- The Washington Times - Sunday, August 30, 2009

KABUL, Afghanistan | Hassina Syed owns six companies in her own name and is rapidly building a small business empire.

Nasrine Gross defies all expectations by walking the streets without a head scarf and teaching basic literacy to husbands and wives — together.

Razia Jan is educating Afghan girls and, in a second role, helping provide work and well-being for female weavers in some of the country’s most impoverished communities.

These three women, each in her own way, are smashing centuries of convention and forcing Afghans to think in new ways about the role of women in a country that has some of highest female illiteracy rates and poorest maternal health outcomes in the developing world.

Less than a decade after the ouster of a Taliban regime that refused to let girls go to school or women walk the streets without their husbands, these women are taking a lead in tackling some of Afghanistan’s biggest long-range problems; the future of the country may depend on their success and that of others like them.

“One of the things I often find frustrating about discourse on women in Afghanistan is that the women are much stronger and play much more a role in society than they are credited with,” says Alexander Their, director of the Future of Afghanistan Project and senior rule of law adviser at the Washington-based United States Institute of Peace.

Nowhere is that more evident than in the field of microcredit, in which individuals are given small loans — enough to buy a cow or a loom, for example — so they can start small businesses out of their homes.

The microfinance companies that issue the loans say they have their greatest success working with women, who almost invariably repay what they borrow. One government-run lending agency, the largest in Afghanistan, grants 95 percent of its loans to women, and 99 percent of those loans are repaid.

The U.S. government is also aware of the potential. It has allocated $27 million that soon will be distributed in small flexible grants “to empower Afghan women [private organizations] at the local level,” according to Melanne S. Verveer, the U.S. ambassador at large for global women’s issues.

“Women have more social obligations in terms of keeping up the honor and prestige of their families,” explains Afghan-born Barnack Pazhwak, a program officer with USIP. This makes women more responsible citizens than men, he says.

But Afghan women assert themselves, as these three do, only at their peril.

Objections — and the risk of violent attack — are so strong in some circles that the wife of President Hamid Karzai — a trained gynecologist who could serve as a role model for other women — does not practice her profession and never appears in public.

For that to change, says Ms. Verveer, “There clearly has to be will at the top and heart at the bottom.”

Hassina Syed

There is plenty of heart in Ms. Syed, the 27-year-old founding president of the integrated Syed Group of Companies through which she personally manages six separate enterprises.

The Afghan wife of British-born journalist and longtime Kabul resident Peter Jouvenal, she began her operation with a Kabul hotel and restaurant called the Gandamack Lodge, which became a popular meeting place for international media.

With the lodge well established, she soon branched out to set up a travel agency, a vegetable farm, a bedding shop, a construction company and a security services company called Angel Human Resources. She would like to venture next into the gasoline business.

Although she has no formal training in management, the energetic entrepreneur now employs a total of 565 people, 250 of them women. “I learn from my own mistakes,” she says.

It is not unheard of for a woman to own a business in Afghanistan — in fact there are a growing number of programs to teach them management techniques. But normally, a father, husband or brother runs the business behind the scenes.

That is not the case with Ms. Syed, though she freely admits she could do none of it without the moral support of her father, the former mayor of Parwan province, who she says is “really proud” of her.

That was not always the case. Her relatives at one point cut off all communication with her when they learned she was marrying Mr. Jouvenal, a non-Muslim.

Mr. Jouvenal first came to Afghanistan as a producer for the BBC to cover the Soviet occupation in the 1980s.

The couple met in Pakistan during the period of Taliban rule in the late 1990s, a time when many Afghans sought refuge in that country. They returned to Kabul and founded the lodge after the Taliban were ousted in 2001.

With her husband’s permission, she is raising the couple’s children as Muslims.

Asked about Afghanistan’s economic development, she says foreign aid is not the answer. “We have to develop the country ourselves,” she says, adding that her long-range ambition is to become an ambassador “so I can bring business to Afghanistan, which is between 50 and 80 percent of [an ambassador’s] job.”

Almost as important to Afghanistan’s economic future, she says, is “getting women to help one another.” To that end, she has formed the National Organization for Women, a familiar enough movement in the U.S. but a novelty in a country where women’s groups flourish but seldom work together in any unified fashion.

Like nearly every woman stepping beyond the bounds of convention, Ms. Syed pays a price. Fearful of physical attack, she does not let it be known where she sleeps at night. She recently moved her office from a highly visible vulnerable location to one less obvious.

She occasionally has tried wearing a burqa so she will not be recognized, but does so only with difficulty. “You have to bend a little like a woman,” says the very feminine Ms. Syed, who has been told that she “walks like a man.”

She also thinks like a man, at least when it comes to business. “Whatever men do, I want to do,” she says.

Nasrine Gross

Afghan-born Nasrine Gross, founder of the Roqia Center for Women’s Rights, Studies and Education, is typical of women with American roots who have come home since the Taliban years to try to make a difference.

One of a very few Afghan women who steadfastly refuse to wear a head scarf in public, she is a Muslim feminist and founder of a pioneering project that teaches literacy to couples.

Husbands and wives, whose ages range from 19 to more than 70, attend classes together for one year, a novelty in a country where the sexes seldom mingle in public with strangers. Classes begin as early as 5 a.m. so that the husbands can attend before going to work. Attendance is mandatory in order to cover the equivalent of three years of a literacy curriculum in one.

The Roqia Center, an officially registered civil society group founded in 2002, also runs other programs, but the education division is by far the most innovative, having begun as a course on math and language literacy for young people working as apprentices in local trades.

