Afghan women reveal tenacity 
Kathleen Parker 
From: The Australian 
March 20, 2010 12:00AM 

IF your impression of an Afghan woman is of a shapeless, frightened form 
engulfed in metres of heat-trapping fabric, you haven't met Shafiqa Quraishi. 
Make that Colonel Quraishi, who earned her title as one of 900-plus female 
members of the Afghan National Police. 

Quraishi, who is director of gender, human and child rights within the Afghan 
Ministry of the Interior, was one of nine women in Washington to receive the 
International Women of Courage Award from Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.

She and fellow Afghan award recipient Shukria Asil met members of the US-Afghan 
Women's Council to discuss ways to help women and children struggling for 
rights and security.

Whatever you think you know about Afghanistan, the reality is probably far 
better - and far worse. And though burkas are still worn by many, they are less 
visible these days on city streets as women assume new roles.

Speaking through translators, the two women reiterated a dominant theme: "We 
are not victims."

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Yes, of course, many have been victimised by brutal regimes in some cases, or 
by cultural forces, or by men who have hijacked religion to justify actions 
that would be treated as crimes in our part of the world. But these women are 
not seeking restitution; they are seeking empowerment. This is a crucial 
distinction that underscores the courage they display in the routine 
machinations of everyday life.

I heard the "not victims" refrain a day earlier from another group of women - 
from Bahrain, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Kenya, Brazil and Haiti - here to be 
honoured by Vital Voices Global Partnership, an organisation that works to 
empower female leaders and social entrepreneurs around the world.

Vital Voices, which grew out of the UN's Fourth World Conference on Women in 
1995, focuses on advancing women as a US foreign policy goal. Translation: 
empowering women will lead to greater prosperity and world peace.

One cannot sit and talk with these women and escape inspiration. On one end of 
the spectrum is Afnan al-Zayani, a CEO from Bahrain who leads the Middle East 
and North Africa Businesswomen's Network. On the other is Rebecca Lolosoli, 
matriarch of Kenya's Umoja Village, an all-women's community she created to 
support women, girls, orphans and widows who had been abandoned by their 
families or were fleeing domestic violence, forced marriage or genital 

But, again, they refuse to be victims.

Roshaneh Zafar, who founded the first microfinance organisation in Pakistan 
focusing on low-income women, is adamant on this point. She doesn't want to be 
rescued (nor does she have any interest in apologising for her religion). "Like 
all women everywhere, we want to be empowered," she says.

Quraishi's immediate goal is to expand the number of women in the police force 
to 5000.

Hers is a daunting task in part because of cultural barriers. Both men and 
women have to be convinced that policework and other non-traditional 
professions are "respectable" for a woman. Before women can become 
professionals, they have to be educated. Only 30 per cent of Afghan girls 
attend school, in part because of the danger but also because of poverty.

Children are needed to work, if they are not already heads of household, as 
many are. Asil says that with $US100 ($108) a month, a child can feed his 
family. But where does one get that kind of money in a nation struggling to 
reinvent basic institutions?

Washington Post Writers Group

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