Shortly after Time magazine chose Roya Mahboob as one of the 100 most influential people of 2013, the Taliban dropped the first of three “night letters” at her parents’ house in Herat, Afghanistan.
“The first letter,” Roya’s younger brother, Ali, told us as he drove my brother and me to one of the girls’ schools in Herat that Roya supports, “warned her: Don’t do this” (manage her own IT company and finance digital literacy for girls). “The second letter said: Stop it. The third letter: If you do not stop, we will kill you.” Roya, he said, had been put on a “blacklist” and he had been put on a “connected list.” When I asked him what that meant for him, he turned away from the demolition derby of a traffic circle we were about to engage, looked over his shoulder, and offered a casual smile. Disconcertingly handsome and calm, he might have been about to explain a math problem. I doubted there was anyone who didn’t like him, except, apparently, for those who had threatened to kill him: “connected” meant “if they can’t take her, they take me,” he said. Possibly responding to the expression on my face, he added (as we merged seamlessly into traffic) that no one except the passengers of this car knew ahead of time that we were coming, so it was OK. “But they know we’re here now?” I said. He rocked his head from side to side, offered the same smile. This was neither the first nor the last contradiction we encountered. In conversations with numerous people in Herat and Kabul, we heard the phrases “it’s no problem” and “it’s impossible” in equal proportions and often about the same situation. “They know,” he said, “really, they know everything. How do you say? Like maybe that woman…” He pointed out the window at a woman in a full-length royal blue burqa walking in the middle of traffic with a small child hopping in tow.
“Many spies,” the woman, Laleh, sitting next to me said. Aside from Roya’s brother, Laleh was the last of what once had been 50 employees working for Roya’s company and foundation in Herat. Both because it was not safe for her to drive and because it was not safe for her to walk home alone, one of Laleh’s brothers had to escort her to and from work every day.
The day before my sister and I boarded a plane for Afghanistan, I took the subway to midtown in New York to visit Roya at the office she shares with her business partner, businessman and philanthropist Francesco Rulli. Meeting Roya inspires the notion that all unlikely success stories are, if not exactly alike, then at least products of similar hardship. For many years Roya and her family lived in exile in Iran as Sunni minorities during the Soviet occupation and subsequent Taliban takeover that precipitated the destruction of all girls’ schools across Afghanistan.
Though interested in technology at a young age, Roya could not, as an Afghani girl in Iran, attend the regular schools where she could have accessed computers and the Internet. “So I bought a book on computer hardware—what’s the computer, what’s the mouse, all that—and I thought I knew the computer,” Roya said. “In front of my cousins, I showed off that I knew about computers. At that age, we were competitive. When we returned to Afghanistan in 2003 after the Taliban left, everyone thought I knew about computers. About one month after we were back in Herat, one of my cousins set up a Yahoo Messenger call with their family in Iran. The trouble was no one in the family knew how to go about making the call. My cousin said, ‘Roya knows how this works, we will take Roya.’ There was only one Coffeenet open in Herat. My cousin and I went down there, and I told them we wanted to use the computer. This guy was so surprised to see two girls talking in Persian. He said, ‘No, I don’t want you to use the computer because this is a store only boys can use. I will take you to the Telecommunications Office,’ and there we met an Iranian engineer. The man from the cafe introduced me and said I knew computers and knew how to work with the Internet. All these people gathered to watch the Afghani girl work the computer, but I had never even touched a computer before! After that I told myself I had to learn the computer.”
Without delay, Roya took computer courses through the United Nations Development Programme in Herat. Google was her library, Yahoo Messenger her English instructor, and soon she enrolled in computer science at Herat University. The result, Roya’s company, Afghan Citadel, won a contract with Department of Defense to update the Afghan Human Resource Information Management System for the Afghan National Army and Police. Overnight, Roya, just 23, found herself in charge of a group of older male Afghan computer engineers, many of whom had been trained abroad. Two weeks before she was supposed to finish the project, the men quit and took their work with them. Instead of giving up, she brought in women she knew from Herat University and they finished the work in time.
