December 10th, 2012
Ann Daly is an amazing career coach for business women looking to “redo” themselves and their careers. Here is her most recent blog post:
When photographer Peggy Kelsey left Austin for Afghanistan, she feared that she wouldn’t find any women willing to talk with her, and be photographed. “The opposite turned out to be true,” she recalls in the resulting book, Gathering Strength: Conversations with Afghan Women.
Here’s an excerpt from Peggy’s remarkable new book:
Peggy Kelsey: What prompted you to start your own business?
Muzhgan: It was my dream to be a business owner. Since childhood, I was always trying to be the leader of the other children and later became the leader in my office. I never wanted to work under someone else. I prefer to work by myself and for myself. That’s why business was the only thing I could do.
Peggy: Did your family encourage you and your dream?
Muzhgan: Yes, of course. My family always told me, “If you want to do business, then you must not wait. You can start now, anytime you want.” So I started my first business in 2003 when I was 18.
Najia: I wanted to be a businesswoman and had an idea for a business, but little knowledge about how to start. I studied business administration at Kabul University, then got another chance with the 10,000 Women program at American University, so I went there to learn. That program helped me a lot. Now I know how to make a business plan and market my product.
Kubra Z: I became a member of AWBC (Afghan Women’s Business Council) in 2003 and then decided to start a business association of Herati women. I had my first business experience in an AWBC workshop with UN Habitat and there I learned how to start my own business. After some time, I got the idea to start a small association to encourage Herati women who already have their own businesses to expand.
Habbiba: I had a position in the government and a really nice life here in Afghanistan. But when the mujahidin took over, it became very dangerous for anyone who had worked for the communists, so we had to leave. We left Afghanistan suddenly and could take hardly anything with us. In Pakistan, our only alternative was to move into a tent in a refugee camp. I had always been interested in business, but it became a matter of survival there. I had to do something to make our life better so we could get out of our tent. I asked the people in the camp what they needed. They wanted things like candles, soap, and sugar, so I went to the bazaar and brought those things back to the tents to sell. There were some Afghans who had brought their cows and chickens and would make butter and cheese that they sold in the market. When I first started this business I made 100 Pakistani rupees and later 1000. Within six months, I was able to move my family out of our tent to live in a house in Peshawar. Through this experience I slowly, slowly got to know more about business and what makes it successful.
Najia (in 2010): My husband respects me, especially after I told him that I am not a woman who will blindly follow what he or my family says. I will listen to them and then I will decide. I know and understand my rights under Islam and Afghan law. My husband’s family knows that I am working at a high level with the government. If I were undereducated, nobody would listen to me. Unfortunately, there are many uneducated women here that have to put up with nobody listening to them, and they’re not strong enough to talk about their problems.
Peggy: You are so resolute. What gave you your courage, what made you so strong?
Najia: I think I learned a lot from my situation and from society. I grew up without men. My father died when I was four. Because I have no brothers, my mother made me go to the bazaar to buy what we needed. I was the youngest child, and if my teenage sisters went out of the house, people would think they were not good. I always had to stand up for myself, so I learned to be very strong.
Peggy: Do you have any advice for your (future) daughters?
Rahela: One of my daughters and my son are in school and I’m trying to provide them with equal opportunities. My daughter is very strong even though she’s only in the third grade. Sometimes I ask her to do something at home and she tells me, “I will, but my brother should do it, too.” And her brother agrees.
Muzhgan: If my daughter wanted to become a businesswoman, I would advise her to fully understand business, the Afghan market, and computers. It would also be important for her to get financial as well as human support. Then she could be successful.
Habbiba: I tell all children, including my daughter, to get a good education so they can work and help the family.
September 30th, 2012
Gathering Strength, my book of conversations with Afghan women, is published! I will have books in my hands by October 8th and on Amazon sometime around early November. (email me if you want me to send you a copy before November.) The writing process has taken nearly two and a half years but really, Gathering Strength is the culmination of ten years with The Afghan Women’s Project including two trips to Afghanistan.
It’s been over a year since my last post. I couldn’t tear myself away from writing and editing to write about the book. Now it’s the end of an era of narrow focus with a workaholic intensity.
When I started working on Gathering Strength I never imagined that I was capable of creating a work this profound and this beautiful. Of course it wasn’t all, or maybe even mostly my doing. Editing, layout and cover design have shaped this book into a form worthy of the Afghan women who shared their thoughts and stories with me.
