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A R T I C L E S* &* S P E E C H E S

Powerful Women: Reconnecting the Generations in Afghanistan

By Dr. Sakeena Yacoobi

The following is from a speech given by Sakena Yacoobi at the Women & Power: Connecting Across the Generations Conference held at Omega Institute, September 11-13, 2009.

The following is a presentation by Dr. Sakena Yacoobi from the Omega Institute for Holistic Studies, awakening the best in the human spirit. The presentation has been written from what was spoke at the conference.

[Islamic Prayer] First of all, I would like to thank the Omega Center for bringing so many wonderful people to such a beautiful and wonderful place. For me to be here, I feel it is the heaven of the world; especially coming from Afghanistan. It gives me freedom…. it gives me peace…. and above all I enjoy every one of you so much. Every one of you is somebody so special-- otherwise you would be not here. Thank you for being here and thank you Omega for inviting me here. Thank you very much.

I would like to talk to you a little bit about what life was like when I was in Afghanistan. We are talking about cross generations and we are talking about empowering women and powerful women. When I was in Afghanistan as a little girl….when I was growing up….our family unit was very, very important. We lived together….we enjoyed life together…we learned from our elders… we communicated with our elders….and our elders kept teaching us day to day. Every person was involved in the activities around the house—our aunts….our uncles…our grandmother and grandfather…and it was a beautiful place to be. Yes, we were poor. We didn’t have a sophisticated life. But, you know, the way I remember those days is that they were full of joy and happiness because on every occasion, there was a ceremony… the great grandfather, the grandfather, the mother….all were there and we would circle around them and get gifts from them and exchange gifts and we honored them and respected them. And that is what I remember about Afghanistan.

But it is very, very sad to talk about it today. Today Afghanistan is not the same Afghanistan when I was growing up. Today Afghanistan has been destroyed through 35 years of war. For 35 years Afghanistan has been struggling with invaders. They are coming…and they are destroying our people. They are destroying our nation. Not only that, they are disrupting family life, culture, tradition…and that is what is happening to Afghanistan.

When I went back to Pakistan to just to start to see what I could do in the refugee camps, you would be amazed to see what I saw and how I dealt with that… and what kind of people I saw. Those people that I knew in Afghanistan….they were not the same people. People were traumatized… people were trying to figure out what was happening… people did not trust each other. I went to the refugee camps…. camp to camp…. site to site. Hundreds of people were there…..the women were protecting their children and did not want to talk to anyone else. The girls were just sitting there and did not want to talk to the next girl…the uncle didn’t want to talk to the uncle…..the brother didn’t want to talk to the brother----- because they didn’t trust. They didn’t know what will happen next. And, I said to myself…. this cannot be….this cannot be happening…..why is this happening?

So, as I got involved and tried to talk to the people, I started to do a survey, and I tried to see what I could do. And when I started talking to these people….when I heard their stories about when the families were living in Afghanistan and the Russians came and invaded inside their compound….and in front of their eyes, they raped their girls…..then they raped their boys…. they killed their husband….they killed their brother….they tore their house apart and they searched everything. Finally I understood what the issue was. These people were changed and they were protecting themselves.

And then they went to the refugee camps. They were in Pakistan…where they are supposed to be protected… and the Pakistani police came in the middle of the night and went tent to tent, and you know…..they did whatever they wanted to do. Nobody was there to protect them…nobody was there to stop them ……because they were giving a place for them.

And most of these women were there alone….because their husband is fighting in Afghanistan……their brother is killed….maybe their father has been killed….so the woman, children and these girls were just sitting inside this tent shaking…. and just trying to protect themselves.

