Afghan woman living in Calgary continues to fight for women’s rights

It has been nine months since Fatima Roshanian came to Calgary from Afghanistan with her niece and nearly a year and a half since the Taliban entered Kabul.

In this time, the Taliban has continued its crack down on women’s rights. It has taken aim at publications such as the one Roshanian owns and operates, as journalists also face threats for speaking against the group listed by the Canadian government as a terrorist entity.

This led Roshanian, 28, and other family members to flee the country. She is now a permanent resident in Calgary, and a volunteer at the Centre for Newcomers, which helped her with housing and support.

The centre has also set her up with an office space so she can continue her NGO work, alongside running Nimrokh Media — one of 10 newspapers in Afghanistan — which she started in 2017.

“What that volunteerism allows her to do is also spend a bit of time to restart her work that she was doing in Afghanistan, here in Canada,” said Kelly Ernst, chief program officer at the Centre for Newcomers.

“One of the things that we as Canadians forget when we start looking at refugees is we forget the incredible opportunity that those refugees bring to this country. So those refugees are highly skilled, highly educated in many cases, and especially people fleeing from Afghanistan that were working with the Canadian government or Canadian military. Those people, in particular, are extremely well-skilled and highly educated.”

Despite being able to continue some of her work from afar, Roshanian says she is still “mentally in Afghanistan.”

What is Nimrokh?

Nimrokh is a publication dedicated to sharing the voices of women and highlighting various issues that women experience in Afghanistan.

Through a translator, Roshanian explained that before she started her paper, she travelled across Afghanistan to hear women’s stories, many of which involved domestic violence, limitations with work and school due to gender, and cultural norms that kept women in more traditional roles. This was part of a research study.

“Being a woman in Afghanistan, itself, is a challenge,” Roshanian said.

In her travels, which started when she was 17 years old, Roshanian asked herself, “why are we discriminated against as much in different aspects of life?”

At the time, Afghanistan was not under Taliban rule. However, the country, as Roshanian described it, was a traditional society, one that closed off access to women.

“There are people who would say that this is just because Islam would allow this, but this has nothing to do with religion. This is more traditional and cultural than religious,” Roshanian said, adding that religion is still the main reason for the restrictions being placed on women.

“People would say ‘Nimrokh doesn’t need to exist. Why do you need to have the newspaper? Why do you have a platform for just women?’ So … [I] established Nimrokh to change that mentality completely. Women should not just stay home raising kids and cleaning.”

During her travels nearly 10 years ago, Roshanian also heard stories about the discrimination women faced, as well as accounts of forced marriage and domestic violence in the country, things that were often not acknowledged or talked about among Afghans.

Roshanian says she took this journey to help inform people about the plight and discrimination women experienced — something she herself has faced as well.

Fatima Roshanian, right, speaks with a woman and takes notes in Afghanistan

Fatima Roshanian, right, speaks with a woman clothed from head to toe and takes notes in Afghanistan on Aug. 17, 2017. (Courtesy of Fatima Roshanian)

She recalls part of her journey when she wanted to speak with a group of women in a village. To do this, Roshanian says she had to talk with a man to let her pass, adding he would refuse to talk to her, saying he did not see her as a human.

Overcome with emotion while speaking with CityNews, Roshanian recalled asking herself, ‘Why am I a woman? Why?” Ultimately, she says she requested a nearby driver to speak for her, admitting she felt humiliated for having to do so.

At times, she says she had to cover herself from “head to toe,” adding men she would encounter would only allow her to speak when she was covered. However, the men sometimes switched course and refused to talk, despite her following their request.

Despite the setback, she says her experiences have given her “the courage to fight.”

“Men should accept women, they should accept our work. They should accept what we do for our families or even for Afghanistan. So that’s what [Nimrokh] carries. You’re given more courage to do it, to continue,” she said.

Early on, Roshanian wanted to get into the medical field due to her research and work around domestic violence, but she decided that public policy would give her the biggest chance to bring change for the women in her native country.

She tells CityNews her work to elevate women’s voices took hold of her heart, with led to Nimrokh being “a place for the Afghan woman in a dominant man society, who dominated almost everybody.”

Roshanian, rebelling against rules in Afghanistan, started to use social media platforms like Facebook to further her work, sharing pictures of herself without a headscarf at times.

Fatima Roshanian, centre, speak with a group of women in the Herat province in Afghanistan

Fatima Roshanian, centre, speaks with a group of women in the Herat province in Afghanistan on Aug. 17, 2017. (Courtesy of Fatima Roshanian)

As Nimrokh developed, more women shared their stories. Many of the new accounts would be about women succeeding and thriving in Afghanistan, while others would be about violence and discrimination women faced, not shying away from the truth.

In anticipation of peace talks between the U.S. and the Taliban in 2021, Roshanian says Nimrokh put together an issue dedicated to those meetings. The cover for the publication featured the photo of a woman draped in white clothing, holding a ring made of flowers and leaves in the form of a noose.

Roshanian says she was optimistic about the talks but adds many women, including some who worked with her on the issue, felt it would be their downfall in Afghanistan.

A woman holds a flower noose on the cover of a unpublished issue of Nimrokh, a publication in Afghanistan

A woman holds a flower noose on the cover of an unpublished issue of Nimrokh, a publication in Afghanistan. (Courtesy of Fatima Roshanian, Nimrokh)

The U.S. left Afghanistan following the talks but not before the Taliban took Kabul and the country in an offensive, which lasted until Aug. 15, 2021.

Roshanian says when the Taliban was on the front steps of Kabul, her cousin called to warn her of the advance. Roshanian says she was forced to close up shop for everyone’s safety.