From my last day in Afghanistan in May 2012, when I realized that I needed to and could write a book, I only knew that that I’d need an editor and that I would self-publish so I could maintain control over the material and the timing of publication. As I worked, I found that this book had a life and timing of its own and all I could do was to work as hard as I could (in a way balanced for the long haul) and be open to what came my way. Realizing that probably kept me from going crazy while trying to select from the myriad publishing and other options and it helped me be patient with my unrealistic imagined timeframe.
Thankfully, during the writing and editing, when I awoke in the mornings, I was driven out of bed to begin the day’s writing, a much different experience from the resistance I’d felt during past writing efforts. By the end I couldn’t wait for the writing/editing to be completed, but I never felt it to be drudgery.
As I wrote my early drafts, I dreamed of handing over the manuscript to someone who would transform it into a finished book for me; a knight in shining armor. Oh, well, that didn’t happen. Instead, I worked closely with my editors, going back and forth over different points, sometimes changing my mind, sometimes not. It felt good to have the last word.
The transition from writing and managing my book project to putting it out into the world has been difficult. I suddenly find myself procrastinating and being distracted by the many different fronts I have to engage. Hopefully, soon, I will find my stride. Frequent posting in this blog is one of those new efforts.
I’ll end this post with a quote from the only writer in Gathering Strength, Roya. She says:
I’m going to change my life and think differently. I’m going to experience the things that are my right. I have to show my sisters, my friends, my family, and Afghan women all over the world that we can change if we have a chance.
September 20th, 2011
Forbidden Lessons tells the story of an extraordinarily brave Afghan-American woman who began raising money and delivering aid during the Afghan Civil War and continued during the Taliban and afterwards. Her first-hand account of her struggles to deliver aid during those times is compelling and enlightening.
A few parts of this book really spoke to me. One was the story of how Suraya was accompanying a load of 10,000 blankets being hauled in three Bedford trucks to Hesar Shahee, an internally displaced persons (IDP) camp outside of Kabul during the civil war. During their trip they were shaken down by gunmen at five different roadblocks and their supply of blankets was dwindling. At the sixth, Suraya was so incensed that she challenged the armed teenaged leader, telling him that if he were a “real man” he would escort her to the camp and help give out the blankets. And he did. In the process, he was converted from a gang leader into a person who would spend the rest of his life helping others. (or so he said when they parted.)
There were other confrontations as well through the years of her bringing aid. She stood up to Taliban as well as the stoned helicopter pilot who wanted to bring extra relatives on their aid delivery trip which would have seriously overloaded the aircraft.
It was interesting that had she been a man, she would have been killed in any of these situations. And while the men she argued with grumbled and spat with anger, in the end she won their respect and often friendship.
Her description of what it was like to be in Kabul during the random bombings of the rival warlords gave me a very vivid context for the stories I’d heard during my own interviews of women going to school or just trying to survive during that time.
Her story also illustrates the error of painting the Taliban with a broad brush. Suraya talked about the shock of seeing the trees from which were hanging the severed limbs and hands of those whom the Taliban had punished. On the other hand, she was also helped by the Taliban Foreign Minister in setting up a clinic in Logar province.
After 9/11 the scope of her organization, Help the Afghan Children (HTAC) grew even more as they established more schools around the country. HTAC has also developed a peace curriculum that facilitates the development of attitudes and behaviors to help people live in harmony. The Ministry of Education is incorporating these courses into the government schools.
Sadeed, Suraya with Damien Lewis. Forbidden Lessons in a Kabul Guesthouse: The True Story of a Woman Who Risked Everything to Bring Hope to Afghanistan. NY: Hyperion Books 2011.
For an annotated bibliography of other books on Afghanistan see my website: http://www.kelseys.net/bibliography/
And my own book continues along….
May 20th, 2011
I’ve gone way too long without posting. That’s good in some ways because I’ve been so focused on writing my book that I can’t bear to take time away for blogging. Of course that’s counter-productive. Everyone in the writing and publishing world keeps telling me to be sure to spend the necessary time to grow my platform.
My writing process has been interesting. For years, I’ve resisted the idea of writing a book but during my last days in Kabul, Elias Amidon shared his vision of the book I might write. Somehow, in that moment, the idea of writing a book finally resonated. I began the project on January 2nd, committing myself to write four hours a day, five days a week. It doesn’t seem like much except it involved fitting four hours into an already full schedule and a full life.