And that’s the way the people of Afghanistan were there in the refugee camps. And that’s the way that the family units began to fall apart…nobody to trust….nobody to communicate with….nobody to go to and to just spend a few minutes with. People are moving from place to place in Afghanistan. People are moving to Pakistan. People are moving to Iran. People are moving abroad. A father tried to do whatever he could to send his son outside the country. A mother tried to do anything that she could to marry her daughter to someone…. to anyone she could…..no matter who the person is….. because she knows that if this girl get married she will not be raped by somebody else. Maybe a girl is 15 years old…..maybe they force her to marry a fifty year old man……. because that way she has protection.

So those were the things that were going on in the families….. and in the neighborhood….and everywhere.

So finally there was a time when I said to myself…..what can we do here? …..What should we do here?

And we began starting programs in the refugee camps. The first program were educational programs……..because I really believe in my heart that when you educate people ……and try to communicate with them….. and try to teach them……then…. they can start trusting people. They can learn to communicate in a language that it will not threaten others……they can defend themselves with communication….and they don’t need a weapon……….. and they don’t need to be pushing people aside.

You know in Afghanistan, prior to the Russians coming, 70% of the population were not able to read and write. But, after the invasion of the Russians, and during this war…and then during the mujahadeen war..and then the civil war…education was completely demolished. The mujahadeen group blamed the Russian system of education for what was happening,and they said we are not going to educate our boys or our girls. So, the children were living in the refugee camps without education.

So we provided education.

But, what kind of education?

There is education to just teach them how to read and write. But, that wasn’t enough for Afghanistan…that wasn’t the issue for us.

We thought that the only way that we can help is to teach people with new methodologies which bring critical thinking. When you teach critical thinking, then people communicate……they ask questions…. and that was our goal. We said…. we are going to develop and design a program that teaches people how to think….. and that was our objective. And you know, at the time it was very hard. It wasn’t easy. So, we started to go camp to camp and talk to the elders of the camps and try to say…. OK, we are going to set up a school and we want the girls to come. Everybody we talked to were just saying no. But, somehow with God’s help…..and I am a very strong believer in God……every step in my life….. first, I ask God’s permission and guidance……we were able to open schools. It wasn’t easy to go inside the refugee camps. People were trapped…..people were killed in the refugee camps……..people were kidnapped in the refugee camps.

But, I said my prayers and I did what they wanted in the community….and with the help of the community, we managed to open school after school.

In a matter of one year, we went from 300 students to 15,000 students in school---- all girls in the refugee camps. And these girls were very bright. They had a future. They wanted to have a future. They are like any other girls in the world.

You know, today is the day of technology. People study behind the computer. They communicate across the world…..and those girls didn’t have a book...they didn’t have a classroom…but, they were so anxious. They wanted to learn so much. They were delighted to come and sit there and be able to learn.

And, when we talk about cross generation…. let me tell you….. I’m an older woman….. but I love young people. They have so much energy and they are so joyful to be around……and I learn so much from them. I got so much courage from them because every day that they got exposed to different ideas… they grasped them… and they shared them… and they were there everyday.

Do you know… there was a time that I could not get them out of the compound to go to their tents or to go to their houses because they really want to stay there… because they wanted to learn.

And as a result we started having classes from first through sixth….. through tenth…..and then through twelfth grade…… and finally a lot of girls were graduating from school……. and then what do they do?

They go and sit and have nothing to do.

And then I said to myself….. what should we do?

I asked God’s help and I said……. well, we are going to have a University for Afghan girls in Pakistan.

Well……. everybody thought I was crazy ……or something was wrong with my mind…. because how was I going to start a University just by myself, one person? And not only that, what was the curriculum going to be?....... where was the compound?....... where are all the laboratories…… and the library…… and all of these things that we all are after?

But you know, with God’s help, with one small house….. with three rooms, we started a University and that University today is graduating students at the top of their class in the areas of computer science, pedagogy, and nursing.

And, every one of those students are getting jobs inside Pakistan or going back to Afghanistan and being hired by the United Nations or by the international organizations…. even by our president’s office.

That is the way those girls and those boys…..because we now have some boys…….. are learning to study …..because we provide people with quality programs and that is the way AIL works with people.

