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PeaceTimes Edition 95. Suraya Pakzad, A Woman of Courage

28 July 2009 11 Comments

- by Mary Liston Liepold

Burkha HeelsEarlier in this decade, US-led military operations in Afghanistan and Iraq came wrapped up in gallant language about saving the women from fundamentalist oppression. Some segments of the public bought it, both in the West and in those countries. Astute women everywhere knew better.

Instead of looking for a hero on a white horse, or in a desert-camouflage Humvee, the women we admire most set out to save themselves and each other. They were willing to work with anyone who could support their struggles, at least in the short term, but they knew the real work had to be done within their cultures. And they knew that their most reliable outside ally was not the US but the other superpower: global public opinion.

That power was clearly demonstrated earlier this month. On July 8, the United Nations issued “Silence Is Violence,” a report developed by the High Commissioner on Human Rights (UNHCR) and the UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA). The report cites violence against women at every level of the culture in Afghanistan, from criminal gangs to women’s own family members and from anti-government forces to the government itself. And it faults the international community for standing by as a bad situation grows worse. Putting security before human rights is absolutely wrong, says Dr. Sima Samar, the chairperson of the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission, “since you need human rights for sustainable peace.”

That very day, President Hamid Karzai signed legislation modifying a law that had prompted protests in Afghanistan and around the world since its passage in April. Wording was changed from “a woman must be ready to have sex with her husband every four days,” to “a woman is required to do any housework that the couple agreed to at the time of marriage,” the Associated Press reported. The revision also removed language requiring women to ask their husband’s permission to leave the house. The revised law, which only affects the 10% of the population who are Shia, must still pass through Parliament. A new family law for the Sunni majority is still in development. Chances are it will be designed with more sensitivity to international opinion and the views of Afghan women.

Ms Suraya Pakzad with President Hamed Karzay after receiving International Women of Courage Award 2008

Ms Suraya Pakzad with President Hamid Karzai after receiving International Women of Courage Award 2008

In years to come, the Afghan government and the world will be reckoning with two beautiful, forceful young women in particular: Suraya Pakzad and Alaha Ahrar. Both are longtime Peace X Peace members. Suraya has already achieved international recognition, including a designation by the US State Department as a Woman of Courage, in 2008, and selection by Time Magazine this year as one of the Time 100: The World’s Most Influential People. Khaled Hosseini, author of The Kite Runner and A Thousand Splendid Suns, wrote the profile of Suraya for Time.

Alaha’s global recognition is yet to come, though she is well known among Afghans, and especially Afghan women, for her poetry. This is a culture that reveres poetry, so their mutual interest was additional common ground when the two women talked earlier this month.

Alaha Ahrar

Alaha Ahrar

Suraya Pakzad is a 38-year-old Afghan woman from the province of Herat. She is the Founder of the Voice of Women Organization in Afghanistan. Suraya Pakzad is married and has six children. She has been helping Afghan women since 1998, when she started running a secret home school for girls. The period of the Taliban was a big challenge, because girls and women were not allowed access to education. Suraya Pakzad has always been thinking about how to help Afghan women. She focuses on education and basic legal and social rights not only for free women, but also for women who are in prison. She wants to help and reach all women in Afghanistan.

In a country where it is very difficult for a woman to work outside her house, and most husbands stop their wives from going out, Suraya Pakzad’s husband has always been helpful and supportive of her goal, her work, and her mission. She considers herself a lucky woman for having a supportive husband and family.

- Alaha Ahrar    

How do you define yourself?

I am a supporter of women’s rights.

How do you define peace?

I don’t know! I have never experienced any day in my life that has been peaceful. I grew up during civil war in Herat, one of the 34 provinces of Afghanistan, located in the west-central part of the country. Then I moved to Kabul and I have lived the rest of my life there. I have never lived out of the country; even during the worst times of civil war I was in Kabul, Afghanistan. Therefore, it is very difficult for me to define peace. Peace is something I have heard about, but I have never felt it.

How do you experience peace in your everyday life?

I do not experience peace in my everyday life. The situation is very difficult for those women who are the supporters of women’s rights, and for all well-known and educated Afghan women. When I go outside my house to work I do not feel safe, so I have never been able to feel peace in my life.

The greatest fear and concern in Afghanistan is security. Many times I have asked the officials to provide me with a security guard, but no one listens to me. No one in Afghanistan wants to protect and support those women who are the supporters of women’s rights. That is why I am always concerned and fearful while I am going to work.

What is your greatest strength?

My greatest strength is my goal, supporting and promoting Afghan women’s rights.

What is the greatest challenge you have met in your life? How did you cope?

Every single step I take is a challenge, and my work itself is a challenge, but I never give up. I keep moving on and on. My passion gives me strength and makes me capable of coping with all the difficulties that I face in my life as a woman in Afghanistan.

Suraya with Condoleeza Rice, 2008 Women Of Courage

Suraya with Condoleeza Rice, 2008 Women Of Courage Award Ceremony

As an Afghan woman I must not only focus on outsiders but also inside my home. Some of my greatest, most interesting challenges have been inside my family. One of my daughters goes to school in Herat, where people are very conservative. Almost all of the women are at home. The other students tease my daughter because her mother is appearing in TV and working outside the house. My daughter suffers from this and wonders why her mother is famous, why she is not at home like other women. I wrote a poem to my daughter to help her understand. I have to cope with all the challenges of my life to prove to my family that I am right. [See the poem in Persian, at right, and below in an English translation by Jila Peacock.]

