“I had already designed my future and Afghanistan was in it as part of my list of things to do before I turn 25,” says 22-year-old Natasha Latiff.
“I had already designed my future and Afghanistan was in it as part of my list of things to do before I turn 25,” says 22-year-old Natasha Latiff. “A country like Afghanistan can never be understood on paper or from a screen. To understand it I needed a direct encounter with it.”
Latiff is a former Warwick University law student who picked up a prize for her work at the annual Attorney General’s Pro Bono Awards in March for establishing a legal academic initiative for Muslim women’s rights called Femin Ijtihad (FI), a project that creates easy reading guidebooks on gender equality in Islam.
“The guides combine all the different interpretations written by Islamic scholars,” says Latiff. “Essentially they’re reference guides used to increase the accessibility of gender equality in Islam among the educated and uneducated in Afghanistan.”
Since then she has also managed to establish international divisions of FI at City University New York, the National University of Singapore Law School and Warwick University.
Latiff’s interest in the war-torn country was first ignited when she was 14 and came across an article about the plight of women in Afghanistan on the internet.
“The article really moved me and I began to read lots of other research about Afghanistan. This made me decide to sponsor a child living over there when I was about 15,” she says.
Latiff’s interest in the Middle Eastern country continued after she moved from Singapore to the UK to study for her A-levels. And at 17, she decided that she would visit Afghanistan in a bid to find out if what she had been reading was true.
“I made contact with the organisation that I had been sponsoring the child through and they told me that if I could get a flight, I would be very welcome to stay with them,” she recalls.
Without hesitation she told her parents that she was going to visit an orphanage in the Czech Republic but instead booked her ticket to Afghanistan. Forty-eight hours and four plane journeys later she found herself speeding through the streets of Kabul in her host’s car.
“It was amazing to finally see the people I’d been reading about. To see women walking down the road in their burkas and children playing in the street in their bare feet,” she says.
After that initial two-week trip Latiff made the life-changing decision to go back to Afghanistan every year to try to help in some small way.
“I think so many organisations go to countries and try to change them without understanding the culture first. I wanted to go to Afghanistan and help from the inside out, not the outside in.”
Latiff kept to her word and returned to the country, first teaching English in Kabul and visiting refugee camps, then interning with the International Development Law Organisation and finally conducting independent research into the Afghan laws on rape.
And despite having seen the atrocities of war, including car bombs first-hand, Latiff says she will continue to revisit the country and even claims she has seen progress there over the years.
“War hasn’t ended, but peace is starting to emerge. Small businesses have started to develop and people have started to gain a certain sense of confidence,” she explains.
And Latiff believes confidence has even started to spread to the country’s feminist movement, with women finding innovative ways to demonstrate their messages.
“Okay, they can’t start ripping their bras off and shouting in the street but they have started to think of other ways, such as organising prayer sessions in public spaces, to subtly spread their message. In the days of the Taliban, this wouldn’t have been permitted,” she notes.