In war-ravaged Afghanistan, Mary Akrami is a brave woman who teaches other women how to break out of their chains. In an old bus-like Tunis car, Akrami drives the dusty road between Peshawar in Pakistan and Kabul to meet women and help them resurrect their lives. Akrami did not ever dream that she would become a social activist, but her life changed after a bomb tore through her house in Kabul, instantly killing her father and mother. That was during the Mujahadeen war of 1991.
The Soviet invasion in 1979 was a disaster for Afghanistan generally. But under the Russians, at least women's rights were protected. More women came into government, and were given an authority many men found unnerving. But after the Soviet pullout, things became worse - especially for women.
Afghan warlords brought terror to the urban neighborhoods and villages they laid claim to. Young, undisciplined fighters treated women as plunder. Rape became commonplace. Civil war broke out among factions of the victorious anti-Soviet resistance. And with the triumph of the Taliban in 1996, conditions were in place for a final degradation of Afghan women.
Born in Kabul, Akrami worked as an administrative assistant; she left Kabul just before the Taliban took control of the capital. Thousands of women like her fled to Peshawar in Pakistan. They had no job, no income, and no hope. But gradually they began to piece their lives together. Under Akrami's initiative, those who did not know any English collected some money, borrowed a couple of writing desks and chairs and a typewriter.
She recalls: "Thus we began working to find jobs for refugee women. We got small donations from friends, sympathetic groups and other NGOs; students in a Philippine school sent us US $2000. We managed to expand our work slowly - working in the office or out in the villages and distant towns,
gathering womenfolk, talking to them, offering our schemes and help in getting work. We did all this voluntarily, without taking anything - well, there was nothing to take."
Later, with the help of Norwegian aid and Care International, the effort resulted in the formation of the Afghan Women Skills Development Centre (AWSDC). And Akrami continued to travel, meet women, and convince them of the advantages of education. She helped organize literacy classes, and sewing classes for girls interested in making a living that way. Akrami was in Kochi (Kerala) recently, to attend an international conference on gender equity in governance.
"In the early stages, we led women students to computer coaching centers and from whatever little money we had, we paid for their tuitions; the centers gave us a discount," says Akrami. And then, two years ago, when more aid money trickled in, AWSDC itself began computer classes for refugee
women - in Attack, a town four kilometers from Peshawar. Today, about 180 students have passed out from these classes; and more than 100 students - aged between 16 and 55 - are studying free of cost.
When Pakistan began pushing out Afghan refugees about two years ago, nearly 300,000 refugees returned to Kabul. And those who returned have raised tents in the capital. "It's unbelievably crowded these days. There are no buildings, only ruins. No shelters, no houses, nothing but rubble. Yet
people are living here, striving to rebuild their lives - it's a scramble for work, food, shelter, clothes. There's no electricity and no water."At this point Akrami breaks down, "It's impossible to explain how we live. I don't know what wrong we did to the world to suffer like this. Wherever I go, people whisper, 'Afghan lady'. We are like anyone else. Why should they stare at us like a different species? My generation has not experienced a normal life. We haven't seen peace. I'm 26 years old. For the past 23 years we have only seen bombings, killings, brutality, deaths and misery."
Even living on the edge, in strange lands, the women filled their lives with hope and virtue with the help of Koran. "We hold Holy Koran classes for the young and the aged. This is to understand Allah's true words. We don't want our women to be taught by some mullahs who interpret the Koran according to their interests. Nobody can cheat our women now by interpreting - or misinterpreting - the Koran.
"We want them to know their rights as well. For that we are also teaching them women's rights under Islam. The International Human Rights Law group also sends its activists to teach our students. We are making them aware of the world they live in. We are letting them say 'no' to violence of any kind. We help them grow as 'rights-conscious' people so that when they return to Afghanistan, they can build a sensible society, balanced and conscious of rights and wrongs."
Akrami doesn't wear the burka (veil). According to her, almost every educated woman in Afghanistan hates wearing it, as do many rural women, if you manage to speak to them where men cannot hear.
"Today, Islam is being portrayed as the villain. Man and woman are equal in Islam, with common rights. But it is the lack of knowledge or the acceptance of the distorted interpretations that have worked against women in Islam. Women don't have access to the rules or the rulemaking machinery.
This is true in Afghanistan too. Men translated these rules to the nation for their own benefit; the power is with men. Does Islam call upon the mankind to kill or capture lands?"
Akrami, like a few other brave women from her country, realizes that even ambitious Afghan women have tended to move away from political discussions, dismissing politics as something to do with men and guns. But now, they know that Afghan women badly need a political awakening. "Our women are brave, strong and stubborn. They only need to be taught the rules of life. They only need to be initiated into the functioning structure, so that they also can be independent and decisive factors in the act of nation-building."
The first shoots of a women's movement are unfurling in Kabul. In a few bullet-scarred apartments, women gather and plan strategies for their development - protest and political power are deliberated upon, with an acute awareness of the gravity of their situation. Next to education, women's health has suffered the worst consequences of religious rule. The life expectancy of an Afghan woman is only 44 years.
Akrami dreams of the day when Afghan women will stand up against the illnesses of its society and proclaim victory over strife, oppression and war. "It is a long way to go, I know," she says, "but we will get there by Allah's grace."