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Only good can come from empowering women

By Kathleen Parker
Sunday, March 14, 2010; A19

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.

One cannot sit and talk with these women and escape inspiration. On one end of the spectrum is Afnan al Zayani, a chief executive from Bahrain who leads the Middle East and North Africa Businesswomen's Network. On the other is Rebecca Lolosoli, matriarch of Kenya's Umoja Village, an all-women's community she created to support women, girls, orphans and widows who had been abandoned by their families or were fleeing domestic violence, forced marriage or genital mutilation.

It sort of puts that bad-hair day in perspective, doesn't it?

But, again, they refuse to be victims.

Roshaneh Zafar, who founded the first microfinance organization in Pakistan focusing on low-income women, is adamant on this point. She doesn't want to be rescued (nor does she have any interest in apologizing for her religion).

"Like all women everywhere, we want to be empowered."

That means jobs, money, security and government protection. And no, said the colonel, women do not need to do handicrafts. When you think of an Afghan woman, in other words, don't think of an embroidered tapestry; think of a cop. Tapestries are lovely, and we all want one, but Quraishi prefers that women have guns. Her immediate goal is to expand the number of women in the police force to 5,000.

Hers is a daunting task in part because of cultural barriers. Both men and women have to be convinced that police work, as well as other nontraditional professions, is "respectable" for a woman. And before women can become professionals of any sort, they have to be educated. Only 30 percent of Afghan girls attend school, in part because of the danger but also because of poverty.

Children are needed to work, if they are not already heads of household, as many are. Asil says that with $100 a month, a child can feed his family for a month. But where does one get that kind of money in a nation struggling to reinvent basic institutions?

From people like those who are part of the U.S.-Afghan Women's Council and Vital Voices. If you can spare a dime, you could save a girl. Save a girl, save the planet.

kathleenparker@washpost.com

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