It was tough. I added flexibility by recommitting to 20 hours a week and ended up spending my weekends writing, never giving myself a day off. Somehow, over time, something shifted and I began getting the writing completed by Friday afternoons. Now that my presentations are all created, except for one on business women that I’ll put together over the summer, and my speaking engagements are finished for a while, 20 hours suddenly seems too easy. So, from now until the fall, I’ve ramped it up to 25 hours.
It’s interesting to watch myself. I’ve finally admitted that I’m obsessed with getting this book written, and written well. Not in terms of constantly thinking about it when I’m doing other things, but in that I compare everything else I do to writing. “Would I rather do this or write my book” becomes my guiding question. Knowing its importance, I strive to keep myself balanced so I haven’t quite become a hermit. Not quite.
March 3rd, 2011
You will be able to read about the further exploits of Tajwar in my book which is scheduled to be out in January of 2012. Her life story is the story of the “freedom fighters” as she called them.
I’m now working on Suraia Perlika’s life story which tells of another woman also working for women’s rights and education, but from the Comunist side. She was one of the founders of the Democratic Women’s Organization which was supported by the Communists and also used as propaganda by them to show how much they’ve improved the lives of Afghan women. Ultimately, they imprisoned Suraia and put her on the “death list” but at the last minute she was pardoned by a rival Communist faction who had just come to power. She revived the Democratic Women’s Organiation as the Afghan Womens’ Union and gave herself the made-up name, Suraia Perlika.
February 18th, 2011
Women did not sit passively by as their men were fighting the Soviets. Tajwar was a leader, but she couldn’t have done much without the support of other women working with her. When Tajwar first told me her story, I could imagine her life up on the big screen, an audacious adventure story and action movie. When I shared my vision with her, she laughed and said that she was only one of many, some more intrepid than she was. She told me that she was writing a book on heroic women from around the country and their daring escapades while fighting the Soviets. I can’t wait to see that book!
And there were others… just the other day I ran across a short article about Hajiyani Abeda, a woman who in her heyday commanded 200 male fighters and another article from 2006 about Bibi Ayisha Kaftar aka “The Pigeon” who “fought off the Russians, the Taliban and local rivals.”
Back to Tajwar and her account of several of her actions.
Peggy: After I returned from Afghanistan I heard a story about a foreigner who had been sitting on her balcony one evening around dusk when she heard a rumbling sound in the distance. Thinking that it was more Soviet tanks coming to her part of the city, she looked around below to see if she could see anyone on the streets but they were empty except for occasional Soviet patrols. As the sound grew closer, she realized that it wasn’t the rumbling of tanks, but the chanting of “Alahu Akhbar”, growing stronger and closer until the chorus surrounded her. She looked down into the neighboring courtyard and saw the family members shouting their defiance from the safety of their compounds.
Tajwar: Afghan women were the first to demonstrate after the Russians came. Allahu Akbar was the first one we did. One day the Russians killed a lot of soldiers so that night a lot of people came to our home to write a night letter. There was a lot of snow that night and I walked the streets at midnight giving the message that we were to say Allahu Akhbar the following evening . When we started, you would have thought that all the world is saying Allahu Akbar. The walls shook and it made the Russians afraid. We said it all night. I was with my brother. One lady we know put boiling water on our heads.
Another day I wrote a letter and again took it door to door. It said: “If you hate Russia, don’t go to work, don’t go shopping.” For 3 days all the shops were closed. We did it just to find out how much support we had. For me it was very dangerous. All the communists know me and know my story. They follow me everywhere.
Peggy: Imagine the effect: 18 year old Soviet youth, ethnic Russians as well as others from throughout the Soviet empire, many never having left their small-town homelands, all indoctrinated against religion, having been drafted and shipped off to Afghanistan, which was to them, the ends of the earth. Accounts I’ve read say that “Already in 1983 word had gotten around (among the Soviet recruits) that Afghanistan was a hellhole”.* So, imagine these fellows patrolling the streets when first quietly in the distance when gradually from all around them wells up a defiant “Alahu Akhbar” that goes on for the entire night. They can’t get away from it, they can’t see who is doing it, but they can hear hundreds, maybe thousands of voices rising up against them, while being impotent to do anything about it.
Tajwar: We decided to disrupt the celebrations of the first anniversary of the Communist regime in April of 1979. Teachers would be forced to bring their children to watch the parade. We gave the kids some balloons and toy explosives. When the parade started, the kids began popping the balloons and setting off the firecrackers. Women in the crowd started shouting “The Mujahadin are coming!” and the Communists in the parade ran for cover. The rest of the ceremony was canceled.
