Lisa Kakar. (Courtesy)

Sweden Honors the Modern Face of Afghanistan

Raised in a refugee camp, Lisa Kakar combines business savvy and advocacy for gender equality

[Islamabad] Lisa Kakar, an Afghan refugee, has received the Global Swede Award 2020, one of 19 foreigners so honored by the Swedish government who have distinguished themselves in areas related to innovation and entrepreneurship and are positive ambassadors for their home countries.

“Lisa Kakar is a female Afghan student in the master’s program in international economics at Luleå University of Technology and she is an active proponent of women’s rights,” the Nordic nation’s embassy in Kabul said.

“The Global Swede Award is part of the long-term efforts of the Swedish government and the Swedish Institute to build relations with international students in Sweden,” the embassy continued.

The Swedish Institute is a government agency tasked with disseminating information about Sweden abroad.

Anna Hallberg, the Swedish minister for foreign trade, distributed the annual awards on May 28.

“The Global Swede Award is our way to express our sincere appreciation to some of the most outstanding international students graduating from Swedish universities,” the minister said while addressing the virtual ceremony. “Today’s theme of cross-cultural bridges and international collaboration has never been more important. It is only by working together that we can solve the global challenges.”

Lisa Kakar with her Global Swede Award. (Courtesy)

Kakar told The Media Line in an exclusive interview that “education is the best strategy to liberate women from male domination, and this change will appear in Afghanistan by educating men and women equally.”

Kakar was born in Kabul in 1991. She was raised in a refugee camp in Pakistan. Her mother, Razia Sherdil Kakar, was a nurse who strongly believed in educating girls.

“I was raised in the Taliban era. Unfortunately, Afghan women were not allowed to get an education in that era, so our parents fled to Pakistan in 1996,” Lisa Kakar told The Media Line.

“Our family was settled in Akora Khattak refugee camp, about 190 miles southwest of the federal capital Islamabad. We lived there for more than six years. After the US invasion of Afghanistan [that began in 2001], our family returned to Kabul,” she added.

She recalled life as a child in the refugee camp.

“It is very difficult to forget those painful days,” she said. “To keep out the rain, our tent was covered with a plastic sheet. There was mud and dirt everywhere around us and I thought it was the same everywhere in the world, and that people all over the world lived in the same conditions.

“The first time when I left the camp with my mother, I was amazed to see the buildings made of brick,” Kakar said. “My mother told me that these are the places where people live. If these are living places, then what is the place where we live, I thought to myself.”

She attended Ariana High School Kabul and qualified for admission to the Faculty of Sciences at Kabul University.

In 2012, after getting a bachelor’s degree, she went to India on scholarship and earned her first master’s degree, in business administration. Kakar then worked for the Save the Children organization for three years.

“When I worked with Save the Children, our project was called ‘Let’s Write for Afghan Children,’” Kakar told The Media Line. “My team wrote 160 stories in both the Dari and Pushtu languages, which were distributed in all primary schools across the country.

“I am happy that I did something for the next generation by providing the book to find new ways, to learn new things, to experience the modern world, to spread the message of peace,” she said.

I think that through education, we can bring change in our society, Kakar further said.

“Being a female raised in a male-dominated society, I saw that there is severe gender discrimination in every part of our society,” she said.

“While studying at Kabul University, I, along with my older sister Heleena Kakar, started a campaign for the awareness of women’s rights. We also published the [country’s] first feminist magazine. The concept of feminism was a new thing in those days, so we faced many challenges, but we never stopped our activities,” Kakar added.

“I have three brothers and two sisters. All are well educated with bachelor’s and master’s degrees. One of my brother and my two sisters got scholarships to study in India,” she said.

“My mother is working as a project coordinator in the Razia Jan Institute of Medical Sciences Kabul. Meanwhile, my father is working for the IMC [the International Medical Corps humanitarian aid organization],” Kakar said.

Roya Mahboob is a New York-based leading Afghan female entrepreneur and founder/CEO of Afghan Citadel Software Company, a software development company based in Herat, Afghanistan.

“As a woman entrepreneur, I am proud to see Lisa Kakar’s achievements. Lisa is a shining example of determination, courage and struggle for women across the globe,” Mahboob told The Media Line.

“Indeed Lisa is admirable, someone who was brought up in a refugee camp, worked hard, and got higher education despite extreme hardships,” she said. “Lisa’s success shows that if Afghan girls are given opportunities, they can be doctors, engineers, scientists or entrepreneurs who could contribute to the economy of the country.

“The current Afghan generation is unwilling to relive the tragedies their parents experienced. Our young generation’s expectations and priorities have been shaped by democracy,” Mahboob said.

“Afghan youngsters are working hard. The majority living in cities are growing up with cell phones, internet, and access to education and information as well. They are building a new Afghanistan. Today’s girls’ education, inclusion and resilience will determine the future of the country for many generations,” she said.

Mahboob was named one of TIME magazine’s 100 Most Influential People in the World for 2013 for her work in building internet classrooms in high schools in Afghanistan.

The Media Line also spoke with Heleena Kakar.

She is a senior fellow with the Afghan Ministry of Urban Development and a former director in the Ministry of Counter Narcotics. She is also a founder of the first Afghan feminist publication, Ruidad Weekly.

Heleena Kakar told The Media Line, “From my perspective, Lisa is an interactional leader and has both charismatic qualities and transformational qualities.

“Lisa, and many other ‘Lisas’ who rose from the ashes of frustration and segregation, has the ability to mobilize and transform Afghan women to create a new narrative in Afghanistan,” Heleena continued. “Thus I believe her success will cultivate the seeds of a freedom of mindset in Afghan girls and will motivate them to define new ways of life for themselves, beyond the existing taboos and superficial pro-women rights initiatives.”

Heleena Kakar is optimistic about the future of Afghan women.

“I am very much satisfied with the achievements the Afghan women have made in terms of literacy. Their eagerness for expansion of their sphere of knowledge has motivated them to utilize any opportunity that has been provided to them,” she said.

“From politics to sports, from music to religious studies, from business to civil services, from robotics to handcrafts, from knowledge and wisdom to skills… in every sphere of life, Afghan women experienced exponential growth in the last 20 years.”

She also said, “We are living in a new Afghanistan which is radically different than what it was under the Taliban regime.”

As for the ongoing peace talks in the country, Heleena Kakar said, “In my opinion, Afghan women as a factor in the Afghan socio-political equation will accept any political and social thoughts and movements in a pluralistic Afghanistan.”

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