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Rising Afghan Women Leaders Initiative

March 25, 2014 by Anita McBride

“I inherited the dream of an education from my mother”, said Naheed Farid, one of 22 Afghan women who participated in the recent US-Afghan Women’s Council Rising Afghan Women Leaders Initiative (RAWLI), an intensive training workshop offered by Georgetown University’s Executive Leadership Academy and held at Georgetown’s campus in Doha, Qatar.  RAWLI was designed to advance a core pillar of the US-Afghan Women’s Council’s (USAWC) mission to promote leadership development for women. 

The USAWC was launched by President George W. Bush in 2002 to mobilize public and private sector resources in support of Afghan women and children in the critical areas of education, health, economic empowerment, and leadership development.  The USAWC has been housed at Georgetown University’s Center for Child and Human Development since 2009, under the leadership of Dr. Phyllis Magrab, director of the Center and the USAWC’s Vice Chair.  Laura Bush has been a stalwart and committed member of the Council since its inception, serving first as the Council’s Honorary Chair, and currently as an Honorary Co- Chair with Hillary Clinton.  The continued support of these two former first ladies is an important reminder for the Afghan women that their hard work and courage in answering the call to be leaders in their country is recognized and valued.

At the Initiative’s opening session, the participants were asked to explain what drives them in their personal leadership journey.   Naheed Farid explained how her mother’s dreams were interrupted when the Soviets invaded Afghanistan in 1979, and she was forced to marry and move to Iran.  Fulfilling her mother’s dream is a motivating factor for Farid’s vision of an educated Afghanistan with a promising future – “a new era, painted with new faces, with ability and authority, leading the change”. 

Farid is from Herat Province and lived for two years in the women’s dormitory established by Laura Bush in 2003 at Kabul University.  It was designed to be a safe place for women to live while they receive an education.  Farid’s parents did not want her to go to school in Kabul but living in the women’s dorm made them more comfortable.  Farid explained that every day she passed by the photos of Mrs. Bush visiting the dormitory in 2005.     She also recalled her experience visiting the Afghan Parliament in 2006.   She was excited by the fact that Afghans from all over the country have a voice through elected representatives.  The experience helped to drive a dream of her own.

In August 2010, with support from her husband and family and the Women’s Democracy Network at the International Republican Institute, Farid ran for office and became the youngest person elected to Afghan Parliament.    “I want my 4 year old daughter to know about equality and the ability she has to raise her voice”, she told the group.  “I want to be a strong leader and secure that vision of a future for her, and all Afghan youth by being courageous and consistent and staying focused on a message.” Recently, she secured a commitment from the Afghan government and funding from international donors to build a women’s dormitory at Herat University. 

Like Farid sharing her story, this RAWLI training was a “safe space” for participants to share experiences, learn and set goals, pursue strategies, hear from peers, get suggestions, and adapt to change for themselves and ultimately their country.   It was also particularly empowering for the 22 Afghan participants, to be joined by six American graduate students and mid-career professionals from Georgetown University from diverse fields.  The Afghan women were proud to offer their support to the development of their American sisters’ personal and professional leadership skills.  It was one of the many reminders throughout this training of how far the Afghan women have come in such a short time. 

 Jacqueline Snell, a student development officer at Georgetown’s Qatar campus, shared how beneficial the small group sessions were to her as the Afghan participants used examples from their experiences to help her work through challenges she faces.  Michaella Seaman, who is studying Global Business and Finance in Georgetown University’s Masters of Science in Foreign Service, said, “I am in a very transitional moment in my career, I have goals, passion and great potential, but I wasn’t sure how to get from A to B. This week I felt accepted, encouraged and guided by the Afghan women and through this leadership training I have re-clarified my purpose and developed some of the leadership skills I need to achieve my goals. “   Michaella is co-President of Georgetown’s Middle East and North Africa Forum and previously served as a special assistant to the Afghan Ambassador in Washington.  When I asked her about her interest in foreign policy and Afghanistan in particular, she explained her personal connection to helping Afghanistan that developed after her father, Michael Seaman, died on September 11, 2001.  Seaman worked in the Cantor Fitzgerald office in the World Trade Center. The lives of Michaella’s family and many of the families in her Long Island community were changed forever that day.  For Michaella, the experience fueled her interest in the Middle East and led her to a career in international affairs.

