The Dirksen Senate Office Building is a far cry from Herat, Afghanistan. But Suraya Pakzad, a Herat native, looked at ease when she spoke last week at a celebration of International Women's Day in the Dirksen building sponsored by Women Thrive
. The slight, soft-spoken mother of six
is a decorated women's rights activist who has been recognized as one of Time magazine's Time 100
and is the recipient of the 2008 International Women of Courage Award.
Underneath the quiet demeanor and vibrant headscarf is a woman who defies death threats to bring hope to the women of her country.
For women especially, life under the Taliban was oppressive. They couldn't work, they couldn't travel and they had no rights. Women were treated as "sub-class humans" and the international community took no interest in ameliorating their plight, Pakzad said.
So Pakzad, now 39, took matters into her own hands. At the height of the Taliban's power, in 1998, she and a group of friends secretly started a women's empowerment campaign that later came to be known as the Voice of Women Organization (VWO).
The VWO is "committed to providing Afghan women with shelter, counseling and job training," Khaled Hosseini, author of "The Kite Runner" and "Thousand Splendid Suns," wrote
in Time last year. Pakzad's shelters "give abused women safe haven, legal services and long-term protection. She has worked tirelessly to raise awareness about gender-based violence that victimizes Afghan women."
The entire endeavor began as a small education initiative in the activist's home. For her, education was the natural place to begin. Pakzad, who has 15 brothers and sisters (all of whom have the same father), said girls in her family received the same educational opportunities as boys.
"All of us are educated," she explained. "My father was a really, really open-minded man. He tried his best to give us the available education as was possible at that time. In many families, they don't pay enough attention to the girls, but my case was completely different, and we all enjoyed equal rights."
Pakzad married at the age of 14. Two years after finishing high school and starting a family, she moved to Kabul with her husband and children to enroll in college.
"I got married when I was in the 10th grade," she said. "It was normal at the time. The security wasn't good, so everyone tries to marry their daughters with a good man, to save them from being in the hands of the militias and the warlords. I've been lucky enough to have a supportive husband who really believes in women's rights. He helped me continue my education, even though it was difficult being a married woman -- when I graduated high school, I already had two daughters."
Despite the challenges of balancing school and married life, Pakzad received a degree from Kabul University in 1990. But as the Taliban continued to crack down on women's rights, she saw the number of educated females in Afghanistan decline steadily. Those with the means to leave the country frequently did so in the face of increasing oppression. Pakzad said that most of the women left behind were poor and ill-educated, which is a dangerous phenomenon for any society:
"Women are half of the population of the country," she said. "If you don't have education and that type of empowerment, the country can't truly prosper. Females need to contribute to the construction of any country. And if you don't have educated women, we don't have educated children."
When the Taliban destroyed the educational opportunities from which Pakzad had benefited, she felt a personal obligation to help fill that void. She started by teaching the same curriculum boys learned in school to her daughters at home. At wedding parties and other women-only gatherings, Pakzad spread the word, offering to teach her friends' daughters, too.
"They start sending their children, and I find out that the demand [for girls' education] is very high, and I can't cover them all," she recalled. "I start talking with my friends, saying, 'Please [teach, too]. It's easy, we're educated, and somehow we can transfer that education.' When we don't have any hope from the international community, when we don't have a good government, then as women, as mothers, as activists for human rights, that's our job."
The women did not want to attract the attention of the Taliban, so even seemingly simple tasks, like distributing school supplies, required planning.
"We didn't want anyone to know that a pen or notebook came from a teacher," Pakzad remembered. "We had to give them out like we were giving gifts."
Global Name, Global Vision
Pakzad and her friends established different "schools" throughout Kabul, ultimately attracting about 300 students, all of whom came from disadvantaged households. With no money and no official recognition as a non-governmental organization, Pakzad secretly taught 25 girls in the morning and 25 in the afternoon. In the third year of the program, she and her co-teachers decided to expand their focus to include vocational training for poor mothers. For that, though, they needed money.
"We thought that if we could build up poor mothers' capacities so they could have a way of income, that would help their whole family," Pakzad said. "So we started asking donors to give us some raw materials for skills training. But the big problem was, organizations weren't able to give us funds because we weren't recognized as a legal entity. It was really difficult for us to go to the Taliban to register," she added with a wry smile.
But Pakzad was determined to get money, so she and her colleagues set about officially establishing themselves as an NGO. They named a board of directors, selected an executive director (Pakzad) and wrote up fact sheets concerning their mission and accomplishments. The most difficult part of the process? Deciding on a name.