Having successfully fulfilled her first few jobs, Roya went on to win government contracts. “But it was very difficult to work for the Afghan government,” she said. “When I finished a project, I sometimes didn’t get the money for two years. For one of my projects, it took three years for them to pay us. They make excuses. The minister of finance said (to me and many other companies) that there was no money.”
“Was that really the case?” I asked.
Roya rolled her eyes.
“This was under the Karzai government. If you wanted to get paid, they made you get five or six people’s signatures, and then when you had all the signatures they said there was a small mistake. And then they charged you! They didn’t pay you and then they found a way to charge you.”
“Were they singling you out,” I asked, “because you were a woman?”
“It was much easier if you were a man.”
But even then, she indicated, you had to be connected or you might not get paid at all. Roya was not from one of the elite families who benefited under the Karzai administration, so she was on her own. Nevertheless, Afghan Citadel and another company she started with the assistance of Francesco Rulli, Women’s Annex.com, began to make money. Instead of stockpiling profits, Roya and her partners funneled the money back into the company and into the Women’s Annex Foundation, which began to invest in digital literacy for girls’ education in Herat and Kabul. She and her partners have connected 55,000 female students in their networks and trained 7,900 in their classrooms. Despite evidence that she has devoted her time to helping women and girls, she describes herself as an entrepreneur rather than a politician or reformer. “If you Google me it is always about business, not about women’s rights. I don’t want to be the point, you see. In Afghanistan it is OK for me to be involved in business.”
For Roya and all women in Afghanistan who seek a voice, what happened to Malala (a Pakistani girl shot in 2012 for writing an online blog) serves as an inspirational and cautionary tale. “It is better not to be too visible at this point,” Roya told me. Naturally, I asked her about this article, and she closed her eyes. “It’s OK. It’s necessary.”
Roya believes in changing the lives of girls and women by giving them confidence and skills they can use to support themselves. “When a woman generates money she has rights. So much money is spent in Afghanistan talking about women’s rights—just talking…millions of dollars spent on that, and then what happens? Nothing. I know my rights, but what do I do if I don’t have an education? If I were married and I tell my husband about my rights, he will put me out. My family is not taking care of me. No one is taking care of me. So this is for me not acceptable—just to talk about something. It’s good that they know, but it is more important that they get an education and then a skill so they can be independent.”
In the spirit of her pragmatic vision, girls set up accounts on Bitlanders (a social media site started by Francesco) using fake names and avatars as pictures. Through the sites, the girls earn bitcoin for their blogs. Money could be stolen by criminals or family members, but the girls can retain control of virtual currency and use it to purchase computer equipment, travel, or other items. In a digital world, they achieve the kind of agency that the physical world has yet to afford them. In America linking primary and secondary education in the creative arts to commerce would give many people pause, but Roya contends that girls in Afghanistan benefit from experiencing the relationship between creativity and the ability to support themselves.
Roya opened her laptop and clicked on files to show me another of the girls’ artistic projects: a dozen personal superhero drawings, one of which depicted a child, missing a leg, with hair covering half her face. Writing next to the drawing in Dari, the artist explained: “In life many people have two faces. You think you know someone but they are not always what they seem. You can’t always trust people. My hero would be someone who is trustworthy, honest and always has their heart in the right place. Even when they are not beautiful, they still have a kind heart.”
Another drawing featured a woman in a cap and gown who bore a distinct resemblance to Roya. The caption read: “My hero would teach us how to work hard to find success. To become successful means turning dreams into reality. My hero would promote education for those who need it the most.”
As Roya told me how she wanted to make comic books from the girls’ superheroes, she scrolled through the drawings, pursing her lips. For a moment, I sensed that I had vanished to her. Wherever she had gone in her thoughts, I was not invited, and I did not want to interrupt. Because her mood seemed to have turned dark on its own (in part, I guessed, because of her separation from the girls she had been working to help), when she finally looked up I asked her about the circumstances that forced her to leave Afghanistan.
To my surprise, she smiled and laughed. “It was impossible,” she said.
“Your life was threatened?” I asked.