In a workshop exercise designed to elicit the women’s thoughts on how one becomes a leader, many of the Afghans believed that leadership is “genetic” (inherited) rather than “learned” (i.e. you can study leadership and learn to be a leader).   Khadija Sherzad, an MBA student at the American University of Afghanistan and an employee of the US Embassy in Kabul working on women’s rights,   assigned the greatest weight to the genetic model and said “I was never encouraged to be a leader, I was taught to be a follower.” 

By the end of the week, Sherzad and her colleagues learned that “leadership potential exists in everyone,” a comment made by Farestha Qasim, owner of the Royal Printing Press company (the only woman-owned printing press in Afghanistan) and a graduate of USAWC member Terry Neese’s Peace Through Business program.  Qasim was encouraged by how much she learned in the training and not just from the program content in the binders – “I learned so much from everyone else”.   

The participants could see their way to a goal by “standing on each other’s shoulders” as was explained by Ellen Kagen, the Director of the Georgetown Leadership Academy and an expert in innovation and breakthrough strategies that sustain constructive change.   “You are pushing up against the status quo,” she told them, “if you weren’t getting resistance than you wouldn’t be making change – expect resistance and expect it to be hard – leadership is a process.”

These women are influenced by a culture and generation of war, and were denied opportunities for so long.  Khadija Sherzad, acknowledged however, that she does see the change that is happening in her country and it has started in her own family.  She talks about her teenage sisters - “they have a different family example than I had, my sisters have always been able to go to school.”” 

The ability to get an education and work has contributed to a more optimistic view they have of the future.  Family examples are important and almost all of the women referenced the impact a mother or a father had on them.  Farkhunda Naderi is also a member of the Afghan Parliament and represents Kabul province.  She offered up a personal example of the progress women are making in Afghanistan in one generation. “My mother was pessimistic about the future. She always told me the world is a dangerous place.  That made me an optimist,” she said.  

Mursal Rafi said she learned the value of honesty, and how to handle criticism, from her mother.  Rafi is managing director of a development consulting firm focused on institutional development and specifically education outcomes.  She was a project manager for Sesame Street’s workshop on early childhood education – a particular passion of hers.   “When I was growing up, my mother would tell me that whatever I was doing, I could do it better.”  Rafi explained that she came to realize that this was not a negative message, and she appreciates how that helps her in the workplace now.  “I can take criticism, it doesn’t bother me, I can work with it to do better”. 

Masuma Ibrahimi is the Director of the Afghan Cultural House, an organization that promotes arts and culture in Bamiyan.  She said she is “unafraid of change” but was reluctant to leave her husband to come to the RAWLI training in Qatar.   “At the airport, I almost did not get on the plane. My husband said I would regret it and pushed me to go,” she said.  Ibrahimi has just been awarded a Fulbright scholarship to the U.S. to get her MBA and will be making a tough decision to leave him behind for two years.  He is encouraging her to take the scholarship.   [The RAWLI program] “put me on the balcony”, she says, referring to Kagen’s strategy of looking at the big picture when contemplating decisions and giving her a bigger perspective of what she has to do.  “I am so grateful for the opportunity”, she says. “So many people have helped me – people I will never know  - I owe it to them.”

Farima Nawabi, a former Fulbrighter who earned her Master’s at the University of Mississippi, encouraged Ibrahimi and told her  how she is still close to many of her friends from “Ole Miss” and said “Americans changed my life.”  Nawabi is a promising young diplomat in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) and has benefitted from a U.S. program designed to strengthen female members of the Afghan diplomatic service.  She has been assuming more responsibility as she moves up in the Ministry and is getting ready to take up a new post for the MFA in Belgium. 

Angela Niazmand is an assistant registrar at the American University of Afghanistan and has aspirations of getting a Fulbright to an American university to study higher education administration.  Her leadership challenge at the RAWLI workshop focused directly on the lack of education standards for private versus public universities in Afghanistan and how it impacts the records and accreditation for graduating students.  She is passionate about education for Afghans and told me” education is the only way to get out of the darkness.”  Angela’s personal experience is compelling.  She was married at 15 and widowed at 17 with an 11-month-old child.  She taught Afghan literature in underground schools from 1996 to 2001 to support her and her daughter. Despite being caught several times, she never stopped teaching young Afghan children.  While working to support her daughter and herself she eventually put both of them through school.  Angela received her bachelor’s degree from AUAF two years ago and her daughter Sara will graduate this year from AUAF as well.