"There was a big debate over whether we should call ourselves Voice of Women, or Voice of Afghan Women," Pakzad said. "I said, 'Let's have a big dream, that one day we'll become an organization big enough to be able to support
women in all parts of the world.' So we didn't put 'Afghan Women,' though there was a strong recommendation that we'd be more attractive to donors and it would be easier to get funds if we did. But I said, 'No, we're women and we should be anyplace other women need help.' "
'There's No Need to Put Yourself on Fire'
The year 2001 was momentous for Pakzad, for VWO and for Afghanistan. The Taliban fell and VWO was named an official NGO. That meant more money, more services and more impact.
"Four or five days after [the Taliban regime crumbled], we showed up to the Afghan government and said, 'We're here to support women and children in this country -- give us certificates,' " Pakzad said. "We got a temporary letter from them, and we opened up" as an NGO.
In 2002, VWO officially registered with the Afghan government. With money from the British Embassy, the organization embarked on its first project in a post-Taliban Afghanistan: training women in English and computers. In addition to its vocational and educational projects, VWO also helped develop Afghanistan's constitution.
"We went to villages and provinces to inform women about the constitution, and collected input from them," Pakzad said. "We shared it with the commission on the constitution."
In 2004, VWO shifted its headquarters from Kabul to the more conservative Herat Province. Kabul was a hub for NGOs and received international media attention, but no one was paying attention to the women of Herat, where Pakzad grew up. Few women attended university in Herat, and the NGOs based there were male-dominated. In 2003, the number of self-immolation incidents (where women committed suicide by lighting themselves on fire) in Herat totaled a staggering 384.
Six years later, women now make up 50 percent of the university in Herat and are also prominently represented in Herat's media. Self-immolation cases in the region decreased to 75 in 2008, which Pakzad credits to a targeted VWO initiative.
"We started a campaign of prevention. We had a group of staff going to all the districts of Herat, where [participants showed women] that 'These facilities are available, the laws and the constitution protect your rights. There's no need to put yourself on fire.' "
The organization has also established safe houses, rehabilitation programs and family counseling initiatives. An advocacy wing of VWO supports young women whose families disapprove of higher education. In Herat, signs of positive change for women abound, Pakzad said. One only has to turn on the television to see the evidence.
"In 2004, there were no women in the media," Pakzad said. "Now there's a bunch of [female newscasters]. They're putting on make-up. They're wearing dresses. They're not under the burka anymore."
The Long Road Ahead
The women's movement in Afghanistan has made significant and undeniable progress, but according to Pakzad, the fight for full equality is far from over.
"It's still challenging -- it's still quite hard to be a woman in Afghanistan," Pakzad said. "Three decades of war, displacement, warlordism, gun trafficking and narcotics trafficking come together and create a really hard situation for women."
Women living in cities enjoy relative freedom and access to education. Rural areas, especially those overrun with warlords, are another story.
"In rural areas, women are still subjected to lashes in public places by warlords and subjected to slashed necks by abusive husbands," Pakzad said. "There are many reports of rape of young children and mothers. This is all because of war, because of insecurity. When there's no security and continuation of war, there's no guarantee for women's rights."
And citing last month's deadly bombing
in one of Kabul's most prosperous neighborhoods, Pakzad fears the security situation in some parts of Afghanistan is deteriorating
"The people of Afghanistan are going to lose hope because the security is really terrible nowadays," she said. "If the capital of the country is being attacked, and the safest hotel [destroyed in the bombing] has been attacked, it means the Taliban is more powerful today than yesterday."
Increased Taliban power is just one of the challenges Afghanistan faces. Pakzad described a country dealing with increasing poverty, a recent rise in violence against women and mounting civilian casualties. She said that when people are sick, starving and don't have access to clean water, advocating for education -- and even women's rights -- isn't productive. Pakzad struggles to effectively work with the international community on these needs.
"The priority is health clinics, access to safe water and food," Pakzad said. "Unfortunately, from the fall of the Taliban till now, the majority of projects in Afghanistan were designed by the international community out of the country. They were designed very nicely, but not in the context of Afghanistan. If you have a school in an area, what does that mean when people are dying because of lack of access to safe water?"
Pakzad also feels strongly that aid allocation and implementation have been mismanaged.
"I wish [the international community] was able to spend money in a way that could solve some of the problems that three million widows are facing in Afghanistan, or [could go to] care of the children who are begging on the street with no future," she said. "Mismanagement and inefficiency of aid is the issue. It's completely going wrong."
The challenges facing the people of Afghanistan -- especially its women -- are many, and they are daunting. But Pakzad, despite the obstacles and, in her case, death threats
, is in the fight for the long haul.
"When I see the freedom of women in the U.S. and in Europe, I know that I walk in the right path," Pakzad said. "Someone needs to be in the front line, to pave the road for a bright future for the next generation. If I shall die today, at least the next generation shall enjoy freedom. My life shall be at risk, but it is my pleasure to save the lives of the women of the future."