Another activity we planned was to disrupt the May Day Parade. I talked with certain students at the school and told them to collect wasps in tiny boxes. On May Day, the Russians had a big parade with tanks and then rows and rows of soldiers marching with their rifles. A big crowd gathered to watch them. At a certain point, our supporters in the back of the crowd begin pushing everyone toward the parade. When they got close enough, at another signal, the kids started going crazy and they ran in and among the soldiers, stooping low while they opened their boxes. You should have seen it! The wasps flew up the soldiers’ pant legs and into their shirts. Soldiers dropped their banners and rifles as they began swatting at the wasps. The whole parade was disrupted and then disbanded. We collected 25 rifles and small arms that day and we showed the Russians our power. These were the kinds of things we did.
*Klaits and Klaits, Love and War in Afghanistan, p 151.
February 4th, 2011
The Communists suspected that I was working against them so they got my family to watch me. They followed me when I left my house, especially my husband’s other wife. Her two sons worked for KGB. She was an uneducated woman but for 24 hours she watched me from her house. Whenever I would leave, they reported that, for example, I was wearing a gray skirt and blue scarf. They described me like that every time.
But to do my work, I needed to go to my friends’ villages to talk with the people. Thousands of freedom fighters came to visit me. For example, a popular commander came to visit me from Herat and another all the way from Mazar Sharif. I didn’t have a car and everyone was watching for me. So, I would leave home wearing a burka. Then I went to a freedom fighter friend’s house and changed into peasant clothes and my burka. All of the roads had checkpoints, but I went by donkey and they ignored me.
But one year, I was 7 months pregnant and I couldn’t go by donkey anymore and sometimes the Russians attacked the villages and I couldn’t run anymore in my condition, so I stopped going to the villages. Instead I just waited for my child and I worked at home. When I was nearly due, they wouldn’t let me go to the doctor to check myself and after 10 months were finished, I couldn’t deliver the child. Finally, I was home alone when I birthed my baby.
When my baby, my seventh, was born, the Communists made a plan to arrest me again and give electric shocks to my baby to get me to talk. This baby is now in Australia at the university studying journalism. A week after the birth I got a report that they would arrest us. So, at midnight that very night, my husband, my six other children and I walked over the mountains to Kabul. Sometimes we took the roads in areas that were empty of Russian soldiers and rode a bus or car. When we came to the areas where they had checkpoints, we walked in the mountains. It took us a week. (It’s a 12 hour drive when the roads are good.)
I remember in that year that they killed a lot of people, raped a lot of women and killed a lot of children. At one point, we got on a bus that was full of escaping women. When we arrived in Taloqan, a man came and told the driver to hide everything. I was sitting behind the driver and heard everything. He said that the Russians had blocked the road and they were looking for one woman. I understood that they were looking for me.
I told the driver to please wait. There were a lot of women and children in the bus without their men, so I told my husband to go bring them water. The bus driver was irritated and asked, “Why are you changing my schedule?” I asked him to please stay for 30 minutes while they bring water. When we finally left, another bus had taken our turn in the convoy. They shot that bus with a rocket and all the people in it died. In the line of 70 cars, just our bus remained unharmed and also three people from another bus. It was amazing because when I left, I only took my Holy Koran. I didn’t take my gold, I didn’t take anything. I just took my Holy Koran. When they tried to shoot our bus, they couldn’t shoot. One Hindu lady whose family was in the other bus came covered in blood and I took her inside ours. When she saw the Koran, she said that they can’t shoot this bus because I opened the Koran for our Allah to save us.
Only our bus arrived in Kabul safely. Some friends there explained that they had put my picture everywhere and a price on my head. One warned us that my life was in danger so we decided to evacuate to Pakistan. After 7 days some men came from Gazni to guide us. We bought some wedding party dresses from the bazaar and sent my brother to buy the bus tickets. He told everyone we were going to a wedding party in Kandahar but we got off the bus early and made our way to Gazni. When the way was safe, we continued to Pakistan. This was 1984.
January 21st, 2011
My mother engaged me when I was 12, I was married at 14 and had my first child at 15. My husband was Uzbek (which means that he spoke Uzbek as a first language and he had many customs I wasn’t used to. I was his second wife. He was a very powerful man and was always having guests over. So, every other night I had to prepare large dinners for them as well as keep up with my school work (I was in 8th grade when I married) and take care of my children. I never had any help, I did all the work myself.