That or, instead of killing her, “they” might have “decided to ruin my reputation.” When I asked what she meant, she explained that it was common for people to start rumors that a woman was seen with a man. If a woman became too prominent in society, her detractors might Photoshop a picture of her to show that she was with a man or in a place where women were not allowed. This improbably absurd tactic didn’t seem comparable to assassination, though Roya assured me it was a real threat, and that such a retaliation could easily spell the end of her life in Afghanistan. But then she smiled and waved of these threats. “They are nothing but thugs.”
Later, when I arrived in Afghanistan, I would encounter this same impulse to undercut the credibility of serious danger. In addition to threatening her with death and scandalous pictures, “they” had smashed in the windows of her business. And at one point the police issued a warrant for her arrest. When I told her I didn’t understand—I thought we had been talking about the Taliban—she said, “they” had paid money to get her arrested. Once she was arrested they could tell stories about her, saying she was corrupt, which would destroy her reputation. She refused to show up at the police, but she provided the correct documentation that proved the accusations had no basis. The case was dismissed.
When I asked who exactly she meant by “they,” I naively assumed I would get a one-word answer, the Taliban, but there was no easy answer. First of all, the Taliban were not just one thing. There were the religious Taliban, the ideologically militant Taliban, and then there were the criminal elements of the Taliban. It was difficult to separate the three. Within this mix one found ordinary criminals, as well as corrupt government and business interests. And the “eilte,” which did not include Roya’s family. With the end of U.S. military control in sight, many wealthy and connected families (often, by definition, corrupt) left the country with their money, most of it, according to prevailing opinion in Afghanistan, ill-gotten gain.
A fortuitous encounter with John Kerry in 2013, when he met with various young Afghan entrepreneurs in Kabul, led to an expedited visa. Roya and her sister, Elaha, moved to New York, where, with the help of patron and business partner Francesco Rulli, she began to rebuild. Under the conditions of her visa, if she leaves the U.S. she cannot reenter. Though Roya and her sister were fortunate to leave, Roya was forced to close Afghan Citadel, her Herat-based technology company that employed more than 50 people and supported the computer classrooms in the girls’ schools in Herat and Kabul.
Unlike many people who escape conflict zones, Roya is determined to do more than secure a future for herself and her family. She has formed a new company, EdyEdy, an online education platform, and an associated nonprofit, the Digital Citizen Fund, devoted to digital literacy for women and girls in Afghanistan and all over the world. She has attracted the support of Twitter's Biz Stone, Facebook’s Sheryl Sandberg, Francesco Rulli and Craigslist’s Craig Newmark, but she has yet to generate adequate resources to fund the girls in Kabul and Herat. Roya and her supporters (mainly Francesco Rulli) just manage to pay for the teachers, the Internet and all the costs associated with the computer classes in the girls schools. At one time, there were 14 IT classrooms in Herat and one in Kabul. Now there are nine.
Roya will offer her online learning platform EdyEdy for free to Afghanistan and other underfunded areas in desperate need of educational resources, and she will charge communities in the U.S. and elsewhere that can afford to pay. “Schools can create their own content on the site and make it private or make it public,” she explained. “The teacher can upload the content. It allows the schools to connect to each other in different areas, even in different countries. And in the end companies can offer work through the platform. There will be scholarships built into the system.” Students can study traditional academic subjects, but they can also get vocational training.
“You see this carpet?” Roya said, pointing to a richly textured Afghan tribal carpet hanging on the wall. “When a tutorial is uploaded, students can learn how to make it. There are carpets in Afghanistan, there are carpets in Turkey, there are carpets in Mexico. The Afghani woman making the carpet will see what the Mexican woman is doing. So they can mix it, have a new taste. They share their knowledge and share their culture. We have so many talented people in Afghanistan. My sister Elaha and her friends created the first version of EdyEdy when they were 17. They are very talented. More than half the country consists of teenagers and kids. We have a very young country, but we are not there yet, and we need help. I come from a business background. It is difficult to ask for money, but of course we have to do fundraising to have a much bigger impact. In the end, though, temporary donations are not the answer. The support for the classes needs to be sustainable through business revenue. A percentage of our profits from EdyEdy will funnel into the foundation.”
