Two Afghan women among recipients of new Women, Power and Peace Awards

By Mary Jordan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, November 13, 2009

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 head scarf. A few weeks later, a rocket smashed into the school and killed a student sitting near her, another warning for girls not to learn.

Now 39 and a celebrity known for her courageous work to further women's rights in Afghanistan, Pakzad sat in a grand Washington hall Wednesday night where she was being honored with a new local prize for female peacemakers, tears welling in her intense brown eyes when asked about her own safety at home.

"During the night, sometimes I am scared," said the mother of six who runs secret shelters for abused women and runaway child brides. "Sometimes I think if they come to get me in my house, it will be hard for my children to see it."

As Washington debates its future in Afghanistan and as U.S. military planners weigh war-college terms like counterterrorism and counterinsurgency, Pakzad worries that a U.S. withdrawal from her homeland would mean more girls enduring more horrors.

"It would be devastating," she said of the U.S. military pullout that many Afghanis fear is coming. Even if President Obama increases the number of troops, she said, that alone will not bring a solution: "I don't believe war -- fighting -- produces a winner." She said Afghanistan is sliding deeper into poverty and that people in her country badly need jobs and the opportunity to build stability.

Pakzad, called one of the 100 most influential people in the world this year by Time magazine, was honored in Washington at the Carnegie Institution by the Peace X Peace group. Formed after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, the District-based nonprofit seeks to connect women around the world via the Internet. The founder, McLean photographer and writer Patricia Smith Melton, said she called a group of international women to her home shortly after 9/11 to try to answer the question, "What is peace and how can women build it?" She wanted to focus on women, she said, after looking "at the state of the world and who it was dominated by."

That discussion in Northern Virginia led to Peace X Peace (pronounced "Peace by Peace"), which now has "circles of women" in more than 100 countries. The Internet discussion topics include how to prevent violence and strengthen women's rights. Melton's husband is an Internet entrepreneur who founded a company responsible for the credit authorization terminals on retail counters around the world.

This year, the group awarded its first Women, Power and Peace Awards to Pakzad; Fatima Gailani, president of the Afghan Red Crescent Society, part of the International Red Cross movement; Abigail Disney, an American filmmaker whose acclaimed documentary "Pray the Devil Back to Hell" tells the story of the peace efforts of women in Liberia; and Mario Morino, co-founder of Venture Philanthropy Partners, which funds Washington area nonprofits, including some focused on women.

Gailani, 56, a member of a prominent family and one of the highest-profile women in Afghanistan, runs the Red Crescent, which has 41,000 volunteers working on humanitarian efforts. She said the good news for Afghan women is that in the cities, more and more girls are studying at university, learning computer skills and gaining gender parity. But in the countryside, she said, progress "has frozen." In a few provinces where the government has little or no control, extremists are preventing both boys and girls from going to school, she said.

In an interview, Gailani said she, too, was worried about Americans growing weary of the war in her homeland. "Tomorrow, I don't want to wake up and open my eyes and you are not there. It's really scary."

She said she hopes Americans see the Afghanistan war as a fight not just for the people in her country, but also for the security of those in the United States who want to ride their subways and use their airports without fear of al-Qaeda.

Tayeb Jawad, the Afghan ambassador to the United States, attended the awards reception along with 150 others. "It's very, very encouraging to see the hard struggle of Afghan women recognized" with two winners, he said. The ambassador noted that while Gailani is well known, Pakzad keeps a lower profile at home for security reasons.

There have been recent high-profile assassinations of women there, including a police officer and a journalist, by extremists who do not want women to work or even be seen outside their homes.

Pakzad, who last year received a U.S. State Department International Women of Courage Award, said she changes her route to and from work and the car she travels in daily. She doesn't speak on the phone about where she is going.

A decade ago she began her career as an activist helping women by teaching girls to read in her home. Under Taliban rule, that was forbidden and the girls twice had to burn their books in the stove for fear of being caught.

Wearing a burgundy head scarf and colorful embroidered jacket, Pakzad said she flew to Washington to receive the award and to give speeches abroad because she wants people to raise awareness of the long struggle of Afghan women. "It's been going on my whole life," she said.

© 2009 The Washington Post Company