The classes use texts that advance the couples from first to fourth grade and eventually allow them to read signs, tell time and understand directions on medical prescriptions — vital skills for coping with everyday life.

For some, “it is the first time that a wife meets her husband’s buddies and the first time a husband meets his wife’s girlfriend,” Ms. Gross says. “Sometimes the wife is smart and learns faster. Her husband sees this and says, ‘OK, there are things I can do better, too.’ The wife gets to see her husband differently.” No more than 10 couples meet at a time, “so they can get comfortable and talkative,” she explains.

Early on, the program was considered a front for religious proselytizing, so unusual was its goal. In the seven years since, she has worked with more than 600 adults.

“People are so thirsty for learning,” she says. “They realize they have been played with so many times in society and it will keep happening unless they acquire knowledge.” In one instance, she says, a husband who had gone through the course was able to write a love letter to his wife for the first time.

Razia Jan

Getting women to attend school regularly in their early years is key to any future development, experts agree. To that end, Razia Jan’s Ray of Hope Foundation and the Abdul Majeed Zabuli Girls School she built in a poor rural area 15 miles outside Kabul are exemplary.

Ms. Jan, a former small business owner who has a residence in Duxbury, Mass., as well as in Kabul, first appealed for help from her Rotary Club in Duxbury. The result was seed money to start what is now a sturdy two-story elementary school where eight teachers educate more than 100 girls, ages 4 to 13.

The initial cost of $150,000 was relatively small, but she still collects annual sponsor donations of $250 to continue the work and eventually expand the school, perhaps adding an adult education center for women.

“I want it to be endowed for 100 years,” Ms. Jan says.

One of her early appeals went to Afghan-born author Khalid Hosseini — best known for his book “The Kite Runner” — without telling him initially that his wife was Ms. Jan’s niece. He since has become a loyal supporter, speaking at fundraisers on the school’s behalf.

There have been many challenges along the way. One of the first, successfully negotiated in spite of lingering doubts about the value of educating girls, was to establish a working relationship with a much larger boys religious school run by a mosque across the street.

Until the day her school was to open, the mullah urged her to reconsider and open it for boys instead. “Boys are the backbone of the country’s future,” he told her. “Girls are the light, and you are blind,” she replied. “And we are going to give you some sight.”

One of her teachers, Neelab Sameer, a married teenager and mother, had asked her fiance to give his consent to let her work at the school instead of paying the usual “bride price” owed by a groom.

One student is the daughter of an abused wife who, in desperation, killed her husband with an ax and ran away, leaving the child in care of a sister. The girl, now 13, is engaged to an older boy whose consent had to be sought in order for her to go to school. He gave it on grounds that it’s better to have a wife whose education, however limited, enables her to get a job and support a family; he wasn’t showing promise of being able to do so. Thus do rigid social mores slowly change.

Ms. Jan also is the Kabul program director for a six-year-old Chicago-based organization called Arzu (“hope” in Dari, one of Afghanistan’s two official languages) whose motto might well be “buy a rug and save a life.” Arzu (www.arzurugs.org), whose founder and CEO is a former Goldman Sachs managing partner, provides for the welfare of 200 female weavers and their families in two remote communities where jobs and skills are in short supply.

Many of the women must support their children and husbands who are disabled from war wounds or unable to find work. To circumvent a traditional practice in which all earnings are controlled by the husband, Arzu makes separate payments to husband and wife in the belief the women are more likely to spend it wisely.

The program also provides health care and basic literacy classes to the weavers, whose rugs of naturally dyed hand-spun wool are considered among the nation’s finest. Each rug comes with a name and the story of the weaver who wove it from both traditional and modern patterns.

The literacy classes take place on a regular basis in the villages’ mud-brick homes. More than 200 families are involved, and as many as 2,000 family members are affected directly and indirectly.

“I am so happy that I can read and write,” Laila Hossaindad, one of Arzu’s weavers, told Ms. Jan not long ago. “It makes me powerful.”

Women in politics

These three are not, by any means, the only dedicated Afghan-born women who are using their special training and connections to help rebuild their homeland. Another is Homaira Jalali, the wife of former government minister and presidential candidate Ali Ahmed Jalali, who oversees the care of crippled and mentally retarded young people neglected by their own families and the state, keeping track of hundreds of “cases” on her home computer.

Others are taking advantage of new opportunities to participate in the nation’s political life.

During her visit to Afghanistan in late June, Ms. Verveer said she was pleased at the number of women who were running as candidates in this month’s presidential and provincial council elections.

In many cases, council seats were reserved specifically for women, helping them to increase their numbers. The handful who ran in the presidential election, however, were not taken seriously, however much they trumpeted the potential of female strength.

There is a minister of women’s affairs, and Mr. Karzai has made much of such appointments. However, she is almost never included in meetings with other Cabinet members, even when the issue at hand is of primary concern to women.

“Afghans are much more accepting of women working and playing leadership positions if they believe it is a natural outgrowth of their own society and not an outgrowth of Western leadership,” says Mr. Their, the director of the Future of Afghanistan Project.

Mr. Pazhwak, the USIP program officer, says he believes Afghanistan could make progress against the endemic corruption that has become a hallmark of government if there were more women in senior government posts.

“There are women politicians who are equally corrupt as men because the system is corrupt,” he acknowledges. But, he says, “Power corrupts, and most power is in the hands of men.”

• Ann Geracimos can be reached at agericamos@washingtontimes.com.

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