In one sense, Roya is a traditional social entrepreneur: a for-profit business will feed a nonprofit arm. Many social entrepreneurs would be satisfied with a bifurcated model, achieving a balance between profit and social change, either by creating two organizations, as Roya has done, or by setting up the buy-one, give-one model used by One Laptop Per Child and Tom’s Shoes. In Roya’s case, her for-profit company EdyEdy promises to have as much of a social impact as her nonprofit Digital Citizen Fund. Roya’s conception of business makes no distinction between profit and social change. Though by no means a naive idealist—she certainly believes a business should make money—she clearly has an expanded notion of who should benefit from profit and prosperity.
“Everything we do—even in our for-profit company—is about digital literacy, about training, about education,” Roya said. “Why are there so many terrorists?” she asked me. “You know why? There is no education. Digital literacy is the most important thing we can support. If they learn digital literacy, they can use it for different kinds of businesses. If we create a digital world for them, they can become citizens. With online citizenship, they don’t need a passport to cross the border.”
I could tell I had exhausted her and told her I looked forward to talking when I returned from Afghanistan.
“I can’t believe you are going to see my family,” Roya said and handed me a large bag of clothes, jewelry and shampoo to transport to her mother.
My brother and I landed in Kabul several hours after an Afghan National Army soldier gunned down three American civilian contractors at the same airport. After a less than serene night at the heavily fortified and frequently targeted Serena Hotel, I pulled on the headscarf Roya had given me in New York and we headed out with a driver to meet Roya’s older brother, Ebrihim, and Zahara, a teacher at the Amena E Fedawi girls school. First we would meet the Women’s Annex football team Roya supports and then travel to one of the IT classes. We flew along wide streets lined with tiny shops, some of them in rusting shipping containers with CCCP written on the sides. Down many rubble-strewn alleys, campfires burned on the ground. Despite the absence of road signs or signals, no one seemed uncalm. Without, apparently, upsetting our driver or any of the other drivers, a truck suddenly drove at full speed directly into the flow of traffic, right at us. Everyone simply steered out of the way and then closed in around the truck’s wake.
Though the Afghan police and National Army were in evidence every few blocks, either posted on corners with AK-47s hanging around their necks or tearing through traffic in Toyota trucks as one of their members standing in the bed clung to a deck-mounted machine gun, we saw no sign of the American military, who had transitioned from a combat role to a mission of training and advising called Resolute Support. Eventually, sensing some commotion to our rear, I looked over my shoulder and saw cars peeling to the side in advance of three giant tan bunkers, MRAPS, I later learned they were called, Mine-Resistant Ambush Protected Vehicles, the size of dump trucks. With breadbox-size openings in front for the driver to see out and wheels as tall as our roof, the MRAP makes the Humvee look like a Datsun. They traveled in wedge formation and plowed their way through traffic. People seemed to sense their approach and got out of the way without even looking.
“The Americans,” our driver said with a smile that seemed partly apologetic and partly proprietary. They had said they were going, but they were still here!
In one of my many meetings with Roya in New York, I asked her if she was worried about the American troop drawdown, and she surprised me by shaking her head. Then I quickly saw that I had misunderstood.
“We don’t want to think that they are leaving,” Roya said.
When I asked her about women’s rights under the new government, she said she was hopeful. In 2009 President Karzai signed into law by executive order the Elimination of Violence Against Women act (EVAW), but the constitution requires that the law be approved by the parliament, and so far they have failed to do so. Now with the Americans drawing down their military presence, many worry that more conservative factions, including the Taliban, will use women’s rights as a bargaining chip with the new president, Ashraf Ghani, who must make compromises in order to form a functional government.
When I later asked the former ambassador to Afghanistan Ronald Neumann about the future of the EVAW law, he cautioned: “If we press too hard and too publicly, then we may cause the law to fail because of resistance to foreign imposition of cultural values. If the law is not supported among the people, it will not be implemented.”
Our driver pulled down a bumpy side street and stopped in front of a wall of closed shops. Ibrahim and Zahara waited for us on the curb and led us through a metal door and a long dark hallway that eventually opened to an indoor soccer arena.
