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In Their Own Voices

Spotlight on Rina Amiri, Afghanistan Member
by D.N. Rowan

Rina Amiri speaks with an international Elections Monitor about systems and procedures for the Presidential election at the Loya Jirga in Kabul, Afghanistan. The Loya Jirga took place from June 11-19, 2002, with elections determining the composition of the current Transitional Government.
Rina Amiri has been preparing since she was a child for her present dynamic role as a peace builder and reconstruction strategist in her devastated homeland, Afghanistan. It is a role she has longed for, and to which she has been passionately committed for as long as she can remember.

Yet before the events of September 2001, it seemed inconceivable that she could return to her country, devastated by decades of invasion, clan warfare, drought, and famine. She was only five years old when her family fled Kabul in the early 1970s when the King was overthrown and exiled, and she vividly recalls the terror, confusion, and hardship endured by her relatives and other refugees as they scrambled for shelter in other countries.

"As a child in this climate of fear, I was confused and felt anger," she recalls. "From a secure, warm and loving family life, I suddenly learned that the world could lack any element of control. From being part of a well-respected family, we went to being nobody."

Rina Amiri briefs elected male officials for a meeting with women community leaders in Helmand, a southern province of Afghanistan. The meeting focused on how to mobilize and prepare women for participation in the Loya Jirga elections.

Her family's path led through Pakistan, then India for a time, and they finally settled near San Francisco. Her father, a physician who had run a government hospital in his own land, was forced to take less than professional work in the struggle to support his family. She and other Afghan youngsters were taunted as 'Soviets!' by American children, an ironic twist, since her country was then being pounded by Russian mortar fire and air bombings. She was painfully aware of her refugee status, and recalls having a keen sense of the importance of justice, which to her young mind was in short supply just then.

"There were only about one hundred Afghans in the Bay area back then," she recalls. "Yet we had a strong national identity. We even demonstrated in front of City Hall (against the Russian invasion of her country). We tried to communicate the injustice of it."

As more Afghans fled their country and "the Diaspora" grew in number, her community came to be called "Little Kabul." Rina and her family spoke only Farsi at home, ate Afghan food, celebrated Afghan weddings with her culture's famous hospitality and verve. Yet Rina recalls that she and her siblings, while being raised within deeply held Afghan cultural traditions and Islamic spiritual heritage at home, were also taught the importance of mastering a Western education and working hard at developing professional skills.

"We lived in two different worlds," she says. "English was our public language, with Farsi being our private, more 'real' means of communication. I was a part of American culture, yet in a way stood apart from it. The first time I thought of myself as American was not until I was in college."

Rina felt she had a duty to bend all of her intelligence and experience toward her goal: one day, to help heal her devastated country. She finished college and trained in pre-med, but felt it was too limiting, not enough. Instead, she found her way to the East Coast and enrolled at Tufts University, studying Central and Southwestern Asian politics at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy. She focused on developing conflict resolution skills, and began working as a senior research associate for the Women and Public Policy Program at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government. During her time at Harvard, Rina was a central participant in the Women Waging Peace program's annual colloquium, which gathered peace activists from conflict arenas around the world. Yet in her own homeland, she could see only despair, as the Soviet withdrawal in l989 gave way to Afghan civil war, followed by the rise of the Taliban extremists.

Rina Amiri prepares women community leaders - teachers, doctors, health professionals, and others who were isolated during the rule of the Taliban - for participation in the Loya Jirga elections.

In the shock of the World Trade Center attacks, she had only one thought: "We are going to be refugees again." She was afraid that she and her fellow Afghans would be feared and hated, and forced to leave the only home she had known for a quarter of a century. Yet in the aftermath, she felt compelled to speak out, emphasizing that not all Muslims think the same or hate America. Quoted later in The Boston Globe (Nov 11, 200l), she said, "[T]he color of our hair and our skin does not reflect what is in our hearts and minds."

Overnight, she became a spokesperson for her country, advocating for women's rights and refugee assistance. She wrote opinion pieces, spoke publicly on national radio and television, and was increasingly quoted across the nation.

With the startlingly rapid fall of the Taliban, and the formation of an interim government, she was invited to take part in the citizens' parallel conference in Bonn in November 2001. In December 200l, she played a key role in convening Muslim women and others for an important conference convened at Harvard, "Transition Within Tradition: Restoring Women's Participation in Afghanistan." Its vital message: "To create sustainable change and prevent a backlash from highly traditional elements, changes in women's roles must be couched within Afghan culture and its historical and religious framework."

The group examined women's potential participation in the political, educational, and economic sectors from Islamic and Afghan points of view, and made recommendations; the report issued from this work is being made available to Western policymakers and also used to support moderate Islamic points of view.

Rina Amiri with United Nations colleagues at the Loya Jirga during a particularly tense moment.

Early in 2002, Rina Amiri left the United States to go home to Kabul to work for reconstruction, a courageous step in a still highly unsettled political and military climate. On her way, she stopped in Peshawar, Pakistan, to visit Afghan women's and refugee support groups in order to prepare a report for potential Western supporters. Once on the ground in Afghanistan, she helped to mobilize and prepare women to participate in the Emergency Loya Jirga, (the traditional Afghan Grand Council) and was one of the monitors during the elections in which more than 1,500 delegates elected former interim leader Hamid Karzai as Head of State for Afghanistan's Transitional Administration.

Rina has now put her promising academic career on hold indefinitely, in order to work as an advisor to UNESCO and the Ministry of Women's Affairs in Kabul. She has been working with the United Nations as a Gender Advisor, setting up consultations with women activists throughout the country. "I am learning from the heroic women here," she reports. "They are seizing this moment in history and finding ways to access opportunities to gain employment and an education after six years of being confined to their homes. I am transformed as a result of my work with them, and I feel privileged to be here now, to pay a debt to my homeland and to be part of that critical mass that could push the country into a period of peace and stability."

Read other core member spotlights

In Their Own Voices
  Core Member Spotlights
The Fear Beneath the Burka
Afghan Women Eye Loya Jirga Elections
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