Tuesday, March 02, 2010

"We pray to God that they don't come back."

Shamsia Sharifi runs a formerly clandestine operation now called the Hope for Poor Women Organization (HPWO), known as Negeen, for short, from a ramshackle house with a half-collapsed roof down a dusty side street in the Khair Khana district of Kabul.

A woman of broad smiles and bright, grey eyes, Sharifi brims with energy. She’s quick to laugh, and is at once at ease and all business in a smart blue-grey suit and black silk shawl. You’d never know what she’s been through.

Sharifi was taken out of school when she was 12. She’d had all the education a woman should need, her parents reckoned. But Sharifi demanded more, and against her parents’ wishes, she enrolled at the Sayed Jamaluddin Afghani School in Kabul.

During the Taliban years, with no husband or children, Sharifi worked as a home-school kindergarten teacher, supporting herself partly by selling eggs from her small flock of chickens. But on the quiet, she was involved with a group of educated women, teaching poor women how to read. They relied mainly on the Koran, one of the only books one could own that did not invite Taliban inquiries and persecution.

Two of the teachers Sharifi worked with were caught. They were arrested and imprisoned, and their small, secret school in Khair Khana was abandoned.

“I saw the deaths. I saw the cruelties,” she told me, in a matter-of-fact way. “For my own pain, for my heart, I wanted to help women to be educated, and to earn some money for herself. I opposed those difficulties from the Taliban. I wanted to decrease the cruelties suffered by Afghan women. And so now, I am happy I can provide them with some help, some salaries for their work.”

HPWO started small – a garbage-collection collective, a few literacy classes – but slowly, Sharifi built an important oasis for Kabuli women. Sharifi can now count 4,000 women among HPWO's graduates since the Taliban's 2001 rout. . .

This is to introduce the Unsung Heroes of Afghanistan Project, 19 essay-portraits I wrote in a collaborative undertaking between the Canada-Afghanistan Solidarity Committee and the Funders Network for Afghan Women. There's Shamsia, Afza, Baktash, Ehsan, Mahboob, Majabeen, Makay, Shuja, Yousef, Sohaila, Yasameen, Raziea, Ishaq, Mah Jan, Sharifa, Mahbooba, Marzia and Zabi.

These few are among countless Afghans, largely unknown to the Western world. Away from the limelight, they work day-in and day-out for a better future for Afghanistan. . . for human rights, for gender equity, for poverty relief, for cultural revitalization, for healing and health, for the right to education, for a free media, and for a vibrant, independent civil society.


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