Immediately my brother and I were separated. He went out onto the hard surfaced field with Ibrahim and started kicking the ball with several male players while Zahara whisked me into the changing room where I met the girls. Once the door shut on the boys, the girls started chatting as they changed into their football gear: blue shirts and shorts pulled over leggings and sweatshirts, scarves covering their heads. They stole glances at me and whispered to each other.
Dressed, they burst onto the field as a pack and kicked balls around as their coach, Amin, also the coach of the Women’s National Team, set up cones for practice.
“She is the star,” Zarhara told me and pointed to the smallest player on the field. Instead of the scarves worn by the others, this player had perched a wool cap on her head.
“The star of this team?”
“This team and the National Team,” Zarhara said. “Her name is Mona. She’s 12.” None of the girls looked older than 22, but Mona seemed too small and too young to play with the others. “The goalie is a star, too. Asima. My sister.”
As the girls called to each other in the concrete echo chamber of the partly covered four-story arena, I had trouble distinguishing individual voices. It was cold. No one paid attention at first as the coach called for the girls to line up for drills. Mona dribbled in a circle for a moment, evading imaginary opponents. She nudged the ball in front of her, and I waited for her to tap it toward the goal. Asima, standing in front of the net, wore a loosely attached headscarf over what must have been a huge mane. The layers of clothes she wore under her uniform concealed any shape to her body and presumably reduced her mobility. She bent her knees and raised her hands. Mona floated along on springy legs and then suddenly doubled her speed, drew back her leg and pounded the ball with a percussive boom. The ball shot off the floor toward the corner of the net. Asima leapt diagonally through the air, knocked the ball clear, and paratrooper rolled to her feet.
“Holy shit,” my brother said next to me.
Before this moment, I had not fully understood my preconceived assumptions about Afghan women. The occasional story about a woman like Roya notwithstanding, we are inclined by the media to think of Afghan women as, if not weakened by patriarchy, then at least slowed down. Mona’s foot was a cannon with 10 times the power of anyone her size. As the girls began to scrimmage, she sped around the field and seemed to spend as much time in the air as she did on the floor.
When we reached the Amena E Fedawi girls school, I soon discovered that Mona was the rule, not the exception. More than a dozen girls sat around a table facing the blank screens of computers, waiting for the power to come back. Though it was the middle of winter and cold enough for my down jacket, all the other classrooms we saw had broken windows. As Zahara apologized for the electricity, a man appeared with an armful of wood to feed the woodstove at the back of the room. Someone else ran to start the generator that Roya and her partners had procured for the school. The girls had just finished English class and were about to start their beginning computer class, in which they would learn how to set up email and social media accounts. A few of them had computers at home, but most of them could only access the Internet during the brief time they spent in class. Their eyes followed me without, it seemed, pausing to blink, but when I turned to them their gazes scattered like minnows.
The class had already started to write blogs that they would share on the Internet. When I asked the girls if any of them would tell me what they had been writing, hands shot up. Zahara called on one woman who stood, looked me directly in the eyes, and told me boldly, “I am blogging about women’s rights in Afghanistan and that women can show their talents and do everything that men can do. Women and men are the same. Women have good minds ...” When she was done, she abruptly sat, and another girl popped up: “My blog is called Blood in the Desert. I gave my blog this title because all over Afghanistan there are mines in the ground. When the bombs explode, women and children are killed. I explain how the wounds in the heart come out in the writing ...” Another girl rose and asked to read a poem she had written in Pashtun (which was hard to translate, Zahara explained, because most of them only spoke Dari. Some thought of Pashtun as the language of the Taliban). Though she must have known we couldn’t understand her, she straightened her back, lengthened her neck, and annunciated with great care the sounds of every word.