Before the government changed, I had a normal life, a happy life. I finished my schooling and taught for 5 years in Kunduz high school. And after that I became headmaster. But when the government changed. and the king’s cousin, Daoud came into power the Communists began trying to register people. All of my husband’s family became members of the communist party. They especially wanted me to join because my father had been so powerful and so popular, But I rejected it. And so, I was the first woman who got fired from her job. For 3 months I stayed home but eventually they assigned me to another school and watched me very closely so that I couldn‘t contact my friends.
After a year, they sent me to Kabul and every subsequent year they sent me to a different school and gave me different subjects to teach. Every week they came into my classroom and pushed me to join the Communist party. They promised to give me a good position. They offered to send me to Russia or Poland to get my Master’s degree, but I refused it all, knowing that I would be forced to become Communist. They send me from school to school so I wouldn’t have a chance to make friends. But that was a good chance for me. I found a lot of my friends and my teachers and old students. During these 4 years they were arresting people twice a month . They arrested me in 1980. At that time, my oldest child was 14 and my youngest was 5.
In early 1980, whenever the Communists saw any young men they conscripted them and sent them to war. At one point they had arrested 150 men and asked each of them who was working for the freedom fighter women and they gave my name. Three people were witnesses saying that I was the head of women freedom fighters in Kabul. At first they put me in a KBG jail to do an “inquiry”. There I was tortured with electic shock. A lot of people died there. After a month they put me in another jail for a year. The whole time I refused to give any names or information and after a year I was released.
When they let me go, they made me sign a letter saying that if they find that I have any connection with freedom fighters, they will kill me. I signed that paper. When I got out they sent me back to Kunduz and I found that they had punished my children in a different way by telling them bad things about me. At the same time, the Afghan Communists were attacking villages, people’s houses, raping their women and killing their husbands and their children. So I became the freedom fighter leader in that city.
So, they sent me back to Kunduz and I found that they had punished my children in a different way by telling them bad things about me. At the same time, the Afghan Communists were attacking villages, people’s houses, raping their women and killing their husbands and their children. So I became the freedom fighter leader in that city.
January 9th, 2011
I’ll begin 2011 with the amazing birth story of Tajwar Kakar, a woman I met on my trip in 2003 and again this past spring. I’d love to see her life portrayed on the big screen.
Tajwar Part 1 Birth Story
In 1948, Tajwar’s soon-to-be father was commissioner of the border between the Soviet Union and Afghanistan. The Russians* had gotten control of the Amu Darya River, also known as the Oxus, which runs along the northern side of Afghanistan, and were trying to make the border on the Afghan side of the river. “My father didn’t let them,” Tajwar told me. Six times before, Afghans had tried to negotiate a mid-river border, but had failed. “My father was brought from his post in Farah Province to meet with King Zahir Shah and head up the delegation. Before he left, my grandmother told him that my mother was pregnant. He told my mother that it doesn’t matter whether this child is a girl or a boy, but ‘if I get the river from Russia then it will be a lucky child for me. If I lose this river and Russia makes the border inside Afghanistan, this will be an unlucky child and I never want to see its face.’”
“So every time my grandmother prayed she would say ‘Allah, please help that man. This is an innocent child. When he says he will do this he will because he‘s a very strong Pashtun.’ My grandmother prayed every day that my father would get the river back. On the same day I was born he won back the river.”
“When he got the river he called to his people and told them to bring my child to the border. My grandmother said that I was too young but some people came and made a basket from branches and some very nice cloth. I was put inside and they took off for the border. More than 5000 people followed. When I arrived, my father put me in the boat and we went out into the river where he gave me the name Tajwar which means crown.”
“When he got back to Kabul, my father warned the king about Russia’s intention to invade Afghanistan and of his cousin, Daoud’s intention to help bring it about. Mr. Kakar was ignored, but his sympathies became known within the palace.”
“We moved to Kunduz when I was nine. Two years later, my father was poisoned by Daoud’s people because he was a powerful man and he didn’t support the Russians.”
*Tajwar always referred to the Soviets as Russians, but there were many Soviet troops from Kazakhstan as well as the other satellite states in addition to the Russians.
It’s been months since I’ve updated my blog. But with a new year comes a new determination to be more present in this space. 2010 brought my second Afghan Women’s Project trip to Afghanistan and its subsequent six months of interview transcription and image processing. Finally, my new presentation, Afghanistan 2010, a View from the Ground was crafted and debuted.
2011 will be the year of writing my book on the subject as well as giving presentations throughout the country. In addition to commentary on issues, I will be posting here in this blog elements from the book plus reviews of books pertaining to Afghanistan that I’ve read. And I resolve to post more regularly.