Global Feminist Profiles highlights feminist leaders all over the world who are creating change and empowering their countrywomen to demand equality. GFPs run during the third week of each month. This month’s profile features Suraya Pakzad, an Afghan women’s rights activist.
As the Taliban movement continues to reassert its power in Afghanistan and President Obama faces the difficult task of determining the future of a US presence there, the country faces a protracted struggle for peace, democracy and equality. Hope can be found, however, with the local activists who are risking their lives to change the status quo. Suraya Pakzad is one such activist.
Last week the international women’s organization Peace X Peace (“Peace by Peace”) presented its first Women, Power and Peace Awards to four individuals who are promoting women’s rights around the globe. Suraya Pakzad, one of the award recipients, runs an organization that offers shelters for child brides and abused women. Her childhood was punctuated by experiences of deadly violence, as described by the Washington Post:
“Suraya Pakzad was 12 when she saw a gunman kill the headmistress of her Afghan school because the woman taught girls and refused to wear a headscarf. A few weeks later, a rocket smashed into the school and killed a student sitting near her, another warning for girls not to learn.”
Those atrocities seem to have struck Pakzad as more of a call to action than an impetus to abandon education. Ten years ago at the age of 29, Pakzad defied the Taliban’s prohibition against teaching girls to read by beginning to secretly tutor girls in her home. She soon founded the Voice of Women Organization, which created reading groups for women across Afghanistan and eventually grew to also provide services such as job training, medical care and legal support for women victims of violence. The organization has helped hundreds of women escape abuse and oppression.
Last year Pakzad was honored with the US State Department’s International Women of Courage award, and her organization received a grant from the UN Special Fund to Eliminate Violence Against Women. Earlier this year, she was recognized by Time magazine as one of its 100 most influential people of the year.
Pakzad puts her life on the line every day she continues her activist work—she has received death threats from extremists who have assassinated several prominent women and men in recent years. She has six children, and she says at times it is hard for them to understand the urgency of her work. In an interview with Peace X Peace, Pakzad explained,
“As an Afghan woman I must not only focus on outsiders but also inside my home. Some of my greatest, most interesting challenges have been inside my family. One of my daughters goes to school in Herat, where people are very conservative. Almost all of the women are at home. The other students tease my daughter because her mother is appearing on TV and working outside the home. My daughter suffers from this and wonders why her mother is famous, why she is not at home like other women.”
Pakzad’s story is certainly one of amazing courage in the face of danger. But her activism also provides an important reminder that the voices and visibility of individual women have great potential to challenge paradigms of oppression in this war-torn country.