The United Nations is reviewing the status of women around the world, 10 years after the UN's ground-breaking World Conference on Women in Beijing, China. Our guest on New American Voices is an Afghan-American feminist who believes that empowering women in traditional societies is the best way to foster peace and well-being, particularly in such regions as Central Asia and the Middle East.
Farida Azizi, a slight, dark-haired woman in her mid-thirties, has devoted 15 years to improving the lives of women with few skills and fewer opportunities.
“If you invest in women it's much better,” she says. “You will achieve more in a country, because if you invest in women you invest in the whole family, not just in one woman. And these women have a very big role in the community. As mother, sister or wife, they have the primary role.”
Ms. Azizi is the Special Advisor for Afghanistan and the Middle East in the non-profit Vital Voices, a Washington-based group that promotes progress for women in politics, economics and community affairs worldwide. The organization supports income-generating projects for women in developing countries, and seeks to educate women about the dangers of human trafficking. A large part of the organization's work consists of holding workshops, seminars and leadership training sessions.
“We are working for women, like emerging women leaders, in different capacities. For example, when countries have parliamentary elections we support and provide leadership training for those women on how to participate and take a decision-making role in the reconstruction of their countries.
Farida Azizi's interest in women's issues arose out of her desire to help the women of her native Afghanistan in the years of Taliban rule. She herself was born in Kabul, but grew up in refugee camps in Pakistan where her father, a military doctor, was forced to flee with his family after the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. When the Russians withdrew in 1993, the family went back to Kabul, but Ms. Azizi returned to Pakistan to continue her education after the Taliban came to power and denied women access to any schooling. It was then that Farida joined an international non-governmental organization working to help Afghanistan's women.
Farida Azizi says she was “based in Pakistan, but every month I was traveling to Afghanistan to support women there. It was risky, but sometimes when you see the women are suffering and they need you and count on you, I couldn't just stop and just sit at home.” She recalls, “I started to work there, kind of like underground, wearing a burka and visiting those women in the countryside. Mostly our project was in rural areas, to help women with health programs, income-generating programs and education.”
Ms Azizi recounts that the only way she could enter the country and make contact with the rural women was to disguise herself as a doctor wearing the full, head-to-toe covering with an opening only for the eyes. Since male doctors were forbidden, under Taliban rules, to treat women, female health workers had some opportunities to enter the villages. Along with providing basic health care they could initiate other programs, like helping women establish cottage industries, and try to ensure that the women's voices would be heard in the outside world.
Eventually the Taliban got wind of her activities. “And then they knew that I was working for women there, as an activist, so I got threatened,” she says. “After that, it was not just my life that was in danger, but I had two small kids, so to protect them I decided to come here [to the United States] and seek my asylum.”
Her first steps in the United Steps were not easy.
“It was very difficult at first to come here, because you have to have social security, you have to have ID, and I didn't know anywhere to go,” Farida Azizi recalls. “Luckily I found out about this organization, Tahiri Justice Center, They were very supportive, they provided me with a pro bono attorney to take my asylum case, and then fortunately I got my asylum approval.”
Trying to enroll her two young boys in school also opened her eyes to a new set of problems. “When you go to schools you have to run a lot after physical exams, after the doctors,” she says. “If you don't have insurance you don't have the doctor. So we face a lot of difficulties. But we think, in our own language, that if you face [trials] and you suffer you will be very strong. So here we are.” she says, laughing.
Despite the obstacles that she encountered when she first came here - or perhaps because she was successful in overcoming them - Ms Azizi has a deep appreciation of the opportunities this country offers.
“One thing about living here, it's a free country. You can practice your religion in your own way, you can speak freely whatever you want to speak,” she says. “And then the other thing is the educational opportunity, which is the strong foundation of a country and the rule of law. Everything is the education. If you have education, I think you will succeed in your goals.”
Farida Azizi continues to work on behalf of Afghan women, in her job at Vital Voices and as a founding member of the Policy Group on Afghan Women. The group lobbies Congress to promote peace and reconstruction in Afghanistan by providing direct support to Afghan women.