At the time we had these programs in Peshawar, the Taliban invaded Afghanistan. They went to Afghanistan and then, you know, I don’t have to tell you the story about those barbaric people…..

There was a time when I was afraid to talk………now I am not afraid anymore. You know why I’m not afraid?

Because, really, day to day they are getting more power…….. they are getting more money………. they are getting more training………. and our people are tired of war…….. are tired of fighting. Those barbaric people………… they closed the door of education completely.

Not only did they close the door of education, if a woman wanted to go outside to walk with her child or walk by herself….. even wearing “hijab” or a burqa…. they kicked her….. they whipped her…..they took her apart. They went to houses and they did things that I just don’t know how to tell you. Really…. they didn’t have any mercy…. no mercy at all.

During that time, people said……… we want education…..we want our children to learn. And then they came and requested assistance from us, from AIL[Afghan Institute of Learning]

Again, you know….. to take this issue….. it wasn’t an easy issue….. it was a challenging issue…… it was a scary issue.

But, you know, when you see what the lives of people are like…… you say…. who am I that I sit in my corner and just say…. well….. I can’t do that………. because it’s too much dangerous….. You can do that!

And that was when we went……and we took the initiative and went back inside Afghanistan……..back and forth……with the support of the community…….with their cooperation…we set up policies and procedures……… and we opened schools. And that really was, again, a program where students sat side by side…..from first grade to eighth grade………with one teacher in the classroom.

We designed a manual so that the teacher could really work with the students and the students could help each other. Through this procedure and methodology, we were able to teach the students from first grade to eighth grade and we had eighty schools across the country. And, that was so successful.

Today to give you the good news, to really give you the good news about the women of Afghanistan……….those students are now sitting in university chairs……..most of them are in medical school or law school…..and they are my students,…… I am proud to say to you….. they are my students…….and I have a very close contact with them. They come and they sit in the office and they talk and they communicate with us. And one of the reasons that I say they are my students and I am so proud of them is because if those students…during that time didn’t go to school..right now, we would not have so many students at the university as we have now. They are the students. They were the first students to enter the university right now.

This is the situation in Afghanistan.

What do we do with the women to empower them?

I am sure every one of you wants to ask me…..

What are you doing now?

What is AIL doing now?

AIL is always trying to work with the people……. with the community. We never, ever do something that we want to do. We always wait for the people to come to us and request what they want from us. And with them requesting from us what they want, we are able to design programs for them……and they were able to protect us. We open a school…we open center… in the area that it’s impossible to do it. How we do it is with the help of the community.

And, yes, there are many other communities that need help and assistance in the area of education but we have not gone there…..because the people haven’t come and asked us for help so we can not go there because it’s too dangerous for our staff to go because if you do not have the support of the community, you will not be able to accomplish what you are promising to the people.

So, that is the way AIL is operating--- quality programs----at the request of the people---- and methodology that brings critical thinking.

You might say…… what do you do with your center? …. Why do you have a center?

Well, you know when Afghanistan got free from the Taliban, we had a new system, a new government, and in our country, as in every country, the government takes over the public schools. When the government took over the public schools, we didn’t have that much to do with the schools anymore. Then we had to change…..be very creative….and figure out what we can do right now…… It was then that we began opening Women’s Learning Centers because the women asked us to.

Why do we call them Women’s Learning Centers? They are called Women’s Learning Center because it’s like a hub (of a wheel). We designed programs from pre-school to university. It depends on the area and it depends on the community. What they need…. we design for them and they go.

You know we have students who are 15 to 80 years old and they never have been in a school. So, what can they do? They cannot go to the public school and sit in the first grade. So, we design curriculum for them. A woman comes and learns and in a matter of one year she passes 2 grades or 3 grades….. according to her speed. Once she gets to the level that she can enter the public school, we shift her and she can go to the public school. This is one thing that we do. We call them fast track classes.