My sister and I flew from Kabul to Herat where we met Roya’s brother Ali and his friends, who drove us to the Mahboobs' at the center of the city. We turned off a major thoroughfare, followed a side road, and then turned again down a long alley. Finally, we parked in a small cul-de-sac accessing a number of six-story buildings, each rising from behind 12-foot metal walls. Ali led us through a locked door and into an interior courtyard. The Mahboob house, a heavy masonry apartment building, a kind of private citadel constructed in the years after the Taliban were pushed out of the city, housed an IT center Roya had set up on the first floor (a dozen women and girls looked up from their computers when we said hello). The floor had served as the office for Roya’s company before she was forced to leave last year. As we climbed the stairs, Ali explained that the two middle floors were empty and that when he was in Herat he stayed on the top floor with his parents. Roya’s and Ali’s father, Ahktar Mohammed Mahboob, stood on the top step with his hands clasped behind his back, ready to welcome us to his home. Inside we met Ahktar’s wife, Najiba, who said hello quickly and returned to the kitchen. The savory aroma and a quick glance over the half wall revealed the culinary production of a large restaurant. Surely there were more people coming to supper.
The expansive, four-room apartment where the Mahboobs lived couldn’t possibly, in my mind, sit atop the first floor IT center that hadn’t seemed much larger than the living room of a '50s middle-class split-level. The main room where we stood, the living room, contained no furniture except a low square object in the middle of the floor covered by blankets, all sitting on thick carpets. A flat screen hung from the wall. Ahktar led us into a side room containing several large, low sofas, coffee tables and heavy drapes over the windows, all of it gold and purple and rich brown. Fruits, nuts, crackers and cheese covered the tables. I sat down next to Ahktar in the far corner and asked him about the enormous 4-foot-long tiger perched high on a shelf. You had to look twice to make sure the tiger wasn’t real and then again to make sure it hadn’t once been real. Opened wide, the tiger’s mouth revealed long white fangs. On the tiger’s back sat a white stuffed-animal dog that seemed to laugh as it looked down at us.
“That’s Roya’s tiger,” Ahktar said.
“And the dog?”
“The dog, too.”
Ali, my sister and Laleh had followed us into the room, but when I looked up, they were all gone and the door had been shut, leaving Ahktar and me (the two old men) alone. He folded his long hands in his lap, looked at me with his large, dark eyes and told me about the 2,000-acre farm where he had grown up in western Afghanistan, where his father had been the head of his tribe and his father before him. After living for so many years in exile during the Soviet and Taliban rule, his family had lost control of much of their land—others had claimed it. When I asked if the legal system could help him, he furrowed his brow and looked confused, as if, despite his perfect English, he hadn’t understood my question. By the time he shook his head, I understood that we had come to an asymmetrical impasse—the law, at least in the way I conceived of it, had little to do with his family’s land and what would happen to it (or to his family, for that matter) in the future.
Ahktar explained that shortly after the Taliban put Roya on a blacklist and before she left the country, he received a visitor (who must remain unnamed for the safety of all concerned) who sat where I sat now and told Akhtar that the police would not be able to protect Roya or her younger brother, Ali. To simply blame the Taliban in this situation (and in most others) would be a vast oversimplification. The myriad reasons for the failure of conventional civic institutions to sufficiently take root are often combined under the fuzzy idea of corruption. Conflicting values and historical forces (whose origins predate the existence of the United States) combine with old-fashioned crime, drug trafficking, graft, extortion and other forms of common self-interest to create a mess. He noted that the new president, Ashraf Gani, had begun to make reforms in the police forces in Herat and around the country. “Maybe it will take 50 years,” Ahktar said, “maybe longer before we see peace again.”
I wondered aloud if the transfer of military authority from the U.S. to the Afghan National Army and police might not make matters worse. His gaze and his head listed toward the wall. “We are like victims,” he said eventually and frowned, indicating his distaste for the situation. Before the Soviets, Ahktar had worked in the Ministry for the Environment in Herat. He had done his graduate work in Germany. “We need the U.S. right now,” he said. “There are many wolves at the door.” The Taliban, yes, and Iran, China, Russia, ISLE and Pakistan. Also, he indicated, the corrupt elements within the country. “I have four sons,” Ahktar said, and “I was one of 12 brothers.” In Afghanistan, he explained, you had to have many sons in order to be safe. “If you have no sons …” he said, nodding his head to the side with his eyes closed, a signature gesture, I had noticed, many people here employed to prepare you for the unpleasant second part of the sentence. Instead of speaking, he floated his right hand, fingers splayed, into the space between us and grabbed at the air. “They take,” he said. Despite or possibly because of his pragmatic view of the ways things stood in terms of gender, he then added, “what we need are 10 Royas.” He wanted his children to leave, he said, because the situation was “impossible,” but if that happened he and his wife would be alone.
