Here are Afghan women in their own words. Words that are by turns inspiring, moving, courageous, and heartbreaking. Their powerful stories create a compelling portrait of the lives, struggles, and successes of this extraordinary nation and its extraordinarily resilient women. With an introduction by Laura Bush, honorary founding co-chair of the U.S.-Afghan Women’s Council.
Afghanistan has been described as “the worst nation in the world to be a woman.” More than fifty percent of girls who are forced into marriage are sixteen or younger. Too many women live in fear and in many areas, education and employment for women are still condemned. The women featured in We Are Afghan Women are fighting to change all that. From rug weavers to domestic violence counselors to business owners, educators, and activists, these courageous women are charting a new path for themselves, their families, their communities, and their nation. Told in their own voices, their stories vividly capture a country undone by decades of war and now struggling to build a lasting peace.
Meet Dr. Sakena Yacoobi, who ran underground schools for girls until the Taliban fell, and today has established educational centers across Afghanistan to teach women and girls basic literacy. Or Freshta Hazeq, who as a female business owner, has faced death threats, sabotage, and even kidnapping threats against her children. Naheed Farid is the youngest female member of Afghanistan’s parliament. During her campaign, opponents cut Naheed’s face out of campaign posters and her family risked complete ruin, but her husband and father-in-law never wavered, encouraging her to persevere. Here, too are compassionate women such as Masooma Jafari, who started a national midwives association. Her own mother was forced into marriage at age twelve and gave birth to her first child at age thirteen.
With an introduction by former First Lady Laura Bush, We Are Afghan Women chronicles the lives of young and old, daughters and mothers, educated, and those who are still learning. These determined women are defying the odds to lead Afghanistan to a better future. Their stories are a stark reminder that in some corners of the world the struggle continues and that women’s progress in society, business, and politics cannot be taken for granted. Their eloquent words challenge all of us to answer: What does it truly mean to be a woman in the twenty-first century?
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About the Author
Laura Bush was First Lady of the United States from 2001 to 2009. She founded both the National Book Festival and the Texas Book Festival.
Read an Excerpt
We Are Afghan Women
Zainularab Miri is at that indeterminate age for Afghan women. Not yet fifty, she has become an elder in part by having survived in a place where the expectation is to die young.
Unlike many younger women in Afghanistan’s provinces, Zainularab Miri does not draw her headscarf down over her hairline or wrap it tight above her brows. Instead, it drapes casually, resting loosely around her head. Today, her headscarf is black, like her hair, but lightly beaded, so that when the light catches it at just the right angle, it sparkles. She is quick to laugh, quick to follow a joke through layers of translation, from English to Dari, and then to reply with another humorous line, words that remain funny as they cross back over from Dari to English. Her face has the look of having been warmed and made ruddy by the sun, unlike many other Afghan women, whose porcelain cheeks, foreheads, and chins speak to years spent being covered, not simply behind veils, but also behind doors and inside of rooms.
• • • • • • • • •
I was born in Kabul, into a very modern, open-minded family. My father was a member of a council of elders, the council of wise men from his village, but he wanted all of his children to accumulate wisdom, daughters as well as sons. He and my mother gave me all the same chances that my brothers had. Everything my brothers did, I did too. If they ran around playing soccer, I ran around playing soccer. If they learned to play chess, I learned to play chess. I was never a stereotypical Afghan girl, playing only with dolls or sent off to wash clothes. Most importantly, I went to school. I attended a well-regarded elementary school. In high school, I concentrated on studying Dari, my native language, and even some English.
Although my family was very progressive, Afghanistan is a very traditional society. Historically, men have frowned on women working outside of the home. It has been considered an affront to the man that he cannot support his wife himself or be a father who cannot support his daughters. But I wanted a profession, and for a woman, one of the best ones was teaching, so in college I studied education and child development. I got married as I began my career. At first, I taught Dari to eleventh and twelfth graders, but after I had my first baby, I started teaching Dari to first graders because the elementary school was closer to my home and I wanted to be closer to my babies. That was nearly thirty years ago.
I had been a schoolgirl during the years of the Soviet invasion and occupation. I had been a teacher during the fight to drive the Soviet troops from Afghanistan’s soil. My children were born in the time of the mujahideen and the civil war. But when the Soviet forces left, peace did not come. The mujahideen fought among themselves. Then a new group appeared. They called themselves “Taliban,” to signify that they were students of Islamic knowledge. They were the holy ones; they would return order and Islam to Afghanistan, they said. In September 1995, after they had already captured Kandahar and other places, the Taliban captured Herat province—an important trading province with Afghanistan’s third-largest city. We knew then that they were coming for Kabul.
