Their Own Voices
on Rina Amiri, Afghanistan Member
by D.N. Rowan
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.
|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.|
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.
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.|
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
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."
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.
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."
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.|
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."
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.
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."
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.|
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
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
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