Monday, June 5, 2017

Building Confidence

Hasina Safi is the Director, of the Afghan Women's Network. With an outstanding velocity, starting from the membership of Afghan Women Network (AWN), interred the right platform to expand and continue to her struggle all the way. She has been one of the strategic advocators for women’s rights, representing civil society and Afghan women in national, regional and international events such as Peace consultation Jirga, traditional Jirga, London Conference, Kabul Conference, SOM etc. She is a great supporter of education; she believes quality education is the key solution towards the sustainability of a nation. Her journey towards success never lacked challenges – not something to doubt about an Afghan woman’s life. She also believes in a balanced professional and personal life. Here is her story in her own words. 

I was born on 10 December, 1975, in an open minded, educated and religious family in Afghanistan.I was five when we immigrated to Pakistan due to the Soviet War in Afghanistan. I was educated there, and went to school. At that time, though there was no school for Afghan refugees separately, so I went to Pakistani girls’ school. After that, the first refugee school for girls’, called the Nahed-e-Shaheed Girl’s High School was established, so I was transferred there.Then, I went there till high school and gave the university entry exam, passed to medicine, and studied for one year, but because of the lack of technical medical sessions within the university, I planned to change my field to teaching and teacher training.

About working for women, this was something that was a part of my body from my birth. From a very early age admired my mother for being so calm, strong within and growing us up in a very practical way, which I guess most mothers do. I was the first girl in my family, very warmly welcomed by the whole family, not only mother and grandmother, but also father, brothers and uncles. As a result of that, I was the first girl who went to formal school. There was always mutual respect in the family, respect to elders and kindness to younger ones within the whole family. As an elder daughter and girl in the family, my family members always encouraged me; in fact, I was quite close to my father.Perhaps that was my tryst with activism, because I was always expected to do more and to be more than my age and my physical appearance. I always thought we had to help each other, live in a very happy environment and work together. This was the kind of family value system I was inculcated with – to respect each other, to support each other and to be very dedicated to each other through mutual respect. We would always discuss the daily issues as a family, in order to cope with the challenges outside home.

Through that developmental focus, and also my own enthusiasm, perhaps, and maybe eagerness to do something, I always spent time repeating the news that I heard on television, after the newsreader. I was very interested in English. I would take my book and read and hear my voice and feel very happy that I had a good accent. It was my earliest opportunity at a time when Afghan refugee women were allowed to go and be part of the broader development circle of the community, that I started taking English classes as a student. For two years or so, I did an intensive diploma course, and then continued onwards for a six-month intensive English language and teacher-training course at the International Rescue Committee (IRC). That gave me confidence. They wanted to have the students of the batches continue with them as teachers.I wanted to give back and be a teacher, but, because of my age, I couldn’t go forth with that – and they didn’t want to let go of me for the sake of a mere technicality, because they did invest in me and I had the skills, so they retained me as a librarian. That was how I started my work – as a librarian at age fifteen. During that job I planned several activities such as reading, listening, speaking and discussing. Since it was English as a second language, most of the students were teenagers and adults from different fields such as doctors, engineers, teachers etc. 

Being a fifteen-year-old librarian helping adults, it was sometimes frustrating, some students would make fun of my age, calling me a kindergarten teacher, which really made me feel low, since I knew, I was young, but I didn’t know how to take it as a strength, until, I took it home and discuss it with my father; the moment I started discussing it with him, the tears began to flow. He looked at me and told me, “Be proud of what you do. You are fifteen and you are teaching teachers, doctors and women in other fields who are 25, 35 and 45 years of age!” I had really never, thought of the other side of it. After that, I realized what I was doing was not very common in that age, that realization was a fundamental confidence building step in my personality. I have always worked with women for women, since then. However, I still didn’t know about violence, domestic violence and the like. I had a development-oriented mindset base on my experience of working in the education field. I knew that women could contribute, could go to school, be educated and educate, and participate until entered the new era. In the year 1998, I got married;my brother picked up on my enthusiasm and told me that I could be more than what I was doing and my husband supported, whereas, I thought the best way to support was teaching. 

Without, consulting me, my brother sent my CV to the women economic empowerment pillar of DACAR; a Danish organization working for Afghan refugees in Pakistan.They called me for an interview, topped in the interview for a practical exam about computer knowledge. I had no knowledge of computers to the extent that I didn’t even know how to hold a mouse, or what a cursor was??? The person in charge came in, gave us each instructions to type a memo up, to see our typing speed. I got up and returned the instruction paper to the lady and apologized for not knowing how to use a computer. She looked at me and said, “You don’t know how to use a computer?” I said”yes”. She asked me if I had fingers. I said yes. She asked if I can see the alphabets on the keyboard. I said I could. She told me to use my fingers and start typing. I told her that I was there to be evaluated for the speed of my typing – but she told me to go ahead. A week later, after they did a reference check, I got the job, as an administrator. This was another huge confidence-building step in my life, because a woman I had not known at all helped me, and she supported me through a simple act of encouragement. This was the step, where I entered the ground realities of women refugee, facing problems and issues in the camps, apart form contributing in development initiatives.

