As a disabled woman living in Afghanistan, you might think I would be the last person to tackle the traditions and practices that prevent women from receiving an education. In my country, many consider it shameful to send their daughters to school – it is a damaging mindset caused by a misunderstanding of religious teachings. But I consider myself lucky, since because of my disabled legs, I was allowed to learn to read.
As a child, I suffered from polio. At first, I was sad that I couldn’t play outside with my siblings, but I embraced the opportunity to spend my days with books. And later, I received the rare opportunity to attend school, where I was thirsty to learn more. In class, I studied hard and earned high marks. While education for women in my country is often considered taboo, women should never be ashamed for wanting an education. My life is committed to making this possible.
I am proud of my work, but it can be challenging and dangerous. I operate in a region surrounded by misery and conflict, putting me and my family at mortal risk. To advance my work, I must confront imams who, by misinterpreting Islam, suppress women’s rights and stifle their right to learn. But rather than fleeing from the challenge, I address it head on, working with these powerful Imams, hearing their concerns, and demonstrating my own respect for Islam, which I believe does not limit women’s education. I look for the commonalities that connect us as humans (which often surprise them), earn their respect, and go forward together.
This is how I’ve always lived: working with whatever I have been given. During my second year at university, 36 women and children died around me because there wasn’t enough food or water at the refugee camp in Pakistan where my family was living after we fled the Afghan civil war. With my friends – many of whom were also disabled – I decided we must do something, working with whatever resources we had. Within one month, we collected food for 1,000 families in the camps.
But while we were distributing food and medicine, we also wanted to find a long-term solution. I met women who were convinced their only way to survive was to beg or perform sexual acts for men. We needed to empower women. And we knew education would be the path toward a better life. Working together, we started our organization, which we called the Noor Education Center. We chose Noor as the name of our organization because it means light and serves as a symbol of hope. We started volunteer classes in the camps for children and women, teaching reading and other skills.
Today my organization has grown. We work with families to support the acceptance of girls’ schooling in rural areas, and with thousands of imams to deliver sermons on the importance of educating women and women’s rights. Across Afghanistan, I’ve worked on numerous projects for the empowerment of women and children socially and economically, and I defend women’s rights under both Islamic and international law.
Despite the challenges, I feel strongly that we are pursuing a critical cause, for peace building and fighting this cycle of conflict. To truly have sustainable peace in Afghanistan or anywhere, we need to educate and empower women. If you educate one woman, you educate a whole family. It’s just like a candle – if you light one candle, that candle can light many others around it. That is how our societies will become more enlightened — in Afghanistan, and throughout the world.