Also we have program for girls that are too far away from public school and they could not go to schools because of security issues. So, we have Women’s Learning Centers. These girls come from their home to this Women’s Learning Center and they go to school…..first grade….second grade……sometimes all the way to sixth grade. Then they will be able to move to the public school.

One big issue is that a lot of people, a lot of communities, don’t trust the government school. So, they send their children, especially their girls, to our center and then we teach them and we work with them. And this is the way that AIL works through the educational system.

But, what is it about our education that is so different?

What we do is we provide quality program. We use the curriculum of the government, but along side that curriculum, we teach them some other topics such as peace education, democracy, law and order, ethics, responsibility, sharing, being self-sustainable, speaking out, women’s rights, human rights, justice, environmental health, health education. These are added to our curriculum and we fit these topics into the school curriculum.

In every one of our centers, our students are learning these topics. And these topics today are so important in Afghanistan. They are important for all of the society…..not only women….. women and men…… because these are the topics that help us when we choose our president. These are the topics that will help us get rid of those barbaric people. These are the topics that can bring a peaceful environment to Afghanistan. These are the topics that can protect a mother who is sick….. can protect the child who is sick….these are the topics we teach the mother---like how to do family planning.

Family planning in Afghanistan? You maybe say, well..Afghanistan is a Muslim country, how do you teach family planning?

We have a way to teach family planning. You would be surprised.We deliver condoms to people. We give them condom. We teach them how to protect themselves by seeing a healthy family. We communicate with them that their family will be happier…..their husband will be happier with them….. they will be healthier. We teach them how to take care of their body….. to have more energy….. be cleaner, and be more…. if you say…. sexier.

And, you know, it’s working. ….it’s really working. As a result, the husband brings the woman to the clinic-----It’s time to go!

Because life is better now. She is not too sick. She is not having too much to carry. She is not dirty. And, that is really helping. But, at the same time, for child spacing, we say you should breastfeed your child……at least as long as you can….2 years,…. 2 ½ years,…. 3 years,…. try to use this method.

And, it’s really working.

This is how we work with women in Afghanistan. We try to empower them by teaching them that they can be self-sustainable……that they have a right to say no.

For example…and this is really happening in Afghanistan…when a father wants to marry a daughter to somebody and he gets lots of money from that person because he is really, in reality, selling his daughter… in our human rights program…we teach girls that they can say no by using a quotation from the Koran…….teaching them that a girl can say no….that a woman can say no……my daughter is too young and shouldn’t marry. Through those quotations, we are teaching women how to stand and defend themselves. And that is working.

Family disputes are decreasing. We have lots of family disputes, lots of problems. People come to us……you know in Afghanistan today we don’t have psychologists and psychiatrists. AIL is handling psychiatric problems…all over the country. Why? Because people have no one and they have so much they want to talk about…..and we must guide them ……and do the best we could. We try to listen …..we are there to help them, really, to solve their problems, as much as we could.

That’s what AIL is all about.

So, I know I am running out of time but, I want to tell you, I know you are anxious to know what is going on in Afghanistan.

AIL is very successful. If I had the money and if I could have enough funding, I could help thousands and thousands of women more because day by day, people are coming to the door of AIL for help……..they are coming for assistance…they are coming for a center… they are coming for a school… they are coming for income generation.

But AIL never promises something that it can’t deliver. If we have the fund and we are capable, we say YES….but if we don’t have the funds are not capable, we say NO. This is the reason people really respect AIL.

Also, we work with tradition…..with culture…….with religion. We do not say that because you are not wearing your “hijab” you cannot come, or this is not for you …..or you must perform this way. You know, it’s very important to respect the culture. Because our people---no matter how much civilization keeps going and we are getting higher technology and advancing---- our people are a traditional people. We are in a nation that has different ethnic groups and different languages and people must be treated with respect. So when people see how we respect them, they really get involved and they enjoy learning.

