Today is the 101st anniversary of International Women’s Day. It’s not a holiday I recognized or knew about until I started working with international students. The many young women from around the world who I have met these past several years have given me great cause to celebrate such an occasion.
My celebration started early by attending a lecture by Zainab Salbi on Tuesday. Salbi is an activist and social entrepreneur who founded Women for Women International. Her story, her vision and her work are a testament to the strength of women and the difference women can make in each other’s lives and the lives of our global community.
I attended Salbi’s lecture in the company of some amazing young women – emerging leaders… the activists and ambassadors of our future. These four young women are past and present Youth Exchange & Study (YES) scholarship students from Afghanistan, Yemen and Thailand. They represent my hope for a better world. Anita, from Afghanistan, is an alumna from the 2007-2008 YES group and spent her exchange year in California. She is now a sophomore at Mount Holyoke College and a scholarship recipient of the Initiative to Educate Afghan Women (IEAW). Today, while celebrating women… I’d like to celebrate Anita.
I have known of Anita for 4 1/2 years – but the lecture was my first opportunity to meet her face-to-face. Eleven months ago, Anita and her new friend, Noorjahan, co-founded Young Women for Change (YWC). This fledgling non-profit has accomplished the most amazing things in less than a year. With over 3,000 fans on Facebook, their posts alone are a constant flurry of activity in my newsfeed. But these young women go beyond talking, dreaming and social networking about the changes they envision. They are true changemakers, mounting a long list of achievements.
Their latest accomplishment was celebrated today to coincide with International Women’s Day. Today was the grand opening of YWC’s first women-only internet cafe – the first in Afghanistan. The cafe was named after Sahar Gul, a 15 year old Afghan girl who was forced into an arranged marriage and tortured by her in-laws for refusing to become a prostitute. YWC is already working on plans for more women-only internet cafes in the country.
Anita, a film studies major at Mount Holyoke, is a very busy young woman. She returned to Afghanistan during her December break to finish filming a documentary on street harrassment entitled “This Is My City Too”. Her first screening was used as a fundraising and public awareness event for YWC in Kabul shortly before she returned to the U.S. to begin her spring semester. Anita also hosts her own weekly world music radio program on campus called “We Play it All”. She was instrumental in the formation of a new Afghan club at school and is active in many other activities.
In the short time Anita and I were together, she was called by the Voice of America to arrange to be interviewed regarding a new resolution which has the potential to impose severe restrictions on Afghan women. A while later, another colleague called to schedule time to work with Anita on organizing a Spring conference for Afghan students studying in the U.S. The other girls who joined us for the lecture invited Anita to speak at a coffee club event they will be hosting with an Amnesty International club at their school – an event that will raise money for an unrelated project in northern Afghanistan. In the midst of all these projects and activities, Anita’s midterm exams are just around the corner. Frankly, I was more impressed by Anita on Tuesday than I was by Zainab Salbi who, at more than twice Anita’s age, has received a bounty of awards, including the world’s largest humanitarian award, the Conrad Hilton Humanitarian Prize.
The vision and passion of Anita and Noorjahan has created a vibrant grassroots movement in Afghanistan. The members of YWC and their counterparts in the newly formed YWC Male Advocacy group have been busy. Some of their projects include: an art exhibition and poster sale to raise funds for the internet cafe; an organized march called “Advocacy for Dignity” against street harassment; documentary screenings and discussions; lectures and educational awareness campaigns; two poster competitions to promote equal rights for Afghan women and to encourage voices against violence; a book drive; literacy and English classes; aid distribution to refugee camps; and a grant funded research project on street harassment.
On our way back to Mount Holyoke after the lecture, Anita told me about a poem she had written. It’s a beautiful expression of the pain that motivates Anita to work toward a better life – not just for herself, but for all of Afghanistan. It is posted below with her permission.
It really HURTS
It hurts to see, an Afghan girl’s burns as a new market issue
It hurts to see, every Afghan’s emotions used for personal benefits
It hurts to see, every part of Afghan culture becoming a scary picture of humanity
It hurts to see, my country begging others
It hurts to see, my religion labeled as founder of terror
It hurts to see, people saying Afghans have nothing
It hurts to see, those people making their living from “Afghans have nothing”
It hurts to see, each and every hungry Afghan face as a new key to personal business
It hurts to see, every sweat of a person sold in thousand dollars when they live on one dollar a day
It hurts to see, teachers saying Afghans can never be a nation
It hurts to see, him saying it will never change
It hurts to see, that everyone has used every part of us.
It hurts to see, when there is discussion of countries and my country doesn’t count
It hurts to see, every Afghan dream break a part
It hurts to see, myself hopeless and fearful
It hurts to see, when seeking help and find people empty
It hurts to see, my words don’t mean anything even to me
It hurts to see, when I can see but cannot reach even close to help
It hurts to see, my broken history
It hurts to see, even myself losing hope
It hurts to see, no certainty for future
It hurts to see, what I can see
Anita is an inspiration for young women around the world. I think of Anita when I think of my favorite quote from Zainab Salbi’s lecture. Salbi said, “women are the bellwether for the direction of society.” And later Salbi quoted Rumi, “Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing, there is a field. I’ll meet you there.” Rise up ladies. If we’re the sheep that lead the flocks, we have a lot of work to do. Humanity has gotten a little lost and we must help them to find Rumi’s field.