It was a truly remarkable event on Thursday that brought dozens of girls in traditional Afghan dress to fashionable lower Manhattan, where they shepherded gala sponsors to the top floor of Tribeca 360. Afghan handcrafts, lapis jewelry, and large photo images of Afghanistan’s stunning mountain vistas and smiling children were set out for the evening’s festivities and silent auction, a sharp contrast against the angular, urban backdrop of towering skyscrapers and the Hudson River. An Army major in mess dress browsed in front of a display of photos of smiling troops in Afghanistan. Women in headscarves and bearded men wearing karakul hats mingled with fellow New Yorkers and other supporters of Women for Afghan Women. The 12th Anniversary Gala for Women for Afghan Women brimmed with energy and brought together an array of people united in one cause: helping Afghan women.
The gala is Women for Afghan Women’s largest annual fundraising event, and we were pleased to join in. The crowd buzzed as everyone took their seats and talked with the interesting people seated at their tables–we sat with an older couple who spent many months traveling Afghanistan in the late 1960s and early 70s. The woman was an academic expert on Afghan rugs and traditional handcrafts, and the man had served as a mentor to the dean of an engineering college in Kabul, and they spoke of what a beautiful, enchanting country Afghanistan had been–and could be again. I told them that it is still an amazingly beautiful country–thirty years of war have been devastating, but war cannot destroy everything.
The crowd was still buzzing as Imam Akbar Sherzad took the podium, his white prayer cap gleaming in the spotlights. He stood calmly, looking out at the crowd as it slowly fell silent. Then he opened the evening by singing out the Arabic words, “Bismillah al Rahman al Rahim”–reminding me of the Afghan National Army officers I knew back in Gardez who would say these words at the beginning of any formal address: “In the name of God, most Gracious, most Compassionate.” I learned the beauty and sincerity of this phrase from those excellent men I worked with, and I was warmed to hear these words so beautifully sung. Imam Sherzad sang a prayer of blessing for the evening, and he went on to speak in Dari his own words of thanks for those who supported Women for Afghan Women. A young girl in Afghan dress translated his words into English. He also recited a verse from the Koran that translates:
O you who have believed, it is not lawful for you to inherit women by compulsion. And do not make difficulties for them in order to take [back] part of what you gave them unless they commit a clear immorality. And live with them in kindness. For if you dislike them – perhaps you dislike a thing and Allah makes therein much good.
This was a powerful introduction to an event that gave compelling testimony to the realities of the struggles of women and children in Afghanistan, the Afghan men and women who are working tirelessly to help them, and why it is so important for us to support this work–especially as Afghanistan approaches a major transition after the withdrawal of most NATO and U.S. troops in 2014. It seems to me that the Taliban has gained far too much ground in their propaganda war, convincing many Americans that Islam condones the Taliban’s treatment of women (it doesn’t), that the hopes and dreams of Afghan women come from western women pushing feminism on them (they’re not), and that the west should negotiate away the basic human rights for women in order to reduce violence and bring stability to Afghanistan (we must not). You could not sit through this evening’s speakers and believe there to be any shred of truth to the Taliban’s lies.
The host for the evening was Abigail Disney, great-niece of Walt Disney, who is an award-winning documentary filmmaker and human rights advocate. Video messages from Christiane Amanpour and Hillary Clinton emphasized how critical it is to empower women and children in Afghanistan to participate in their country’s future. Eleanor Smeal took the stage and made an impassioned call to action, saying, “Fighting from here is a lot easier than fighting for women’s rights in Afghanistan. We must not desert Afghan women.”
It is one thing to hear American women speaking in support of Afghan women, but it is another thing to hear directly the stories of Afghan women. Women for Afghan women is the largest (and virtually the only) provider of women’s shelters in Afghanistan, and all of their staff in country is Afghan. One third of their staff are Afghan men who believe in women’s equality and are willing to risk their lives to help women and children who have suffered violence, rape, and imprisonment to survive and rebuild their lives. The individual stories are breathtaking: a girl struck with an axe fifteen times because she wanted to leave her 65-year-old abusive husband; children imprisoned along with their mothers for no tangible crime; women and girls sold by their families to abusive men.
Nilab Nusrat, an Afghan teenager, took the stage, smiling and saying: “You all wanted to hear Fawzia Koofi tonight. But don’t worry–I am here.” (Koofi had to remain in Kabul because of her ongoing push of a bill in the Afghan parliament to curtail violence against women.) Nusrat told her own story of being imprisoned along with her mother as a child because there was no one else to care for her, which is all too common in Afghanistan. She was removed from the prison by one of Women for Afghan Women’s child support centers as part of their broader effort to eliminate the imprisonment of children over the age of 5 countrywide. She is now a junior in high school in the U.S., and she hopes to go to college in the U.S. and then return to Afghanistan as a leader. You can see more of Nusrat’s story here.
The evening included many other distinguished speakers and presenters, traditional Afghan music, and a live auction hosted by Nicholas Dawes of Antiques Roadshow. But the true highlight of the evening was the painstaking work being done on the ground by Afghans, for Afghans, in Afghanistan at this critical moment in Afghanistan’s history. Abigail Disney closed the evening by saying, “Our common enemy is despair. What we need is the radical optimism these Afghan women show us every day.” Will we stand up to help with this important work?
If you’d like to learn more about Women for Afghan Women and how to get involved, click HERE.