Read More: ‘Longest 24 hours of my life’: Calgary student describes escape from Kabul, Afghanistan

She recalls having to burn all her newspapers and other documents, for fear of persecution by the Taliban.

Roshanian was able to receive help from Yalda Hakim, a journalist with the BBC, and her foundation while fleeing Afghanistan to Canada, the foundation told CityNews.

Newspapers of Nimrokh Media are scattered on the ground after several documents had been burned in Afghanistan

Limited information and news for Afghanistan

Despite finding refuge in Calgary, Roshanian says she remains concerned for both herself and her staff, with the Taliban sending letters to multiple media organizations in Afghanistan to stop propagating them.

Hasht-e-Subh Daily, or 8am, is another publication in Afghanistan. Editor Sanjor Sohail, who was also forced to flee for Canada, told CityNews that journalism in his home country continues to be under threat.

He says the Taliban is trying to revoke the licences of 10 media outlets, while decreasing Afghans’ access to information. Sohail says he had to close his office in Afghanistan after the Taliban came in and threatened his colleagues.

“They have also decreased access to information and access to news, and even if you have a licence … you still have to obtain another licence for each incident or each story that you want to produce. So, that means that they are trying to slowly bring back … a country with no sounds and no voice. No sound, no picture,” he explained.

“I mean, this is the nature of all authoritarian systems. They want to shut down any opposition voice,” Sohail added in a phone call with CityNews.

Sohail, like Roshanian, continues to operate out of Canada. He says not understanding what is happening in Afghanistan can have a negative impact on the rest of the world.

They both say they’d like the UN Security Council to do more.

“I see some sort of hypocrisy on the international level, for example. Abandoning — completely abandoning a woman’s education, work, and freedom of movement is gender apartheid. Gender apartheid is on the charter of the UN and is a crime against humanity,” Sohail said.

“Afghanistan is right now … facing a brutal and very inhuman situation against, particularly, women and girls. But the world is not paying attention and, of course, you cannot live in a world where … your neighbour … is suffering and feel that at all.”

What is Canada doing?

Now that Roshanian is in Canada, the Centre for Newcomers says the work she has done for the organization has benefitted others coming from Afghanistan. However, the centre admits it remains difficult for refugees to arrive in the country, adding Roshanian was one of the few to be able to get here in a short amount of time due to her NGO work.

Ernst with the Centre for Newcomers says the process of gaining a registered refugee status document (RSD), which refugees need to enter the country, can be difficult. He notes many refugees need help with this process.

The sponsorship program is also a long and frustrating process, as wait times to receive sponsorship can be upwards of 19 months, according to Ernst.

“People across Canada are asking for the whole process to be sped up. So many of the refugees that have been waiting for their private sponsorships have been waiting for years,” Ernst said.

In some cases, he says the wait times have reached five or so years, adding many people are “giving up” on Canada. But it’s not just refugees who are having a hard time with the process — Ernst says Canadians are also finding the sponsorship program difficult to understand.

“It isn’t an easy program to navigate and it isn’t an easy program to get through. So that’s really unfortunate because, over time, that will reduce the number of spots that we can process people through when sponsorship agreement holders are folding up shop,” he said.

“That’s a real problem that I’m seeing here locally, is that trying to maintain sponsorship groups over a long period of time is extremely difficult when the person that they’ve identified to bring to Canada just can’t get here.”

Members of Roshanian’s family have voiced concern about the sponsorship process and are still seeking sponsors for another member to arrive.

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The Centre for Newcomers capacity is also a challenge, with Ernst saying that creates a limitation on the help the group’s members can provide refugees.

As a sponsor, Canadians and/or permanent residents agree to provide financial and emotional support to a refugee, with the amount needed for housing totalling around $20,000.

Another option is the Group of 5 Sponsorship, where five Canadians or permanent residents in the same community can collectively agree to sponsor a refugee.

Meanwhile, the centre says it currently has around 1,000 people who are still waiting for a sponsor.

“Especially after the Ukrainian crisis, the number of international refugees or internally displaced people as well have reached now 100 million people,” Ernst said.

The Canadian government has promised to bring in 40,000 Afghans who have been displaced due to the ongoing war. In October, the country made it easier for Afghans to come to Canada by providing a new agreement for 3,000 people.

However, the agreement was closed after a few weeks.

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The office of Immigration Minister Sean Fraser says the global demand for resettlement exceeds the number of refugees that other countries and resettlement programs can provide.

“IRCC currently faces a historically large inventory of private sponsorship applications, which already contains more applications than available spaces for admissions,” the statement to CityNews reads.

“Our goal to bring at least 40,000 Afghan nationals to Canada by the end of 2023 is unwavering, and we will continue to work closely with international and domestic partners to see it through.”

According to the Canadian government, there are more than 27,000 refugees currently in the country from Afghanistan. More than 9,000 of them, including Roshanian, have come to Canada through a special assistance program.

As she continues to fight for women’s rights, Roshanian is inspiring others, including her niece, Mohabeesa.

Mohabeesa Roshanian, left, poses for a photo with Fatima Roshanian inside Centre for Newcomers in Calgary

Mohaddesa Roshanian, left, poses for a photo with Fatima Roshanian inside the Centre for Newcomers in Calgary on Thursday, Jan. 5, 2023. Mohaddesa is Fatima’s niece, who ventured to Canada with her after the Taliban took control of Afghanistan. (Alejandro Melgar, CityNews photo).

While she is hopeful for a brighter future, Roshanian says the challenges she has faced have only pushed her onward.

“We started this as a fight … it is a fight. It is going against the odds. And doing this in Afghanistan is almost impossible,” she said.

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