Women in Afghanistan today are very empowered. Today you might hear there is war and a lot of people are being killed. In schools, acid has been poured on the face of the girls… schools are being burned. You don’t hear it in your news but every day….. every single day………. in every province of Afghanistan-- including the capitol--- there is bombing……. there is rocket shelling………. there is kidnapping……… there is torturing…… there are all kinds of things going on.

But everyday, the women of Afghanistan get up in the morning….. say goodbye to their family…..and go to work….. go to centers ….. go to learning……because they know that they must learn. The only way they can stop this problem is to learn. They must be educated….and they are learning……… and they are not afraid.

We just recently had an election. Do you know the men were scared to go to the voting posts? The men were scared because the Taliban announced that if you go and vote and your finger will be colored… we will cut your finger. They said that and they did that. They got many people and they cut their finger and they cut their ear.

But, you know, those women went to the posts and they voted. Those women did go…..because they learned through our leadership workshops how to choose your leader…..why it is so important that you choose the right leader…… why it is so important to get involved in politics…. why it is so important that you really try to negotiate and communicate---- because guns are not the solution. Guns are not the solution. And, so those women are going to the post and voting for the right person. Of course, human resources are not available in Afghanistan that much. We do not have that many good quality people who are representatives…..but at least they try…. at least they try to manage who is the best one to be chosen.

The news for you is that Afghan women are really empowered. A lot of good things are happening in Afghanistan…..and the people are taking care of things by themselves. Government is not doing that much. Still we do not have roads….we do not have electricity…….. we do not have clean water…….. we do not have shelter. These are the basic rights of every human being and we don’t have them.

People are living in containers---- today that I’m talking to you. People don’t have water in the summer or during the winter. The capitol of Afghanistan, which is Kabul, has electricity maybe two nights a week….and that comes in and out. And, you can imagine what it is like in the provinces.

Poverty is all over Afghanistan. If a woman has a job and she earns some money, she may be supporting the whole family because the man doesn’t have a job. This creates another issue.

We need to work with men also. Right now men are so very devastated and frustrated and who do they take it out on?--- their wife……because they don’t have a job……they don’t have money to support their family…..and, it is traditional that men are always supposed to be the breadwinner, but men are sitting home with nothing to do. As a result, women are working or the children are working.

We come back to the generations. When a boy is finished with high school, he knows English and computer. He goes and finds a job at a fine organization and he brings his money home……and then he tells his father how to live his life…and the father has nothing to say to him…..can’t say anything……. because he is the breadwinner.

The young girl is going outside working because she learned the skills of English and computer. She comes and she rules the house. The mother, father, the grandfather, if they are there, they have to sit and take it no matter what. So as a result, a lot of problem going on inside Afghanistan… internally… inside the family also.

And this war is doing that.

Poverty is doing that.

We don’t have jobs. People don’t have enough to put on the table to feed their children.

Housing is one of the biggest issues right now in Afghanistan. Do you know that a piece of land that you want to buy in Afghanistan is almost the price as New York, Manhattan? Can you imagine that? And you have to buy it in dollars. So, who are the people buying it? How do they have that money? Maybe my neck will be cut right now but I’ll say it: That’s drug money. There is a lot of drug money inside Afghanistan. And everybody else is being sort-of corrupted and they are putting together their own groups and they forget about the society.

But, to summarize how the life of women is…... in the cities where we are working and other NGOs are working... the life of women is 50% better than it was because women are taking the initiative. The more you spend money for women, the better outcome you will have. You will have a good result.

For so many years, the men took over our lives. For so many years the men were in power. For so many years, the men were the ones who ran the government. They didn’t do anything.

Now we have some women sitting in some office and they are excellent organizers. They are really taking care of the budget. They are spending in the right place. They know how to do it. And why don’t we give the floor to them by supporting woman’s groups?