Down the alley, down the long drive, behind the wall and up four flights of stairs, Ahktar, too, lived in exile, from Roya and his other daughter Elaha and also from his childhood on the 2,000-acre farm.
Ali called us in for supper in another room off the living room. The meal spread from one side of the floor to the other. Pillows lined each wall. I sat down on one of the pillows, and Ahktar sat next to me. When my sister took out her iPhone to take our picture, Ahktar leaned against my shoulder and put his hand on my knee. As we ate chicken kebab, lamb, a chickpea dish, salad, hummus and a number of other things I could not identify but devoured, both because it was delicious and because I had not eaten since my free breakfast at the Serena Hotel in Kabul, Ahktar began to talk about Roya’s partner Francesco Rulli, who had believed in and invested in Roya’s work for several years. “He is a member of my family. Tell him that when you see him.” I told him I would. “I would love for him to come visit us someday,” he went on, “when it is safe.”
“When it’s safe?” I repeated and looked at Ali, who closed his eyes and nodded his head to the side.
“Don’t worry,” Ali said. “It’s not a problem.”
I was not worried. I was hungry, and then, quite suddenly, I was totally exhausted. There had been enough food for four times as many people, and I had eaten myself into a coma. We moved to the living room, where Ahktar pointed to the square in the middle of the room and told me this was the traditional arrangement in Afghanistan. Normally a large family would sit around the square and everyone would drink tea. He lifted the blankets and beckoned me under. One of the blankets, at least, was electric and instantly soporific. Ali and Ahktar joined me under the blanket and Ali turned the flat screen to a show Ahktar said he had been following: what he described as a dubbed Turkish TV version of "Anna Karenina." The cast looked like they belonged on a mid-'80s rerun of "Dallas." I wondered about the sleeping arrangements—my sister occupied the one bedroom on this floor, what must have been the parents’ bedroom. Ali told me we would all just sleep under the blankets where we were. As I watched Levin court Kitty in Dari, I felt completely at home and was asleep before I closed my eyes.
We wanted to meet as many of the girls as possible at the Herat schools and see the work they had been doing. Ali and Laleh graciously agreed to take us to six schools. My brother and I rose early so we could stop by the leaning towers and frescoed mosques of the 15th century Mosallah Complex and the Herat Citadel, also known as the Citadel of Alexander, or the Qala Iktyaruddin, which rises above the surrounding city as a commanding testament to the area’s ancient origins. Some say the Citadel, which has been destroyed many times, most recently by the Taliban, and rebuilt many times, dates back to 330 BC when Alexander the Great arrived. I could have spent days wandering through this history, but we had more important business among the living. As we sped off to see the IT classrooms Roya had worked so hard to establish, I reflected that this region, which had endured so many invasions, had once been the most technologically advanced in the world during the Islamic Golden Age. A people with such a proud past might naturally resist foreign assistance.
“I know Americans are frustrated with spending so much money in Afghanistan,” Roya had told me in New York, “but if they spend the money in the right way they could get a much better result. With a small amount of money, they can do so much. So many countries come in and spend millions of dollars—a lot of money dumped on different projects that offer no results.”
What Roya said mirrored what Ambassador Neumann told me about the role of foreign investment and NGOs. “The problem in particular with NGOs,” he said, “is that they are project driven. They need the project dollars to stay alive. While they do good work, they can end up inhibiting the development of their [the Afghan people’s] own thinking. Afghans end up doing what foreigners will pay for instead of what they think are important tasks.”
Roya agreed with this and added: “Most of the foreign investment goes toward operational costs. Big salaries. Stuff that is really not necessary. That’s wrong. Infrastructure is important. With $1 million, I can open 50 IT classrooms in girls schools. And then my organization can cover the maintenance costs.”
