Who Else but the Women?
“Who else will be the change agents, the catalysts, but the women?” – Leslie J. Sacks, WVN founder
Women’s Voices Now (WVN), founded by Leslie Sacks in 2010, is an online clearinghouse for women’s rights activists and supporters. What I love most is that, as an online forum, WVN connects the world in a visual and immediate way. Women whose voices were not heard are now speaking to a global audience, a truly amazing accomplishment. While watching Sacks speak on the organization’s website about the “guts and courage” of women in the Muslim World fighting for their rights, I am reminded of the Afghan women I have met in person and online over the past year and a half.
The first person who comes to mind is a young woman named Tabasum, introduced to me in June 2012 by my friend Connie Tate. Connie is a long-time women’s rights activist, third generation in her family to serve on the board of the YWCA, and the impetus for my involvement with both the School of Leadership Afghanistan (SOLA) and the Afghan Women’s Writing Project (AWWP), two relatively young nonprofits with strong ties to each other in Kabul.
Against all odds, Tabasum made it to Middlebury, an academically rigorous college in the United States. She spoke little English, had no money, and had never been outside Afghanistan. Now she studies at Oxford University, pursuing graduate work in women’s studies, with plans to return to Kabul to help other women. Tabasum is beautiful, intense, and, yes, gutsy and courageous.
Today, women like Tabasum are being murdered in Afghanistan, cited as the most dangerous country in the world for women in a 2011 Thomson Reuters Foundation expert poll. In December 2012, a senior advocate for women in Afghanistan, Najia Seddiqi, was shot dead by two assailants on a motorbike as she headed to work, just four months after her predecessor was blown up in her car. Sadly, every day there are news reports of women in Afghanistan, taking up positions of leadership, who face the same fate as Seddiqi. Yet they do not cease their work; neither at home in Afghanistan, nor abroad in the United States. Little did I know, this chance meeting with a young, Afghan woman, would evolve into my life’s work.
AGENTS OF CHANGE AND CROSS-CULTURAL COOPERATION
In 2008, another Afghan woman named Shabana Basij-Rasikh and retired American entrepreneur Ted Achilles co-founded SOLA, a small, highly selective and privately funded organization that helps exceptional young Afghan women access education, worldwide, and jobs back home. Just a few months after meeting Tabasum, I began to volunteer for SOLA, serving as a Skype mentor to students at their boarding school in Kabul.
Like Tabasum, SOLA Co-founder Shabana is a Middlebury College graduate, magna cum laude. Born and raised in Kabul, she finished high school in Wisconsin through the Youth Exchange Studies (YES) sponsored by the U.S. State Department. While completing her degree, she raised funds to build a high school for girls in her ancestral village and wells in the outskirts of Kabul that provide communities with access to clean drinking water. An enthusiast of systemic change and community impact, Shabana was selected by Glamour Magazine as one of the Top 10 College Women of 2010; and she received the Vermont Campus Compact 2011 Kunin Public Award for outstanding public service, effective leadership, and community building. Presently, Shabana serves as a 10×10 Global Ambassador, supporting a global action campaign that links nonprofits, corporations, philanthropists, policy leaders, global influencers, and grassroots activists in a movement to support girls’ education.
A graduate of Yale and the Tufts-Fletcher School of International Law and Diplomacy, Ted Achilles retired from a career as an entrepreneur in 2001 and began the Afghan chapter of his life shortly after 9/11. He managed the YES program that sent many of Afghanistan’s best and brightest young men and women (including Shabana) to the United States for a year of study, which, sadly but predictably, failed to induce many of its participants to return to Afghanistan. So he and Shabana stepped in to fill the gap with SOLA.
I was still getting up to speed on SOLA when Shabana’s December 2012 TEDxWomen speech, titled “Dare to Educate Afghan Girls,” went viral. Accompanying the thousands of daily views from around the world was an inpouring of interest in SOLA’s work. Rian Smith, SOLA’s executive director, asked me to respond to the many requests to get involved, and I did not hesitate to step into that role.
Through SOLA, I am host to Sabira, one of the gutsy and courageous Afghan women. Currently doing a post-graduate year at a boarding school in New England, she hopes to follow in Tabasum’s and Shabana’s footsteps by attending Middlebury College. She has been awarded the Eastman Young Leaders Award, cited for her “exceptional compassion, generosity, and understanding—a leader who makes good decisions for herself and helps others to do the same.” And for “bravery beyond her years…to not only better herself, but, someday, to also better her country… She makes our community richer by illuminating a world of which almost all of us are so unaware. She is tireless in her pursuit of her education and never ceases to challenge herself.”
THE POWER OF SHARING AND CONNECTING
Reflecting more on Shabana’s TEDxWomen talk, I received insight and inspiration from her words. Apart from in-person meetings, nothing is more effective than words captured and recorded in visual media. Indeed, it is exactly the kind of “instant viewing and discussion” that Women’s Voices Now promotes. A young documentary filmmaker from Afghanistan, Alka Sadat, came alive for me when I watched her on the WVN website. “At first people didn’t believe me that I am a filmmaker. And I didn’t believe myself,” she says to the camera in the opening segment. “Always they show a bad picture of Afghan women…with a burqa. They don’t know we are human, and we can choose something for ourselves.”
Alka reminded me of Nelab, who was in the workshop I led for the Afghan Women’s Writing Project, where I volunteer, concurrently, with SOLA. American journalist Masha Hamilton founded AWWP in 2009: “Our mission is to support the voices of women with the belief that to tell one’s story is a human right. Though it sounds simple, I cannot say how important I think this is in a country where women have been told their stories do not matter, and urged to be silent, and warned against honesty.”
Through AWWP-sponsored online writing workshops facilitated by international mentors, Afghan women gain strength, courage, and a sense of purpose, as well as computer literacy, critical thinking and language skills. Poems and essays are published in an online magazine and the women develop a confidence they never had before. It is the beginning of their long and arduous journeys to make change within their homes, their communities, and, eventually, their country.
Nelab’s first effort, a poem about a teacher who changed her life, included the lines, “You gave me courage to fly/When the Taliban broke my wings/And broke my heart.” Like Alka (first prize winner in the category of documentary at the 2011 WVN film festival), who said even she did not believe she was a documentary filmmaker, Nelab did not consider herself a poet. Her English was weak, and she seemed tentative and uncertain about being part of AWWP. I worked with her to strengthen her poem. When she saw it posted on the AWWP blog, she e-mailed me: “Thank you all. Oh my god I can’t believe I wrote this poem! It was my first poem.”
I cried when I read this. As the adoptive mother of a Chinese girl who was abandoned on a wintry street in Hefei when she was just a few days old, I have always told my only child that she can be anything she wants to be. Lili is now in college, and I am both a widow of six years and an empty nester. Lili resembles Sabira, my hostee from SOLA. Both are beautiful, with dark hair, smooth skin, and shining eyes, and both were born into ancient cultures with deeply embedded attitudes about women that persist today. Lili has studied in China and hopes to return one day, just as Sabira will return to the country of her birth. My gutsy and courageous Afghan women have not taken Lili’s place, but they have filled a gap, and, at the same time, connected me to a brave new world totally different from my own. I wrote “my” Afghan women, and I suppose this is how I feel about them. They are mine, as in, close to my heart.
Today, I am proud to be a member, not just of AWWP and SOLA, but also of WVN. The WVN mission states: “For lasting change, women’s voices calling for full and free expression must be heard, their humanity must be recognized, and their ideas and contributions must be implemented.” To play just a minor role in such a major mission gives me a deep and abiding sense of pride.