I could have entitled this "Diba and Sadiqa"––these are the names of the two young Afghan women I listened to on Thursday afternoon at a meeting of the Ottawa CFUW's "University Women Helping Afghan Women" group. They are currently both students at the University of Ottawa.
Diba told us about Medica Afghanistan, a new organisation (for whom she works in her spare time) that provides counselling, mediation and legal aid for women and girls who are sheltering from "war and other forms of violence" in the city of Kabul. Canadian donors are helping to pay for the literacy classes at these shelters. Sad to say, the children there (in the same room as their mothers for most of the day; each shelter can accommodate up to 50 people) are disturbed by the stories that circulate. Illiteracy deters their mothers from seeking work and in any case these women are often too traumatised to concentrate on formal training or learning to read.* None is healthy enough to leave the shelter for the sake of work, said Diba. They do weaving, leatherwork, knitting, etc. for various enterprises but do not get the satisfaction of seeing what becomes of their handiwork, so have no real pride in their achievements. Diba claims that (in a population of 30 million) 95% of Afghans are in need of psychiatric help. But there is no qualified psychiatrist in Afghanistan.
* I have mentioned this to two people since, both of whom were reminded of the Maslov pyramid.
Sadiqa, who spoke for an hour without notes in English (her mother tongue is Pashto), told us about the NGO she had founded herself which runs "Learning Centres" for female students in Afghanistan. It is called Oruj, meaning Ascent. Sadiqa (who must be about 31 years old now) told us she had been working for girls' education in Afghanistan since she was in Grade 11. She had left her homeland as a five year old to live in Pakistan with her refugee parents and she attended a refugee school there. On a visit to Afghanistan to visit her cousins she found those girls very eager to hear about the education she was having, of which they themselves had been deprived. She swore to herself there and then that she'd do something about this and returned to Afghanistan in 2002 having raised enough money to start up a school on her father's property. When it opened in 2003, 63 girl pupils came along in great excitement, wearing glittery clothes and lipstick, because they had no idea how to dress for school. It was hard, she said, to get them to sit down in rows and face the board at the front (they all laugh about this now).
However, before long, the class shrank to half its size. No woman could be found literate enough to teach Grade 1 lessons so they'd had to employ a man teacher; kind though he was, the girls "covered up" and were wary of him. "All the parents we spoke to wanted to have their daughters educated," Sadiqa said, but what was education going to do to their daughters? There were concerns about that. The local community suspected that the instigators of these new opportunities might have hidden, ulterior motives. Sadiqa had to prove that she was an altruist, not a spy.
In 2008 Sadiqa's province was taken over by the Taliban which meant that the participants in her project ran the risk of violent attacks. Classes had to be held secretly, in private homes. As director, she asked the teachers whether they wanted to run the risk of continuing to do such work, but not one dropped out. One of the male teachers replied (I quote the words she used, her voice cracking with emotion): "Even if we're shedding our blood to the last moment ... we will work for our scholars!"
Here is an article about Sadiqa, published around that time, in 2009.
At the present time, Oruj is a success, serving about 6400 girls (and some boys!) in six schools. Some of the students now have high school diplomas and the older ones help to teach the children in Grades 1 and 2. Their mothers are also being offered literacy and "awareness building" courses at "family welfare clinics." Sadiqa said that the suburbs of Kabul might as well be remote mountain villages as far as the ideologies are concerned. People in these outlying communities are reluctant to have their children at school. Traditionally, children (6 per family on average) are needed at home to look after the livestock. Sadiqa and her colleagues counsel these parents and speak to the elders and to the religious leaders, trying to convince them that, according to the Koran, education is an obligation in Islam. (Because most of the people cannot read, they cannot check the scriptures for themselves.)
Another problem arose when the young women graduating from high school wanted to go on to higher education. Until last year their only choice would have been to attend a co-ed institution because there were no girls colleges in Afghanistan. Stories circulate about sexual harassment both from their fellow students and unfortunately from some of the male tutors as well. Therefore Sadiqa saw the need for a women's college such as exist in the western world (she had attended one herself in Massachusetts and was inspired by its principles). So she promptly set about raising funds. She managed to raise nearly $50,000 and this year, the first community college for women in her country, offering courses in Law and Economics, can boast of 52 graduates.
Currently only 1% of women in Afghanistan can get jobs. The rest of them cannot compete with the men because they simply don't have the qualifications or the requisite experience; they can't afford computers, they lack leadership skills.
Sadiqa studies at Ottawa University during the day and (because of the distant time zone) liaises with Oruj administrators until 2 o'clock in the morning. This work is more important to her than sleep.