One year later, in late September 1996, the Taliban had overthrown the Afghan president and now controlled Kabul. But we had already gone. My father was not native to Kabul. He had been born in Ghazni province, in the eastern part of Afghanistan, slightly south of Kabul. It is a mostly round-shaped province with a long tail that reaches almost all the way down to the Pakistani border. It is a province of valleys and snow-covered mountains, and its name comes from an ancient Persian word meaning “treasure.” We would all go back to Ghazni in the summers to get out of the dry, dusty heat of Kabul. My father still had some land there and that is where we went.
The Taliban had their eyes on Kabul, on keeping Kabul in line. Ghazni was already a traditional province: people were religious, women were covered. They did not need to infiltrate our lives in Ghazni and so we felt safer. Even though women were banned from going out of the house or from working, I kept teaching. I had four hundred students. Seven of us, all women, had agreed to help the girls who were not allowed to go to school. Families of these girls would provide us with rooms and even sleeping spaces inside their homes. We seven women would then leave our own families and go door to door. We would teach for one day or sometimes for a few days in these hidden rooms, always with the curtains closed, so no light could come in and no outside eyes could see us. Everyone would sit on the floor, and in hushed voices we would teach the girls by taking turns. Each teacher had one subject. Mine was Dari, another woman taught math, and so on. Each person in those rooms, each person in those houses was risking their lives. If the Taliban found out, we would have surely faced death. This secret school went on for four years, when the Taliban had complete control.
But I did not just teach.
I was very lucky to have married a man who is just as open-minded as my father. As I moved around teaching, I realized that there were five men in our area of Ghazni who kept bees. In Afghanistan, beekeeping is traditionally a male job. But that only made me more passionate to learn the business. As when I played soccer or chess as a girl, just like my brothers, I wanted to be like these men. I wanted to keep bees. I started by buying two hives from a friend of my family’s, and as part of the bargain, I asked him to teach me what he knew. I, the teacher of Dari, became a student of bees.
Once I had my two hives, I wanted to expand. I was paid as much money for my nectar and honey as the male beekeepers were. No one thought to segregate my honey or pay me less because I was a woman. And each year, I added more hives and more bees. The Taliban did not know. They did not know that I was working, and that every year I was determined to double my cases of bees.
I did not find it hard at all to learn how to keep bees. Interestingly, for a beekeeper, even a woman beekeeper, the part that’s the most challenging is making the queen bee. Without a good queen, the hive cannot be productive. The queen is what gives life to the hive, laying as many as fifteen hundred eggs in a peak day. Sometimes all the bees in the hive are her offspring. You cannot let the queen get too old or the hive will stop producing, but if you are going to have a good queen, you have to introduce her in just the right way, at just the right time. Picking the right queen, introducing the right queen, that is very hard to learn.
In a colony, the queen is the one bee that will never leave the hive. She spends her entire life inside the honeycombs. She can never escape the walls around her, never take flight. My honeybees could spread their wings and move from flower to flower or plant to plant, drinking in the sweetness. They could come and go as they pleased. I wonder if that is part of what makes honey so sweet, if it is the taste of that feeling of freedom, of flight.
As women in Afghanistan, during those Taliban years, many of us felt like the queen bee, trapped in our own hive. The bees build their honeycombs in the darkness. We too survived by working in darkness, behind curtains, under the cover of cloth; even my beekeeper suit hid who I was. But the darkness was appropriate, because the Taliban period was a very dark time for women.
When the Taliban fell, however, we found that we had our own honey. The girls who had been in seventh or eighth grade when the Taliban took hold were now in twelfth grade. Those years had not become a void in their young lives. They had continued with their education. Like the bees, they couldn’t leave the hive, but when it was over, their learning was our honey, the residue of all their hard work.
Each season, watching my bees leave and fly off and then return laden with sweet nectar for honey fired in me a passion to be able to move about freely. But not just for me, for as many women as I could find. I believe that in order to change a country, first you must work on the women.
