When you think of Afghanistan, what comes to mind? War? Osama bin Laden? Taliban? Warlords? Violence? Sadly, yes. How about “female journalist, entrepreneur, and politician who advocates for women’s rights?” Not as likely.
Meet Ms. Unlikely, Shukria Barakzai.
Barakzai was born and educated in Kabul. But unlike many of the educated class who fled Afghanistan in 1996 when the Taliban seized power, she elected to stay and fight the good fight. And she’s been fighting ever since.
In 1999, pregnant and feeling ill, she left her home to try and get to her doctor’s office. The religious police, seeing her without her husband (a crime in their eyes) beat her on the street. This caused her to miscarry her baby. But it also lit a fire in her. She was angry, and decided that day to dedicate her life to championing justice in her country.
She started an underground school in her home. And when the Taliban was thrown out in 2001, she finished her studies at Kabul University, with a major in archaeology and geology.
In 2002 she founded Aina-E-Zan (Women’s Mirror), dedicated to informing Afghan women on political and cultural issues like child marriage, forced, marriage, maternal and fetal mortality rates, and freedom of the press.
In 2004 she chose to run against her husband for a position in the Afghanistan Parliament. He was a multi-millionaire, and she had a shoe-string budget. He spent the equivalent of $500,000 US dollars and championed the status quo. She had a microphone and a loudspeaker and did a lot of street campaigning, with the dream of democracy and an end to misogynistic practices like polygamy. Ironically, it was revealed during this time that her husband had in fact taken a second wife, which is legal under sharia law. She defeated him by a 3 to 1 margin.
Since that day she has received international recognition as International Editor of the Year by the World Press Review, and Woman of the Year by the BBC radio program Woman’s Hour.
Ten years after her election, she continues to be a voice for change in a system that is not exactly known for its progressive politics. As Barakzai put it, "Our parliament is a collection of lords. Warlords, drug lords, crime lords..." Not surprisingly she has received numerous death threats, and survived an assassination attempt by a suicide bomber in November of 2014 as she made her way to Parliament. And she is not afraid to challenge the international community either, even taking on President Obama’s military build-up plan in her country, asking him to “send 30,000 scholars or engineers instead of that many soldiers.”
A voice for Afghanistan, a voice for humanity…
Shukria Barakzai is a hero you should know. And I’m Dr. Ross Porter.