A Ray of God, a Ray of Hope for Afghanistan

Originally published on the Huffington Post UK

By the end of this week, millions of Afghans will have voted for the future of our country.

We may not get the results of the presidential election for months, as votes need to be collected and counted from some of the most remote areas of the country before a second route of voting for the frontrunners. However, President Karzai cannot run for a third term, so there is one thing we know for sure: change is coming.

The identity of our new leader is not the only uncertainty we are facing. As foreign troops prepare to withdraw by the end of this year, ordinary Afghans are holding their collective breath, waiting to see what the impact on our country will be.

We are all undeniably worried that the progress and achievements of the last decade will collapse in the face of so much change.

Returning to Afghanistan nine years ago, after living as a refugee in Iran, I barely recognised my country. My family fled with nothing but two teacups, and while in Iran, we had no rights as refugees. We couldn’t buy property or a car, and I could not have attended university. My parents, who had both worked as military officers before with 20 years of experience, had to take basic jobs – my mother was a tailor and my father worked in construction.

When I came back to Afghanistan, I suddenly had opportunities that for so long had been denied to women. I studied business at Khana-e-Noor University and got a job with Islamic Relief, working as the Orphan Sponsorship and Women’s Development Coordinator. I am able to travel for work and dress as I choose – I wear a headscarf because I want to, not because I have to – and my husband is fully supportive of everything I do. My parents’ lives have changed too – my mother works as the head nurse in a military hospital, and is the main breadwinner supporting our family.

There have been huge improvements for women like me and my mother. It is no longer uncommon in places like Kabul for women to be educated, go to work – most organisations have 20% female employees, which doesn’t sound like much, but is a huge improvement – or run small businesses. As well as academic education, they are also learning their rights, and are able to access new and improved health services. In a country where pregnancy or childbirth kills one woman every two hours, this is vital.

Islamic Relief’s women’s education programme shows the amazing ripple effect of empowering just one woman. Uzra Lali is one of the most inspiring people I’ve met through my work, the embodiment of the African proverb: ‘Educate a man and you educate an individual; educate a woman and you educate a nation.’ Her husband is disabled and cannot work, having been beaten by the Taliban in jail. She could have just waited for others to help her, but instead she juggled raising five children and taking literacy classes with Islamic Relief at the same time.

Now, she runs a small business employing and training 48 women. She’s helped to lift nearly 50 families out of poverty,families who can now afford to send their children to school and build the next generation of educated Afghans. As Jalal ad-Din Rumi, one of Islam’s most revered poets and Afghanistan’s most celebrated sons, said: “Woman is a ray of God”. Uzra has certainly been a ray of hope for the families around her.

Children are the future of our country. If we start educating them early, in 20 years we will have a nation of educated adults who can build a new Afghanistan. As mothers and future mothers, Afghan women must be educated to ensure that their children are raised to value learning.

As a Muslim woman, I know that Islam sees men and women as equally valuable members of society, and gives everyone the right to learn – but we must fight for our rights. Not just in Afghanistan, but around the world. No one is going to give us our rights for free if we don’t stand up for them. As well as continued support for education and healthcare provision, I also want to see resources put into advocating for human rights, raising awareness among Afghans of what rights they should be giving others and demanding for themselves.

In spite of the uncertainty we currently face, the endurance of my people throughout conflict, and in particular the resilience of women, gives me hope for Afghanistan’s future. I pray that they have learned from this last decade and can use that learning to build a better future for us all.

My hope for the future is also tinged with concern. The new Afghanistan is like a growing baby that has been nurtured for the last ten years – a baby whose health will be at risk if it is suddenly left. We still need support from the international community, and Afghanis know this – that’s why a jirga (consultative council) of community leaders voted last year in favour of the Bilateral Security Agreement, which would allow a more gradual transition to complete independence, rather than an abrupt shift.

The people of Afghanistan, the women of Afghanistan, are ready to build on the hard work of the last decade. We urge you to stand by us – and work with us – for a brighter future.

Read Islamic Relief’s new advocacy report, Afghanistan in Limbo, and sign our petition urging PM David Cameron to keep supporting the country in its hour of need: Don’t Abandon Afghanistan.

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