• • • • • • • • •
After the Taliban fell, Zainularab brought her beekeeping business out of hiding. In 2005, when the Afghan Women’s Business Federation (AWBF) started, she was the first woman from Ghazni to sign up. She started traveling, to Italy to meet beekeepers, to Germany for leadership training, to the United States for a special business institute in Arizona where she studied management and marketing. When she returned to Afghanistan, with the help of her American mentor, she applied for a grant to start forty women as beekeepers, providing each woman with two hives and honey-making equipment.
Today, Zainularab is the head of the Ghazni Province Foundation of Women Beekeepers. She is also the secretary for the Afghan Beekeepers Society, making her a member of the beekeepers’ council of elders. A few years ago, she sold all her hives, a total of three hundred, to build a house for herself and her husband and to pay for their three children to continue their education. Her son has a master’s degree in computer science, her two daughters have studied in Sweden and India. But almost as soon as she sold her hives, she missed her bees, so she bought two new ones. Now she has thirty hives. And she has another new project.
• • • • • • • • •
Afghanistan is a very male-dominated and traditional society. The men rule. It is still very chauvinistic. So we have created a circle of women. We call it “the Circle of the Chador,” or Circle of the Scarf. We are five women trying to teach other women leadership in our province. We teach them things like how to network and how to stand up for their turf. We want them to have influence in this society, to have their opinions count. We start by telling the women that they know how to run their houses. That means they have leadership qualities. If you can lead in your house—or your hive—I tell them, then you can lead in society.
One of our major goals for the future is to create leadership and decision-making positions for women in government. Even when women go door-to-door and campaign, it is the men who get all the credit for any election win. The women who knocked on the doors and convinced the people to vote do not get credit. But now men need to hear them out.
One half of every society is women. If that 50 percent is voiceless, then that particular society becomes sick. Together, men and women are like the two wings of a bird. If one wing is hurt, the bird cannot fly. Society needs the bird to have both wings.
Table of Contents
Zainularab Miri: Born in Kabul, 1967 Lives in Ghazni 5
Khatereh Soltani: Born in Ghazni, 1996 Lives in Ghazni 11
Belquis Gavagan: Born in Kabul, 1972 Lives in Washington, D.C. 13
Shamsi: Born in Jajikan village of Bamiyan province, 1970 Lives in Shash Pul 43
Khadija: Born in Bamiyan province, 1978 Lives in Shash Pul 45
Hodei Sultan: Born in Kabul, 1986 Lives in Washington, D.C. 47
Razia Jan: Born in a central Afghan province, 1944 Lives in Massachusetts and Afghanistan 51
Wazhma Furmuli: Born in Kabul 1988 Lives in New York City 63
Dr. Sakena Yacoobi: Born in Herat, 1950 Lives in Afghanistan 89
Nang Attal: Born in Chack, Wardack, 1988 Lives in Kabul 97
Lina Shafaq: Born in the Fariat region, 1972 Lives in Heart 119
Mastoora Arezoo: Born in Kandahar, 1989 Lives in Kabul 129
Mina Sherzoy: Born in Kabul, 1961 Lives in Kabul 139
Zahra: Born in Dehe Surkhak village of Yakawlang district, 1972 Lives in Shush Pul 161
Freshta Hazeq: Born in Kabul, 1982 Lives in Kabul 165
Najiba Faiz: Born in Lashkar Gah, Helmand province, 1964 Lives in Heart 175
Nasim Gul Azizi: Born in Herat, 1989 Lives in Heart 181
Kobra Dastgirzada: Born in Kabul, 1968 Lives in Kabul 187
Manizha Wafeq: Born in Kabul, 1986 Lives in Kabul 193
Asía Frotan: Born in Jordan, 1982 Lives in Washington, D.C. 207
Massoma Jafari: Born in Bamiyan, 1988 Lives in Kabul 217
Manizha Naderi: Born in Kabul, 1975 Lives in New York and Kabul 223
Laila Hayat: Born in Kabul, 1968 Lives in Kabul 229
Najia Nasim: Born in Logar, 1980 Lives in Kabul 235
Naheed Esai: Born in Nangarhar, 1988 Lives in Kabul 247
Laila Samani: Born in Herat City, 1982 Lives in Herat City 259
Samira Kitman: Born in Kabul, 1990 Lives in Kabul 265
Nasima Rahmani: Born in Parwan province, 1975 Lives in Kabul 269
Nabeed Farid: Born in Herat, 1934 Lives in Heart 293
Afghanistan Timeline 301
A Note About Resources 311
Photograph Credits 317