Wajeeha, Women’s Rights Activist
Once illiterate, Wajeeha now works as a social activist to secure rights for Afghan women. In the early 1980s she lost her husband, a fighter against the Soviet military occupation, in a fatal ambush. Together with her two young sons she was rescued by a women’s rights group, the Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan (RAWA), who took her to safety in Pakistan. They taught her how to read and write, and now she is teaching literacy courses to other women, raising awareness and struggling to make women’s rights a reality in Afghanistan.
After the Soviet-installed regime and troops were ousted from Afghanistan, the country fell into brutal and bloody civil war (1992-1996) and many millions of refugees fled into neighboring Pakistan and Iran to escape the violence. A medical doctor, treating Afghan women in the refugee camps, was one of millions whose families left the country during this period. In a country where not only civil war, but also countless abductions, rapes and killings of women were occurring on a daily basis, her father feared remaining there as too unsafe to raise his seven daughters. The death of her younger brother by a landmine blast so shocked the family that they fled to Pakistan in 1993. She has since worked for an international NGO aiding thousands in refugee camps. She states vociferously that she will never marry because she wants to dedicate her life to being an excellent doctor, a strident and rare stance by an Afghan woman.
Seizing power in 1996, the Taliban instituted an intensely oppressive regime, especially for women. Shapiray fled the Taliban in 1998 with her husband and five young children. As a young girl in Afghanistan, Shapiray aspired to be a pilot or a journalist, but her ambitions were thwarted when her parents arranged a marriage for her at the age of sixteen. Now she works as a teacher in a girls’ school founded by refugees in Pakistan. However, she and the other teachers are subject to constant harassment by corrupt local officials seeking to siphon off school funds for themselves. Her husband has been unable to find work and so her family depends on her meager income for their survival. Shapiray and her husband defy the stereotypical Afghan marriage with a sincerely loving relationship marked by equally sharing in the struggle to survive.
Unlike the often sensationalized portrayals depicted by major media organizations, this project captures the women as real people with real lives, each vibrant in their individuality. They have known only war, suffering, and displacement for more than two decades. All three women, while reflecting different social classes and levels of education, are united in their commitment to rebuilding their lives and those of other Afghan women through self-empowerment. All possess a burning desire to return to a stable, peaceful Afghanistan. But having seen the violence and brutality of different regimes, they are not yet convinced that it is safe to return home. In the meantime, they are laying the foundations for a better future, educating children, treating the sick, and working to make sure that women’s rights are an integral part of a new Afghanistan.