considered: should we select someone who had already enjoyed a long career and as such, was deemed to be a moral leader, since she had a following, even if she had never been properly recognised? Or should we select a "young hopeful", giving her the support she needed now, at the risk of finding out in a few years’ time that she had been nothing more than a flash in the pan? Two names soon stood out, representing these two approaches, and an indicative vote showed us that the jury was evenly divided. So we decided to award the prize to two women instead of one; this was possible thanks to our German partnership, which had doubled the prize value.
Emotions were running high in the auditorium of the French Institute, where all 450 seats were filled and the cameras of 16 television channels were rolling. The chairperson of the jury announced the names of the two prize-winners: the first was Sharifa Danish Zaringar from Kandahar, a poet, miniaturist and sculptor who was already active under the Taliban. Her name is a point of reference in Afghan intellectual circles, but she lives modestly in Kabul on her teaching salary. The second, Amina Hassani, was a 22-year-old photographer, living in Bamiyan. She was orphaned when the Taliban killed her parents, then mistreated by the people who fostered her and her younger brother, but she dared to defend herself and took the case to court. Her photography focuses on her region and aims to show the reality of daily life, particularly that of women. Her approach is at once artistic and politically engaged.
Next year, the prize will be awarded for the second time, and we hope that it will gradually establish itself as a feature of the Afghan cultural landscape. Of course, it will not fundamentally alter the status of women in Afghanistan. But we hope, at least, to make a contribution towards lasting change.