Many Afghan women worry their recent gains will be lost after the last U.S. troops leave.
But the story of Suraya Pakzad – a courageous Afghan woman with links to Philadelphia and Scranton – shows how ordinary Americans can help Afghan women preserve their rights.
Pakzad runs five shelters for Afghan women who flee domestic violence or forced marriages. (I have visited her first shelter, in Herat, a large city in western Afghanistan.) The shelters are mainly financed with funding from the State Department and the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID).
Last year, Pakzad opened the Scranton Restaurant, Herat’s first women-only cafe, where they can meet freely in a society that still limits their activity in public. This cafe was established with money raised by women activists in Scranton (and its water system was installed by Perkiomenville businessman Aldo Magazzeni, who builds water systems in poor countries).
Now, Scranton lawyer Judith Price and University of Scranton senior fellow Sondra Myers are raising more money for Pakzad to open a second women-only cafe in Herat called the Philadelphia Restaurant. They held a fundraiser at the Philadelphia home of Nancy Gilboy, CEO of Citzens Diplomacy International.
“Afghan women need hope, they need to know that we will not abandon them,” Price told me.
This is the kind of civic activism needed to show Afghan women they won’t be forgotten after the final troop withdrawal in 2016.
“We don’t need U.S. soldiers,” Pakzad told me during a visit to Philly, “but we need a commitment that the United States is behind us.”
Afghan women will fight to keep their rights, she says, but the odds against them will be overwhelming unless Western governments – and ordinary citizens – continue to help.
To see how far Afghan women have come in the last decade, one need only look at Pakzad’s experience. When the Taliban came, with their ban on women’s education and work, “we waited in vain for the international community to help us,” she says. So, at great risk, she set up illegal underground schools for girls.
After the Taliban fell, Pakzad started the Voice of Women Organization (www.vwo.org.af) in Herat and opened the first women’s shelter there in 2005, offering food, medicine, and legal aid to women escaping forced marriages or family violence.
Now she runs five shelters. This is dangerous work in a society where “honor killings” of runaways are not uncommon. Pakzad has received death threats from family members of some of the women she shelters. But she also runs guidance centers that try to convince husbands, fathers, and brothers that such women have not committed crimes that require the family to punish them.
Most of the sheltered girls do go home, and none has been murdered. Pakzad gets local community leaders to guarantee the girls’ safety in writing.
She sees other positive signs.
“Thirty-eight percent of women voted in the last election,” she says, “which means they are aware of their rights and know they are part of the country’s future despite all the challenges and threats.”
She is hopeful about new Afghan President Ashraf Ghani, who comes to Washington this week.
“He is educated and believes in women’s rights,” she says (and his Lebanese-born wife is promoting those rights). “His promises are good,” she adds, “but when will these be translated into action?”
In two key areas, she is especially concerned.
First, Ghani is trying (so far unsuccessfully) to start peace talks with the Taliban. “But women have no voice in the talks,” Pakzad says. She fears the Taliban will insist on vetting any women who do take part and will only choose those who won’t speak up for their rights.
If the Taliban are permitted – as part of a deal – to take control of several provinces or 30 percent of government ministries, Pakzad fears women’s rights will be decimated. She seeks a commitment by the United States to push Ghani to include Afghan women activists in any negotiations:
“If we have a voice at the negotiating table, the laws won’t be changed to be against women.”
American civic activists can keep the spotlight on Afghan women – a cause with bipartisan support – while urging Washington to press Ghani to do the right thing.
Second, qualified Afghan women are now thwarted from ascending to senior ranks in the government, where they could exert some power. Although there are four women in Ghani’s cabinet, they are confined to typical women’s areas, such as the Ministry of Women’s Affairs. Moreover, candidates for parliament will now be required to have a bachelor’s degree, which rules out many highly experienced women who lost their chance for higher education during years of Taliban rule.
“The older women have the experience and no (degree) while the younger ones have (degrees) but no experience,” she says. This is an area where the U.S. administration and dedicated American civic activists can really help.
USAID has just announced a $216 million program to help 75,000 young Afghan women become leaders in their fields over five years. Hopefully, Pakzad will be tapped to participate in their training. She wants to set up a women’s leadership institute, where older Afghan women can get credit toward a bachelor’s degree for their experience, with the aim of creating a critical mass of empowered women who can rise to senior government posts.
Pakzad also wants to raise money to set up women-run businesses that would help fund the shelters and wean them off foreign funding. Otherwise, they may go broke when that aid wanes.
Meantime, the direct links between Herat and Scranton and Philly will encourage Pakzad to keep fighting. Price says such links send an important message to Pakzad and other Afghan women:
“We’re not going to abandon you this time.”
Trudy Rubin’s email is firstname.lastname@example.org.