On May 11, 2002, I gave up my successful advertising business and launched Rising International right from my living room. I had been searching for my purpose, and when it came calling, I listened. My husband and I sold everything we owned and moved into a friend's barn while we worked to get Rising off the ground, and today we are the first non-profit in the world to use the home-party business model to contribute to solving poverty.
My very first project was in Afghanistan. I met a young Afghan woman who was in the U.S. on scholarship, and she introduced me to her mother Salma. I was shocked to learn that Salma had run a secret school for girls in Kabul during the time of the Taliban, and that she had literally risked her life in the name of gender equality and education.
Below is an excerpt of Salma's story, in her own words, translated from Dari. I hope you find it as inspiring I as did then, and as I still do to this day. She truly demonstrates what we are capable of ... when we dare.
"The word feminist is not one you hear frequently in Afghanistan. But if you were to have my daughter describe me, that is the word that would come first to her mind. As long as I can remember I was passionate about knowledge, and I knew that education was freedom.
When I was six years old I decided to secretly enroll myself in school. I rose to the top of my class of 2,000 students, eventually receiving my bachelor's degree. I became a teacher, and I was the first woman in my family to receive a formal education.
In 1996 the Taliban took control. In one moment our world changed. We were stripped of our freedoms, and women were prisoners in our own homes. Never in history has there been a regime that has violently forced half of its population into house arrest.
I waited six months hoping that I could go back to work as a teacher, but that day never came. I knew I had to do something for my daughters, for myself, and for all of the women around me. I started a secret school for girls in the basement of my home.
We had no electricity, one carpet for the students to sit on, and for a chalkboard I used a piece of flat wood and painted it black with the liquid you find in old radio batteries. I only had one book in our local language of Dari, and the Holy Quran, which I used to educate the girls.
One day the Taliban found out. They followed one of my students to my home. That girl never came back to school, and I never found out what happened to her. They shouted at my husband, and hit me. They told my husband that if I didn't stop the school they would kill me.
I felt so much rage in me. I shouted at them, "You are born of a woman too! How can you not let women get an education?!" My husband pleaded with me to close the school because he knew they would kill me. For my family's safety, I complied.
A year after the Taliban was defeated, one of my daughters, Samia, was awarded a scholarship to study in America. My husband and I decided to take another risk; we became the first Afghan couple to allow a daughter to travel to the United States for higher education. Samia became the first Afghan woman to receive her master's degree after the Taliban.
One day in 2003, Samia called me and told me she had met an American woman who wanted to help Afghan women. Together with Carmel Jud of Rising International, we began the Afghan Widows Doll Project. I contacted 10 women who had once been in my secret school to begin making traditional Afghan Dolls. They made the dolls, and the Rising Representatives in the United States sold the dolls at small parties in people's homes. Together, we had started a project that could help the women earn a living for themselves.
Today our project continues. My former student Fatima is now a Rising Artisan, a success, and an inspiration. She, along with a number of other vulnerable widows, continues to make the dolls by hand, and the income she has generated making dolls has been life changing for her and her family. Every doll she sells and every doll we buy keeps Fatima, her daughter and other women safe.
Running the secret school, I knew the punishment could be death. Punishment for education of girls ranged from hanging to stoning. I risked my life because I believe women and girls matter, I believe education is a human right. I believe that anything is possible when you put your fears aside and do what's right!"
**Salma's and Samia's names have been changed to protect their privacy.