LAWRENCE: Afghan woman activist tells students to work for change

If there is one point Afghan activist Noorjahan Akbar wanted to make to the students at The Lawrenceville School, it is that they can be agents of change — in Afghanistan and anywhere the

By Lea Kahn, Staff Writer
   If there is one point Afghan activist Noorjahan Akbar wanted to make to the students at The Lawrenceville School, it is that they can be agents of change — in Afghanistan and anywhere they choose to help.
   ”You are going to be important in the future by virtue of having an excellent education. You have a lot ahead of you. We can all be agents of change. The world needs us, and I don’t mean that in a corny way,” Ms. Akbar told the students Friday morning.
   The 22-year-old Dickinson College senior is one of many young Afghan women whose education in the United States is being supported by the Afghan Girls Financial Assistance Fund. The group held its annual retreat at The Lawrenceville School Saturday.
   Established in 2008, the fund identifies promising young Afghan women, matches them with participating educational institutions and host families, and provides financial support for expenses not covered by the schools or families.
   Ms. Akbar told the students she is one of eight children, born to a family that valued education. The family left Afghanistan for Pakistan when the Taliban came into power, and returned in 2001. She attended school in Kabul, and later enrolled at The George School in Newtown, Pa., and then Dickinson College.
   Ms. Akbar outlined the burden of being a woman in a patriarchal society, where a majority of women face violence at home. There have been more than 50 “honor” killings this year, for alleged violations that reflect poorly on the family.
   Women have complained that they cannot go to school or marry for love, she said. Many women are forced to give birth to the children of a man for whom they have no feelings. Many women are child brides, she said.
   But when women’s voices are unified, they can be powerful, Ms. Akbar said. She has tried to bring those voices together through Young Women for Change. She co-founded the nonprofit advocacy group for Afghan women in 2011.
   Young Women for Change made her realize “we can connect with other women and even bring men into it,” she said, adding that her first protest march — in 2011 — included men and women. The march sought to emphasize that the streets belong to women, as well as men, she said.
   There has been support for the movement from men, she said. Some of her best friends and supporters are men, she said, adding that “I personally don’t think I could do it without them.” They have participated in protests and distributed posters.
   ”So much of the news that you are going to get is one-sided,” Ms. Akbar said. Women cannot drive, they cannot walk alone and there is violence against them. While all of that is true, she said, “what I am trying to give you is another perspective.”
   There are women in powerful positions in Afghanistan who can serve as role models for young women, Ms. Akbar said. There is a woman editor and a woman mayor, and a growing number of women who are participating in government. There are women lawyers and business people, as well as a woman actress, she said.
   More girls are attending school, Ms. Akbar said. The Afghan government is in the process of passing family law that gives women 90 days of maternity leave, for example. There is a woman’s basketball team, and 3,000 women are serving in the military — including some in combat roles, she said.
   The challenge is that more political support is needed for women’s rights, she said. Women need to talk to each other and create alliances and a sense of solidarity. There is a new wave of women like herself, she said, who realize that the status quo is unacceptable and who are not afraid to stand up.
   ”I think our numbers are increasing daily. There is no coherent movement (to smash the patriarchal society), but slowly, the seeds of change — empowerment — are growing inside of people,” Ms. Akbar said.
   Ms. Akbar said she is fearful of what may occur when American troops are finally withdrawn from Afghanistan, but at the same time, the country cannot depend on foreigners for help. Martin Luther King Jr. and Susan B. Anthony did not depend on foreign aid, she pointed out.
   When she was asked by a student how the United States can help fight for women’s rights in Afghanistan, Ms. Akbar replied that “the first thing I tell most people is to learn” about what is going on and talk to others about it.
   Knowledge can be used to discuss the issues with Congress, she said, adding “that kind of political knowledge is power.” She encouraged the students to search for information online and on social media sites.
   ”(You need to) create a buzz. I think that will go a very long way,” Ms. Akbar said.