Today I would like to bring you the story of my friend and colleague Sweeta Noori, an Afghan woman working with me to empower women survivors of war through Women for Women International's Afghanistan Chapter. Through her life we see how, despite decades of political shifts in Afghanistan, the symbolic manipulation of women's rights is an unfortunate constant.
My life has not been particularly long--I'm only 36--but already I have been a daughter, a mother, a leader, a war-survivor and three-times a refugee. As an Afghan woman I look back on my time on this earth and already I can see how much has changed for Afghanistan, even in so short a time. As the Obama Administration looks to the future and considers how it will define itself and its policy in the region, I give pause to reflect on the past 36 years of a nation perennially and tragically embroiled in conflict and instability. Looking back, I see that for the women of Afghanistan, the more things change, the more they stay the same. The time has come to invest fully and continually in the women of Afghanistan, prioritizing their rights, recognizing their role in the economy and society, and developing their potential as agents of peace and stability. Development in Afghanistan should not just serve as a justification for military activity; it should be expanded, empowered, and strategic, including and leveraging women across the board.
This has never been the case for as long as I can remember. I was born in Kabul, Afghanistan in 1973, into a family and an Afghanistan in which women's education was possible. It was the same year that former Prime Minister Mohammed Daoud Khan, a man whose progressive politics and pursuit of modernity inspired him to encourage women's education and protect their human rights, established a republic and became the first president of Afghanistan. My mother was a woman of the times: she was a doctor and a professor who for seven years served as the chairperson for the Kabul Institute of Medicine. My father, a police general in the Afghan army, was supportive of us as we sought education and careers.
Following in my mother's footsteps, I adored school and applied myself so that I might also become a doctor one day. But as I have seen so many times in the history of my country, nothing was certain, especially for women. New political currents would render old ideas obsolete; new regimes would fight for and consolidate power, leaving Afghans to adapt and adjust to a new social landscape once again.
Both my earliest and my most recent memories of Afghanistan are of foreign soldiers. The guns Americans carry today give my stomach the same twinge of dread as they did when I was a little girl staring up at Soviet weapons. The Soviet era was one of occupation and the breeding of revolution.
The Mujahidin insurgency brought the end of Soviet rule and a new and uncharted future for Afghanistan. When the Soviet troops withdrew from Afghanistan in 1989, I remember the celebrations of a people who thought the rise of the Mujahidin meant peace. But the culture of violence that was established at the front traveled with the fighters as they captured Kabul. There was always the staccato of gunfire and explosions. Mountain warriors became city warlords battling for turf in close quarters where civilians bore the brunt of the violence. People were terrified to leave their homes even as they were obliged to stand in line for hours to receive meager food rations. It was a time of desperation.
In 1992 the political became even more personal--I was forced to halt my medical studies in my third year, as women's participation in the public sphere and the economy were expressly forbidden. I said goodbye to medicine and hello to new and ill-fitting clothes. It was mandated that women moving outside the home had to wear the shalwar (long pants worn under the skirt) and chadar (long scarf). Our wardrobes were as unprepared as we were-- my mother and I had no such dress on hand, so we were at first forced to fashion them out of household drapes and other fabrics. With the rest of our sisters, we adapted to a new reality.
Over time my family became exhausted by constant violence and shooting. We fled to Rawal, Pakistan in 1992, leaving behind all of our possessions, even my beloved pen collection and cherished childhood doll. It would be four years before I could return home, and when I did I would find nothing as I remembered it. This was my first refugee experience. In time, I would have to flee to Pakistan a second time, and ultimately, to the United States.
1996 was the year of my first return to Afghanistan. It was also the year of the Taliban. They captured Kabul after sweeping through southern Afghanistan, touting themselves as peacemakers and providing a welcomed relief from the violent years under the Mujahedeen rule. Billed as a return to core Islamic principles, the Taliban regime implemented a heavily restrictive, fundamentalist, and patriarchal interpretation of Islam that rendered Afghan women far less free and empowered than before. Modernity was spurned, progress shunned. Access to education remained out of reach for me and my Afghan sisters; women were not allowed to leave the house by themselves and were relegated to the position of animals, forced to walk behind, rather than next to, our husbands. I withdrew inside the home, where I did not wear the burqa and could do as I pleased. Inside the relative security of my own home, I taught English to other women, a crime and a heresy at that time but a personal duty to my sisters and my sole source of stimulation.
On September 11th, 2001, two towers fell halfway around the world, and within three months so too did the Taliban to the invading United States and allied forces in Afghanistan. The terrorist attacks of September 11th were shocking to my family and fellow Afghan citizens. We prepared once again for invasion. The Americans came. The Taliban scattered. There was talk of democracy and free elections, of a new beginning. Again nothing was certain. But there was hope.
I poured myself into reconstruction. I served as an assistant for the Chair of the Loya Jirga Commission, which helped to form the interim administration and new constitution for Afghanistan. I have continued to work for the development and reconstruction of Afghanistan ever since. In my current role as Country Director for Women for Women International- Afghanistan, I direct programs that have helped more than 35,000 women since 2002 by providing direct financial assistance, rights education, vocational skills training, and micro credit loans. In July 2004, I launched one of the country's first micro-credit lending programs targeting women, which has since disbursed over $11 million to approximately 47,500 women while maintaining a repayment rate of over 90%.
There is no denying that this is progress. But with every gain enormous obstacles persist. We have 25% women in parliament but conservative extremists retaliate, threatening the brave women who do seek leadership. We are building bridges and schools every day but women are not safe enough to walk across alone, nor are girls sure that they will not be attacked if they dare to fill the schools.
In my discussions with Afghan women, security continues to be a primary concern, in addition to limited access to resources. In our 2009 Afghanistan Report, Women for Women International found that women think the government should address the security situation first (66%), followed by economic and political problems (20%) and access to social services, such as healthcare and education (9%). These are real challenges in Afghanistan, and the women are calling for their resolution. They're talking about--and voting for--peace, development and education.
I am reminded each day how these women's empowerment is critical to the survival of our nation. Women work tirelessly to feed and clothe their families, to educate girl and boy children, to build and maintain peaceful communities. And they're optimistic despite the greatest of odds. In fact, our report found that over 80% of women polled are optimistic for the future of Afghanistan, which tells me that investing in women makes everything possible, even in a country without much cause for hope left. The important thing is to cultivate this optimism, to invest in women and in peace so that this fledgling trust is not squandered. The recent move to consider legislation that would restrict the movement, development and human rights of Shia women is a worrying indication that we are not heading in this direction. We must protect and empower the women of Afghanistan. We must stop using their rights and status as a political mechanism that can be dangled and withdrawn at whim.
Sweeta Noori is the Country Director of the Afghanistan chapter of international humanitarian and development assistance nonprofit organization Women for Women International. Born in Kabul in 1973, Noori has survived many regime changes and social shifts in her homeland, from the Soviet occupation, to the mujahidin, to the Taliban, to today's fledgling democracy. In her work as Country Director of Women for Women International-Afghanistan (2002-present), she has assisted over 20,000 women in her country with financial assistance, rights education, and vocational skill straining. She was instrumental in launching one of Afghanistan's first microcredit lending programs targeted to women, which has disbursed over $11 million to approximately 47,500 women, maintaining a repayment rate of over 90%.
For more information about Sweeta's work, visit www.womenforwomen.org or contact Lyric Thompson at email@example.com or 202.449.9440.