Women’s groups, unfortunately, don’t get the support. You see thousands and thousands and billions of dollars going into Afghanistan. It’s given to the elite group….. it’s given to the organization who is from this ministry or that ministry----every Minister has four or five NGOs for themselves and the donors go and talk to them. They sit around the table. They get the money. And the NGOs that are working with the grassroots……..who have no connections with those people….they don’t get the money.

But, the people come to the grassroots NGOs and they work. For example, if I tell you about my budget, my real budget is going to be 3.5 million dollars. But, in-kind it is 1.5 million dollars. And you know why? Because we require people to do some little things and they do it. It’s very tough, but they are doing it….because they believe in quality programs. Anywhere in the world, when you provide good quality, people respond to you.

Right now, the people of Afghanistan are really against foreigners. They are really hurt because they have been promised over, and over, and over and nobody did anything for them. It breaks my heart when I go to a school and children are scared. They want transportation. The family asks me to have transportation….and I say it’s very short distance…….. you can be there and they are scared because somebody might kidnap their child….somebody might pour acid to their child’s face. You know.. everybody loves their children. And those families have a right. You can imagine yourselves, your child. Those barbaric people have no heart. They take them apart. They tear them apart, as a matter of fact. They rape them…. boys and girls… ….they don’t care. That is the issue in Afghanistan right now.

So, to just tell you….to make sure you understand…the women of Afghanistan are very powerful….. they are very intelligent…. and they are courageous. I don’t know how we would do what we do if I didn’t have them with me. If I didn’t have them with me as a team, I would not be able to do it.

God is helping us and those women are helping us because they are courageous. They may wear “chadors” or ‘hijab”, but they are walking side by side…..walking through the streets and going into the face of the guns and facing those guns and going past those guns. That’s the way the women of Afghanistan are.

Never listen to those that say the women of Afghanistan are submissive or they don’t know how to think or they are not educated. They may have a very small level of education, but with that small level… now they are getting a lot of knowledge. When they come to a workshop, in a matter of five days they pick up whatever you give them and it is there. They are using it. That’s the way the women of Afghanistan are. Thank you very, very much.

For more information about Dr. Sakena Yacoobi and her work, visit The Afghan Institute of Learning (AIL) and Creating Hope International.

The above is a transcript of the keynote speech delivered by Sakena Yacoobi at the Women and Power: Connecting Across the Generations Conference held at Omega Institute, September 11-13, 2009.

To order audio CDs from this event or to purchase recordings from past Women & Power conferences, please order online at www.eomega.org/omega/mediaworks, call 845.266.4444, ext. 317 or email [email protected]

Feminist.com's Archive of Features from the
Women & Power: Connecting Across the Generations Conference

SAKENA YACOOBI, PHD is president and executive director of the Afghan Institute of Learning (AIL), an Afghan women-led non-governmental organization she founded in 1995. The organization was established to provide teacher training to Afghan women, to support education for boys and girls, and to provide health education to women and children. Under Yacoobi’s leadership, AIL has established itself as a groundbreaking, visionary organization that works at the grassroots level and empowers women and communities to find ways to bring education and health services to rural and poor urban girls, and women and other poor and disenfranchised Afghans. Since 1996, AIL has provided education, training, and health services to nearly 7 million women and children.

AIL was the first organization to offer human rights and leadership training to Afghan women. AIL supported 80 underground home schools for 3,000 girls in Afghanistan after the Taliban closed girls’ schools in the 1990s. AIL was the first organization that opened Women’s Learning Centers for Afghan women, a concept now copied by many organizations throughout Afghanistan. Using its grassroots strategies, AIL now serves 350,000 women and children each year through its Educational Learning Centers, schools and clinics in both Afghanistan and Pakistan.

AIL and Yacoobi are internationally recognized for their work and have received numerous awards. In 2005, Yacoobi was among 1,000 women nominated to jointly receive the Nobel Peace Prize.

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