At the first school we visited, I asked the girls what they wanted to do when they were older. Many of the girls spoke English, but Laleh translated as needed. Their hands shot up just as they had in Kabul, and one by one they rose to tell us: They wanted to be doctors, computer scientists, teachers, pilots. When I asked what they wanted to tell the world through their blogs, their voices deepened and in many cases their brows pinched with serious intent:
“I want to blog that we want a safe and secure Afghanistan. We want it to be safe so we can study. Maybe someone will read and understand that we want peace.”
“We want to tell the world about the Taliban and ISLE—we don’t need these people, but they are coming.”
“We want to show that the Afghan woman is the same as other women in the world.”
“I want to be like a man working outside in the world.”
“We don’t want ISLE and the Taliban to close the schools.”
As I listened to the girls, I thought of the upcoming UN Women’s Beijing +20 Summit where Roya would be a featured speaker. In 1995 the Beijing platform first called for 50/50 gender parity—a sharing of power between the sexes—and now these girls were still asking for the same thing 20 years later. They were not speaking to me but to the world and to Roya, who had not been able to visit them for some time. I thought of a conversation I had had with Roya in New York, when I had asked her why some men in Afghanistan were afraid of girls’ education—why did it threaten them? I had my own ideas, but I wanted to hear hers.
“They don’t want the girls to be open. Then women would have power and the men couldn’t control them. Right now women are under the control of men. If they say to their father or brother: ‘OK, this is my boyfriend and I want to marry him,’ this is unacceptable and there are honor killings—the girls are sometimes killed as a result. They think “women’s rights” means girls will be immoral and find boyfriends. It’s about power, control. I think women should have a choice about their own lives. You know what happened to Malala? She was shot because she was speaking out. The thing is this: One girl can be shot. Maybe 10 girls can be in danger. But what if we have hundreds and thousands of girls like Malala?”
In the schools, the girls showed us how they wrote blogs, for the Bitlanders site, and took photographs and videos for the online site Artistic Street, a site Roya had set up to feature the girls’ artwork. We saw the winning photographs posted on walls on the street outside the schools. Some of the early postings had been torn down, but the last one, of a girl riding a plow with her father and looking over her shoulder, remained. The 3-foot-wide poster sat high on the whitewashed wall.
“When I first went to the schools,” Roya told me, “the girls were very shy and they couldn’t talk. But they are like me. If someone says to them ‘don’t do it—don’t use the computer, don’t speak up,’ they have to do it if you give them the chance. After a while when I went to the classes and asked questions, most of the girls raised their hands because they had more confidence. They had started chatting and writing blogs using, in some cases, their fake names and avatars so they could build confidence anonymously. They were more talkative, they had a voice, and it led them to talk about their feelings. Slowly, this will bring changes in the family and in the society.”
We arrived at out last stop, the Hoza Karbas high school, in time for an awards ceremony for two girls who had won the photography and superhero drawing competitions Roya had arranged. My brother and I were given seats in the front row, and one of the girls handed him a bowl of sweets, which he held onto for too long. Another girl had to remind him to share with Ali and me. Good for her, I thought, and nudged him. He apologized and handed on the sweets.
A group of girls came to the front of the hall and sang. Finally, a woman called the two winners to the front of the room to receive framed award certificates for their art. Everyone in the room clapped and cheered. The girls had set out nuts, dried fruits and candy. At their request, I stood so they could have their photograph taken with me. Of course, it should have been Roya standing with the girls, not me. Many of the girls came up to us and thanked us for coming. We thanked them for inviting us to their celebration. Again I thought of Roya’s words (indeed, it seemed as if she were there with us): “I know if I teach them, no one can stop them.” No photograph, no words, can adequately represent their magnetism, the way the air around us seemed to vibrate with their will to live.
Roya and those like her have begun to make progress toward a society that tolerates, if not always embraces, women’s rights. Now the future is uncertain. As NATO and the U.S. military hand over security to the Afghan National Army and the Afghan Police, and the EVAW women’s rights law languishes unratified in the Afghan parliament, no one can say what will happen to the Afghan girls who have begun to find their voices.
“I worry about it. A lot of people depend on me,” Roya confided when I returned to New York. Anyone who has met the girls from Herat and Kabul—who has seen their faces and heard their stories—must feel how much the future of Afghanistan depends on them.