Despite its proven benefits, access to quality education – in developed and developing countries alike – is one of the world’s most pressing challenges. Availability of schools, adequate teachers and supporting budgets are all major factors. But in Afghanistan, the situation is further compounded by perceptions of religious restrictions – particularly as it relates to women and education. Interpretation of Islamic teachings by powerful religious and political leaders has been a common and effective deterrent. But one young woman, Jamila Afghani, has demonstrated the positive impact of education – especially for women – on promoting peace and building a stable society. Today, against great odds, Jamila’s tireless advocacy on behalf of women and children is helping alter women’s roles and attitudes towards women’s issues in her country, and around the world.
When the Taliban ruled Afghanistan in the late 1990s, women were severely repressed. Girls were banned from attending school past the age of eight, while women were prohibited from employment and expected to observe complete purdah – public and private seclusion. The consequences of not abiding by these rules were grim – from public floggings to execution. Since the removal of the Taliban, Afghanistan has pledged equal rights for men and women, but deep traditions and old practices are widely held today, and women still find themselves limited, restricted and excluded.
For Jamila Afghani, this is simply unacceptable. For her, education is the foundation for a better life. Her mission is to remove the cultural stigma around girls’ and womens’ education in Afghanistan so that they can become productive, healthy contributors to their communities.
Jamila might have been the least likely candidate to take on such a burning issue, were it not for the spirit and commitment sparked by an improbable series of life events.
Born in Afghanistan in the 1970s, Jamila struggled with ill health for much of her life. She contracted polio at a young age and, because of paralysis in her legs, required braces to walk. Then at age 14, she was shot in the head during the Soviet-Afghan War, confining her to her bed for years. She often felt depressed as she watched her siblings and their friends play outside, in full control of their bodies, while she lay motionless in her room.
But in her isolation, she found solace in books. After much pleading, she convinced her parents to enroll her in school despite their inherent opposition to girls being educated. In Pakistan, where her family fled as refugees from the Soviet-Afghan war, she excelled in a university. But during her time in Peshawar, Pakistan, Jamila was struck by the grim relationship between poverty in the region and war in her home country.
“I came across an Afghan woman, begging on a street corner with her children,” remembers Jamila. “I went to offer her money and asked how she had ended up in this situation. The woman started to cry. Her village had been destroyed. The Pashtun tribe had torn apart the homes in her community in Afghanistan, and they had sexually abused the women there. While she was grateful to have survived, she couldn’t afford to feed her children or herself. Begging for coins was her only hope, but when men offered her money, they were asking for something in return. When she said even one Pakistani rupee came at the cost of a forced kiss, I began to cry. It was devastating to witness such desperation.”
Jamila realized a simple donation was not enough. Something had to be done to empower these women. She set up lessons in embroidery and tailoring to teach women a skill so they could support themselves without begging. “That woman really changed me – before I was a person who just gave money, but she made me wake up and become someone who can help people take control of their lives,” recalls Jamila. Motivated by this experience and inspired by the influence education had on her own life, Jamila felt the need to help other women find independence through learning.
Upon her return to Kabul in 2002, Jamila founded the Noor Educational and Capacity Development Organization (NECDO), which provides much-needed literacy classes for women. “Noor” – meaning light – signified the enlightenment she hoped would result. She adopted an Islamic approach to education that had been successful in the refugee camps of Peshawar. And when she attempted to set up women’s literacy centers in her native Ghazni province, she encountered problems with the community – especially the imams of the mosques.
Jamila invited one of the imams to visit the center, but he was embrarrassed by the notion of meeting with a woman and declined. She explained she was educating women about Islam, and said, “If you can find one single verse from the Qur’an or the hadith that states that education is bad for women, then I’ll stop right now and hand over the key to this center to you.” The imam was struck by her knowledge of Islam. He went on to encourage the community to allow their wives and daughters to visit the center.
Inspired by this interaction, Jamila continued to engage with other imams on women’s rights, eventually developing a gender-sensitivity training specifically for religious leaders. A manual, written in collaboration with the Women’s Islamic Initiative in Spirituality and Equality and female Muslim scholars, was also developed and shared with imams across the country. Today over 6,000 imams have participated in the training, many going on to deliver teachings to their communities where women can now pursue an education.
Jamila finds inspiration in the growing number of women now empowered in Afghanistan. However, she knows her life’s work is not without obstacles. As NECDO’s achievements grow, she and her family receive an increasing number of death threats. Yet she remains committed to building a better society for future generations. Jamila knows that no solution is instant. “Sometimes it is a long journey, but when you see a person’s dignity disgraced by other humans, you can save it by offering respect for humanity.”
Seeing these women create a successful change in their lives and the effects on the wider community gives Jamila the strength to continue. “When you educate a woman, you educate an entire family. Their learnings are shared. If you light one candle, they can light others around them. This is the key to an enlightened society.”
Jamila Afghani is a finalist for the 2017 Aurora Prize for Awakening Humanity. On behalf of the survivors of the Armenian Genocide and in gratitude to their saviors, the annual Aurora Prize aims to raise public consciousness about atrocities occurring around the world and reward those working to address these major issues in a real and substantial manner. Gratitude in Action lies at the heart of the Aurora Humanitarian Initiative. Countless survivors around the world owe their chance at life to the generosity of others. Through Gratitude in Action, the Aurora Humanitarian Initiative Co-Founders wish to inspire all those who have received aid in time of crisis to express gratitude by offering similar assistance to someone else.