The Afghan MP Farkhunda Naderi commented on the resilience and confidence she sees in her Afghan sisters– “these are women of Afghanistan from different groups and interests learning together, building a network. This gives me more energy to go back home with strength and fight for more.”

The experience of being in the same training with Afghan Members of Parliament was not lost on Khoshboo Taleb, an acquisition assistant at USAID in Kabul.  “I had no idea what leadership meant.”  Now she was hearing from elected leaders in her government and listening to their challenges and how they adapt.  “I saw these MP’s on TV and I can’t believe I am here with them.”

All of the participants learned about the concept of “mental models” we have of ourselves and of each other, how people observe and hear you and how to adapt and change those models.  Shabbana Basij-Rasikh, president and founder of a nonprofit that provides education for young Afghans came to the RAWLI completely skeptical about how this training could help the Afghan participants – “how could two American professors understand our circumstances?”   She admits -  “I learned to change my mental model.” 

As was so well-stated by Mursal Rafi,  “we identified where our diversity intersects.”

Muzhgan Wafiq Alokazai said she learned many things from this program including the fact that she can’t change everyone but she can utilize the network of women she now knows – like MP Naheed Farid – to tackle some of the corrupt business practices she encountered in Afghanistan.  Alokazai is also a graduate of Council member Terry Neese’s Peace Through Business program and has been running small businesses since she was 19 years old.   The local government authorities took over her coffee shop business when they saw it was profitable.  She learned from the experience and considers justice to be her core value in her life and in her work.  She wants to develop a pilot program to train women entrepreneurs in best practices for a successful business including “trust and honesty” in business deals. 

Muzghan Alokazai learned the concept of “paying it forward” from Neese. “Professionalism is my goal”, she says.   Her business, the Impressive Consultancy Company, is focused on tackling the gap between the limited number of Afghans who possess technical and business management skills and the market demands for skilled labor.  She is co-owner of the company with her husband – an encouraging example of gender progress in the country that Council member Caroline Firestone applauded.  Through Firestone’s generosity, and support of Abbott Labs as well as many USAWC members who financed individual participants to attend the training, the RAWLI program will move forward and keep this network of women connected and mentored over time.   

 “We are building a network of problem solvers and we are not alone with our struggles” said Khadija Haidar, the general manager of the Afghan Institute of Learning (AIL) in Peshawar.  AIL was founded by USAWC member Dr. Sakeena Yacoobi and focuses on adult literacy skills.  Haidar is a lawyer and served on the Supreme Court in Kabul prior to the Taliban regime.   Afghan-American and Senior Advisor in the State Department’s Office of Global Women’s Issues, Lida Noory, served as one of the facilitators.  She sought to assure the group “you are not forgotten” – as American troops draw down from the country.

The youngest Afghan participant in the group, Wadia Samadi, enthusiastically endorsed the use of social media in getting the message of change out to not only Afghans but to the rest of the world that is skeptical about the progress made by Afghans.  Samadi is a graduate of the Institute to Educate Afghan Women and earned her Bachelor’s at the University of Richmond.  She works for an Afghan insurance company and is the creator of an Afghan website that shares up-to-date news on the Afghan business environment.   She explains how she was recently asked to write an article for BBC.com about “Afghan women’s challenges.”  “I thought about it and called then back and said no. I want to write about Afghan women’s accomplishments.”   They accepted her offer. 

At the end of the week’s training, the participants were applauded for their hard work with a graduation ceremony. The group pledged to start a “leadership campaign” using all the tools available in their networks, group discussions, and social media to share what they have learned.  They were a witness to transformation in the making and as one participant said “ when you are changed you don’t even realize you have changed – it becomes the norm.”

For the USAWC, it was a validation that our 12 years of uninterrupted support and investment in empowering Afghan women is yielding remarkable results.   USAWC Executive Director and U.S. Foreign Service Officer Lauren Lovelace remarked that, “the RAWLI event was transformative not only for we participants but also for the USAWC as a unifying, energizing, and deeply heartfelt initiative.”