Like a white pigeon of peace, brave as a lion and impressive like the sun, Tahera Popal, 45, is the only Afghan woman working as a human rights officer in the United Nations in Herat, a province in northwestern Afghanistan.
She is not only a victorious, credible and reliable woman, a father and a mother for her four children, and a role model for her cousins and women in her society, but she is also a hardworking human rights, women’s rights and children’s rights activist, and a strong, skillful, capable collaborator with her colleagues. Besides working as a human rights officer, she also organizes workshops and trainings on human rights and women’s rights for governmental institutions – such as the police, the Army, members of Prosecution Institution and the court – and arranges gender equality and human rights trainings for Herat University students.
Popal is brave and impressive because she has been working successfully from 2001 to 2010, after the dark period of the Taliban government that imprisoned free women from 1996 to 2001. Witnessing the misfortune in Afghan women’s lives and experiencing it in her own life when she lost her husband, she started a private school. Under the pretense of teaching the Quran and tailoring, she taught about 100 girls in two shifts from grades one to 10 at home. She also worked in civil institutions and trained teachers from private schools – schools at home – how to teach more effectively.
Working and supporting a family by herself at home was not easy, but impressively and bravely Popal did this work. Popal is a successful women’s rights activist, and she is working to improve women’s participation in Afghanistan’s social, economic and political arenas.
But because of the long isolation of women from different dimensions in Afghanistan, nowadays women are afraid to take steps in order to change the way society works. For these women, Popal can be a model of fearlessness and an inspiration for change. Popal passionately described her strategies and tactics that she uses to successfully overcome the problems that she faces in her work and her society. Her outstanding skills are her biggest weapons. Besides being educated, she knows four languages – Dari, Pashtu, Urdu and English. Her conversation is very effective because she talks in a way that people can understand so that she can communicate with people of different ages and from different backgrounds.
“The way you talk is very tricky in Afghanistan,” she said. “For example, in the training, if I tell the women to stop child marriages, they will not accept. But if I tell them, do you have back ache? Have you suffered from different diseases from a very young age? They will say, ‘Yes,’ so I can tell them it is because of child marriage, please try to avoid it.”
According to Popal, a major challenge for Afghan women who strive to create change is effective communication so that others can understand their goals and trust what they are trying to achieve.
“One of the secrets of my success is that people trust me,” she said.
Popal has gained that trust in four ways.
“Honesty, purity, skills and loyalty,” she said.
To say these words is easy, but to put them in action needs a kind, pure heart – a heart that Popal has.
“A leader in this society should accept and compromise with the backwards in order to bring positive changes for the future generation,” she said.
This is not always easy, as Popal’s occupation has negatively affected her personal life. She has been threatened for the past two years by men in high positions who are involved in the criminal cases on which she has been working. She said she has received threats from these male state agents by “not accepting their offers, and not anonymously covering their cases as it usually happens.”
Corruption is a huge business that people benefit from in Afghanistan. Lt. Gen. Stanley McChrystal, overall commander of U.S. and international forces in Afghanistan, identified official corruption as a key problem in the Afghan government of President Hamid Karzai in an August 2009 assessment, according to a Congressional Research Service Report for Congress. This small portion of evidence proves that there are many people in the government who benefit from illegal activities such as corruption and drug smuggling.
Popal said that women were less likely than men to be corrupt or act as drug smugglers or warlords, which is one of the reasons that men do not want women to work in high positions with them. But she is very optimistic about the future and the growth of women’s participation in social, economic and political issues.
“I enjoy when I see those students that I taught at home are working as doctors, engineers, officers and teachers,” she said. “I am happy that I can see many of our relatives, now they let their girls to go to school. And finally, I am pleased that this year we had the highest number of women candidates from Herat, and hopeful for tomorrow’s generation.”
Her vision and missions are fascinating, and just talking to her can build the desire in women to follow in her footsteps.
References: Katzaman, Kenneth. "Afghanistan: Politics, Elections, and Government Preformance." Congressional research service 7-5700. (Nov, 30, 2009): 5. Web. 6 Dec 2010. http://books.google.com/books?hl=en&lr=&id=5uClgbXcsVoC&oi=fnd&pg=PA1&dq=lates+news+on+women+in+afghanistn+election+2010&ots=L8UJJvtoAm&sig=nYhTX4w-jK6ZCtrJkKlZAMLWyvk#v=onepage&q&f=false.
This article is part of a writing assignment for Voices of Our Future, which is providing rigorous web 2.0 and new media training for 30 emerging women leaders. We are speaking out for social change from some of the most unheard regions of the world.