“Oh, I’m not scared” instantly quipped Salima on asking whether fears of past rigid regime still haunts her. “I will not allow them to come back and trouble us again”, she continued, “I have sensed remarkable change in my life. Five years ago, I could not have even dreamt of inviting you into my house, let alone talking to you. What more change can we expect?”
Visiting any village in Afghanistan forms apprehensions within, particularly when one sets out with the agenda to advocate women’s rights. Having already visited villages in North Afghanistan, I was mentally preparing politically correct speeches for the men who will meet me. But I was not ready for this surprise.
On that sunny yet cold morning chill, our Toyota stopped in front of a house in village Hawadi of Injil district, about 30 minutes drive from Herat city. An elderly woman came out to welcome us with a broad smile, eyes gleaming and talking animated to us. To my awkwardness, she literally dragged me into her house, as welcoming a Khariji (foreigner) to the private dwelling by a woman is not common in this part of the globe. For the first time in my 15 months stay in the country, I found myself sitting inside a village woman’s house, amidst the hospitality and trust which a foreigner can least expect.
The colourful bright red carpets and white laced curtains in the sitting room created warmth and unexpected familiarity. As a gracious host, she quickly took out blankets for our comfort and served us hot tea and sweets while continuing her monologue.
Salima Sayed Zada is the head of the women’s community development council, the most vocal, visible face in an otherwise conservative community where brave, outspoken woman like her is not a common role model. The Afghanistan you have always heard about seemed a distant realty in her company.
People from outside, fed by myopic (comparative) opinions, will fail to recognize the inner strength and resolve of the women of Afghanistan.
Honestly I was in for more surprises. Soon, two men joined us, followed by two women, representing the respective men’s and women’s community development council. I have been made to believe that men and women leaders in a village never sit together. But here the contrary ruled. Sitting together in the group, I introduced myself and Actionaid and thanked them for their support and my privileged feeling to receive their hospitality in such familial surrounding. To my amusement, Salima was leading the conversation and seemed quite a towering personality even in presence of the village men, reflecting the fact that genuine leadership does not require a gender definition.
As I listened to Salima in rapt attention, I discovered a woman of extraordinary courage and conviction, who began life by braving out the compulsions with stiff resistance. “The war took away my husband…I was left to care for my two daughters and three sons. Totally devastated without a male member, I had to succumb to local traditions and immense social pressure”.
“Fortunately, I had been to school”, her words echoed enormous strength.
I have to die one day. Why not die happy without regrets? I was persistent. I wanted my own ways in my life. I became a school teacher, a profession I still continue. I found that nurturing young minds kept me away from worries and anxieties. It was not easy. I had to be very careful in my community as single women are always condemned. It will take years to narrate the tale of my hardship and life’s experiences.
“After the fall of the Taliban, for 3-4 years, everything seemed static. But a new government brought new hope for a new life. What is the point of being a woman, if I did not make opportunity out of that” she continued with certain confidence that is seldom found in people. “So I started a school for women and later started tailoring classes. Soon I began trading in carpets, toiletries, saffron… anything that fetched money. First few months, I was baffled as I had no experience. Now I know the tricks of the trade and can outsmart men”, she said with a roar of laughter. The pride that echoed out of her voice was not that of a naive village woman. Not only that, as a trader, she travelled to India, Iran and Pakistan. She added with pride “my clients know that this fat woman who does not understand their language is tough to deal with”.
Taking courage from her, I spoke to the villagers on our mission of empowering women with great enthusiasm. I called upon them to regain their inner strength to bring about a social revolution, which can make a difference. My hopes soared high as I saw the men nodding in agreement.
In December, while doing survey of villages, Actionaid partner HAWCA met Salima. In no time she was convinced to be a community facilitator of the project. “I enjoyed the REFLECT training. I have never before attended training like that. Till now, I was doing it my way. But now, I know the trick of doing it better.”
Salima was a boost of instant energy for all of us. Coming out of her house, I had to deconstruct many opinions on Afghanistan. She has shown me the other facet of a society that draws attention for all wrong reasons. There is abundant positive energy in the villages and in the minds. Change can happen and will happen with leaders like Salima.