The setting was the elegant Benjamin Franklin Room at the United States Department of State. The honored guests were 14 Afghan women whose innate dignity and professional demeanor were insufficient cover for their haunted and wary eyes. Several stood with arms crossed in front as though still uneasy without the full covering of the burqa. I was keenly aware of what these women had endured and where they had come from to “meet and greet” in such exalted surroundings. One had been arrested and beaten; all lived knowing that they could be without warning at any time. Several described their cultural shock as they moved from their homes in Kabul, first to Dubai and then through Amsterdam and on to Washington. One described the awe-inspiring contrast between her home and the crystal chandeliers and priceless antiques in the State Department reception rooms, “such magnificence,” she said.
Dozens of Americans — members of the United States Afghan Women’s Council — gathered for a reception honoring the Afghan women who are in the United States for leadership training as guests of the U.S. State Department. The women stood 7 on each side of the podium as various State Department dignitaries, including Under-Secretary Paula Dobriansky and Secretary of State Colin Powell, greeted them. The woman chosen to speak for the Afghan women was particularly intriguing. She spoke with excellent English and serene self-confidence in her response to Secretary Powell. I talked with several of the other women as I waited for an opportunity to meet Marzia Basel, a lawyer who is a juvenile court judge in Kabul.
Basel’s story gives a glimpse into life under the Taliban. She graduated from Kabul University with degrees in law and political science, but was not awarded her diploma until after the Tabiban were routed out of authority. She worked in the area of law as long as possible — until the early 90’s — and then worked “underground” as a teacher and also doing emergency relief work where possible. Marzia taught English to more than 200 young girls and women every week. The classroom shifted locations in order to avoid detection by the authorities — members of the Ministry for the Protection of Virtue and Prevention of Vice. Her girls were carefully instructed about hiding their books and notebooks under their burqas. Ironically, Marzia used the World Trade Center towers and other skyscrapers as illustrations about life in the United States. Neighbors and relatives of her students helped to provide cover for her secret classes. She believes she did more than just train women; she taught them how to contribute to the rebuilding of their country. The 14 women who were chosen for training in the U.S. received free laptop computers, appropriate technology for internet connections and individual training for using them when they return to Afghanistan.
However, all is not well in Afghanistan. The women will face challenges, even now, when they return to their country. Marzia avoided answering my question about whether former Taliban members were blending into the new Afghan landscape. The situation in Afghanistan is still uncertain, she said — especially outside Kabul where there are few international peacekeepers and the warlords have free reign. Corruption and bribery are still undermining social stability; the economy is still propped up by drug production and smuggling. Much remains to be done and many professionals fled the country while they could get out so there is a shortage of people to help rebuild the nation.
But the women heard a message of hope during their visit. President Bush was scheduled to merely bring a brief personal greeting. Instead, he lingered for nearly 45 minutes chatting and getting to know the women. He brought in the First Lady and presidential advisor Karen Hughes. That personal attention and the President’s promise that the United States would not forsake Afghanistan brought a light to the eyes of each woman who told me about meeting the President.
More importantly, the women were armed for influencing their country in positive ways and they were trained for leadership and given the technological tools they need for working in an international arena. Marzia Basel and 13 other Afghan women are a nucleus for changing a nation. Let’s pray that they, and others similarly challenged by positions of leadership, are successful.