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Only good can come from empowering women

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, left, and first lady Michelle Obama, right, with 2010 International Women of Courage Award winner Col. Shafiqa Quraishi of Afghanistan on Wednesday.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, left, and first lady Michelle Obama, right, with 2010 International Women of Courage Award winner Col. Shafiqa Quraishi of Afghanistan on Wednesday. (Gerald Herbert/associated Press)
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By Kathleen Parker
Sunday, March 14, 2010

If your impression of an Afghan woman is of a shapeless, frightened form engulfed in yards of heat-trapping fabric, you haven't met Shafiqa Quraishi.

Make that Colonel Quraishi, who earned her title as one of 900-plus female members of the Afghan National Police.

Quraishi, who today is director of gender, human and child rights within the Afghan Ministry of the Interior, was one of nine women in town last week to receive the International Women of Courage Award from Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.

She and fellow Afghan award recipient Shukria Asil sat down Thursday for lunch and conversation with members of the U.S.-Afghan Women's Council to discuss ways to help women and children struggling for rights and security.

Whatever you think you know about Afghanistan, the reality is probably far better -- and far worse. And though many women still wear burqas, they are less visible these days on city streets as women assume new roles.

Speaking through interpreters, the two women reiterated a dominant theme that was repeated over and over during several days of events honoring brave women around the world.

"We are not victims."

Yes, of course, many have been victimized by brutal regimes in some cases, or by cultural forces, or by men who have hijacked religion to justify actions that would be treated as crimes in our part of the world. But these women are not seeking restitution; they are seeking empowerment.

This is a crucial distinction that underscores the courage they display in the routine machinations we call everyday life.

Female judges kiss their families goodbye in the mornings and make peace with their maker just in case they don't return. Parents send their daughters to school despite assaults such as the acid attacks on 15 schoolgirls and teachers in 2008.

I heard the "not victims" refrain a day earlier from another group of women -- from Bahrain, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Kenya, Brazil and Haiti -- here to be honored by Vital Voices Global Partnership, a nongovernmental organization that works to empower female leaders and social entrepreneurs around the world.

Vital Voices, which grew out of the U.N.'s Fourth World Conference on Women in 1995, focuses on advancing women as a U.S. foreign-policy goal. Translation: Empowering women will lead to greater prosperity and world peace.


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