In 2000, I found out more about their issues. At the center I was working at, widows did hand-embroidery work, tailoring, and the center was exhibiting them for sale at a showroom, and the profit was given to women in camps based on their own work. I met these women, talked to widows, met mentally hurt women, very brave and very weak women. I found out that women are beaten and are widowed, and face a lot of problems – not only the lack of education. Until then, I thought life was beautiful; we always had books, food, and television and went on picnics. But when I came here, I really saw how difficult it was for a mother of seven or eight without a husband, forced to earn for her family by using one needle in her hand. Some women served the family, earned for them and then, were beaten by their addicted husbands. That’s how I got involved with problems that women faced. Not the movement for women’s rights, yet. I was one of the individuals, who saw all these problems, and I really felt internally that I wanted to help them and I started my work wholeheartedly in higher and higher positions. That is how I got involved with women’s problems. I felt very happy when I helped them, because it felt like I was directly helping them.

Meanwhile, we were following up the hardships women were facing in Afghanistan during the Taliban regime through media; stopping them from schools, universities, jobs, social activities etc.…It was a terrible situation for women. After Taliban were attacked by US, people came to Afghanistan and so did my family.

My father encouraged us to give back to our country. The reason we had immigrated to Peshawar, Pakistan was because my father would say that the wind of Afghanistan comes here. In the 1980s and 1990s, there were large-scale migrations from Afghanistan to western countries, but we never attempted for it, since we wanted to be a contributor to standing up with our beautiful country Afghanistan. With pride, today, I can say that all of us siblings are busy in our country for our own people.

In 2004, I started working with IOM for Out of Country Voting and Registration for the presidential election in Pakistan for refugees, because that was the first Presidential Election in Afghanistan.
In 2005, I had returned to Afghanistan after 1980 – twenty-five years later. Through, the coordination of my brother-in-law, I got connected to an organization called AWEC – Afghan Women’s Education Center. This organization was one of the founding members of Afghan Women’s Network (AWN) working in the field of education as a priority.

I did not formally know about a very known advocacy - meaning, that I had no idea, I was into advocacy. I was not an advocate with any agenda but the belief that I was there because I wanted to do what I was doing for women. As women, I would always want to find solutions to the identified problems to help women back. I started as a capacity building manager. With all the things I learned, I was in the middle of the women’s movement. In the meetings I went to, I saw the other faces of several issues in Afghanistan – I had learned about development, and then violence, and then I heard about themes like the constitution, resolution and conventions. I learned a lot – so, at this point, it was about me entering the women’s movement.

In 2005, I entered the women’s movement at what I call the basement – it was a huge learning process for me. It was a network a group of women with a common vision and a drive to work towards it. Next, I became an AWN member as an individual, and began to learn about the connectivity of the issues on the ground and laws, policies and frameworks for women. Being a member through networking and sharing experiences learned about the different contextual issues of women within the country within the various geographical locations. Following that I was honored to be the elected board member for AWN for two terms (four years).

In 2006, I went to Sri Lanka, where I met a Gender Mainstreaming Group, and learned that women in the region had problems too. Following that I participated in various conferences and forms in the region and the world, where I met women from the different countries. I saw the concept at play – women are women wherever they are. They have problems wherever they are – but the face of the problem is what is different, due to the differences in the traditional and contextual frameworks.

From 2013 till date I am serving as executive director of Afghan Women’s Network and an advisor to the High Peace Council in Afghanistan formally. Besides, that I contribute in several other committees and boards relevant to women empowerment.

In my journey so far, I have not had any direct threats. I have always worked with people – grass-root and policy levels, however, indirect threats yes. The mob killing of Farkhunda was a very huge moral threat not only to me but also to the entire women movement and Afghan people.

Thank you for taking the time and write up, as I indicated earlier, we always need each other’s support. I value what you are doing, because as a woman through this piece of writing you are helping out with more and more confidence-building steps (where I started from, and where I am today – through this journey, I have always had  very strong woman along with me; of course committed men as my family, friends and colleagues).We ought to contribute without any expectations today, thus we have the reward, the way we aim it.