“Sat Sri Akal ji. Tussan da ki haal hai,” chirps the enthusiastic voice on the phone from Kabul. And for good measure, she adds, “Ram Ram ji, te Assalam Waleikum.”
Although her name doesn’t immediately reveal her Sikh heritage and her Punjabi and Hindi are halting, Anarkali Honaryar is fast becoming a household name in Kabul.
A dentist by profession and social activist by choice, this gutsy girl was recently named ‘Afghanistan’s Person of the Year’ for 2009 by Radio Free Afghanistan, for her struggle to uphold the rights of women and religious minorities, all at age 25.
The daughter of an engineer, Kishan Singh Honaryar, and homemaker, Sharan Kaur, Anarkali is one of four siblings who grew up in the Baghlan province of Afghanistan.
Currently living in Kabul and working for the International Council for Human Rights (ICHR), she talks of maintaining her Sikh identity and helping other minorities preserve theirs too.
“There are five gurdwaras in Kabul. I try to go to one every Friday, sometimes on Sunday too. The mandir is open on Tuesdays, and it’s nice we’re able to keep these traditions alive.”
She has travelled to India once for a human rights conference, but only stayed in Delhi at the time. “I have been to Germany, Italy, Sri Lanka, Qatar and India for conferences, but it’s my heartfelt wish to visit the Golden Temple one day,” she says. “My mother and brothers have already been there. I don’t have any family in Punjab, but do have four maasis (aunts) in Delhi.”
Anarkali describes her early years as difficult, maybe an understatement given the state of social and political upheaval in Afghanistan. But the saving grace for her family was that the Taliban never truly took over their province.
“I’m lucky I continued to go to school at a time when most girls weren’t even allowed out of their houses,” she says.
Amazingly, she finished high school at 12, and moved to Kabul to study at the university. But she quickly accepted she would never realise her childhood dream of becoming a pilot in the conservative country and set her sights elsewhere.
“I decided to become a doctor, and along the way, I began helping other women around me. Women face so many problems in our country — domestic violence, forced marriage, abuse.…”
“I try to mediate in many cases and help resolve issues within the family, especially if children are involved too. But if there is no hope of reconciliation, then we help women with legal representation.”
Anarkali frequently appears on TV and radio, advocating women’s rights. Ask her of any marriage plans and she laughs: “I deal with so many problems married women face, tauba, I don’t think I ever want to get married!”
Anarkali also campaigns for the rights of religious minorities. “Sadly, there are only 3,000 Hindu and Sikh families left in all of Afghanistan today,” she says. “The security situation here isn’t great, but we just don’t feel like leaving this beautiful country we call home.