Recognition helps a great deal. I am satisfied now because my hard work has been appreciated not only inside Afghanistan but outside the country, in the United States of America. I especially appreciated receiving the US State Department’s Woman of Courage award.

What other women do you admire?

I admire Condoleezza Rice. Although she suffered discrimination as a black woman, in spite of facing lots of challenges she did not give up, but she proved herself one of the most successful women all over the world.

What can women do to bring peace?

All women, as individuals and groups, should try to change their lives. All women should work for their rights and struggle for their rights, and support all other women who are working for their rights. I want all PeaceTimes readers to know about the problems of Afghan women and help and support them to become educated.

Suraya Pakzad

Suraya Pakzad

My Name is Woman

My daughter, my beloved daughter,

you who are my whole life,

the passion of my existence -

lately your gaze has lost its light

and I fear you are distancing your heart from mine

ignoring me, even while listening.

Do you fear your mother shamed?

What frightens you?

She who is able and aware,

with perseverance her strength,

gallops into the conflict without fear?

She who for love of her country has stirred up waves

and rejecting all the myths, today redraws the boundaries

where our identities are worthless?

What are you asking, my sweetheart?

Your mother does not need a famous name;

her name is Woman,

my name, your name and the names of a thousand others

with unfulfilled lives.

Their names, despised and belittled, are discounted,

so many names just as seals on pacts.*

Do not be afraid my love, your mother is not alone.

She travels with friends on the path

with one thought, one heart and one journey,

beyond name, beyond life -

and all are in danger.

We shall prepare the path for you and your children.

We shall fight now so that you shall survive.

We shall die now so that you shall live.

- Suraya Pakzad    

(Translated by Jila Peacock)

*This a term Afghan men use in referring to their wives. It emphasizes the shyness and reserve that were traditionally considered feminine virtues.


دخترم دختر خوبم

اي همه بود و نبودم

تو تمناي وجودم

دير گاهيست نگاه تو چي بی نور شده

ترسم اي جان ، دل تو از دل من دور شده

اي نگاهت خاموش

اي سرا پا همه گوش

اي كه تو ، بيم ز رسوايي مادر داري

ز چه ترسي جانم؟

او كه با عشق به ميهن, زده با آب به امواج

نپذيرد او هرآنچه كه خرافات باشد

مرز برچيند از آنجا كه كنون -

آنچه امروز حضور من و تو عكس كرامت باشد

او كه با دست توانا ، دل آگاه به ميدان تازد

نهراسد ز نبرد ، قوت اش همت اوست

ز چي پرسي جانم؟

مادرت نام نخواهد ، نام او نام زن است

نام تو, نام من و نام هزاران ديگر

كه بروئيده و هيچگاه شگوفا نشدند

نام داشتند و دريغ !

نام شان عاجزه و كوچ وسياه سر باشد

اي بسی نام كه زيبندۀ دفتر باشد

نهراسي جانم ، مادرت تنها نيست

با گروهي همراه ، همره و همدل و هم صحبت و دوست

تا كه در يك سفر اند ، همگي در خطر اند

همه بگذشته ز جان ،‌همه بگذشته ز نام

تا كه هموار كنيم راه براي تو و نسل فردا

ما بميريم كنون تا كه نميريد شما

ما بجنگيم كنون تا كه بمانيد شما

ثريا پاكزاد

زمستان 1386 ( نوامبر 2007)

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About the Author

Mary Liepold is the Editor-in-Chief at Peace X Peace. To reach Dr. Liepold, email
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11 Comments to “PeaceTimes Edition 95. Suraya Pakzad, A Woman of Courage”
  1. DELIWE NGOMA says:

    Hellow there,

    I am very touched with the stories above. I is amazing how at my age of 46years I have not witnessed anybody being shot dead.
    Here in Zambia, we are natural lovers of peace and we take it so much for granted.

    I pray that the Amighty God Of Peace may continue inspiring the leaders who are advocates to violence with perpetual peace.

    Deliwe Ngoma

    Chipata Zambia.

  2. Hi,

    I can’t express my happiness in words on seeing women’s forum like this, deicated to a great goal “PEACE”. I always wanted to meet such women and share my feelings with them.

    This website is my dream come true.



    Lakshmi Naga Sethu

  3. Molly says:

    I agree, Deliwe. These women are amazing. I’m still thinking about how Suraya responded to Alaha’s question that she doesn’t know how she would define peace and that she’s never known it. Wow.

    I am also just thrilled to see that they are getting more and more of the attention they deserve.

    There are women everywhere doing extraordinary things to improve their communities, and, by extension, the world. It is my greatest joy to learn about them.

  4. Mackeran says:

    I really like your blog and i respect your work. I’ll be a frequent visitor.

  5. Ali Madad says:


    I read this article it’s interesting. Love all Alaha’s poems, and Suraya’s courage. Alaha is young in her age, but more famouse and talented in her knowledge and poetry. These both Afghans are prides for Afghanistan.
    Thanx for this article.

  6. Anne says:

    Such a moving, inspiring and important story. Thank you very much for sharing this wonderful post. It encourages us all to stay focused and positive. Many thanks for your reporting.

  7. Stephanie says:

    This piece reminded me of a very interesting and inspirational story that I caught on National Public Radio this week about a young Afghan-American woman who has been working to form soccer teams for women in Afghanistan. She has recently published a book called “However Tall the Mountain: A Dream, Eight Girls and a Journey Home.” Here is a link to the NPR story that originally aired on Monday 9/14.

  8. Wahab Asseeb says:

    You all are right. I loved all the comments and I totally agree with Ali Madad. I am also among those who appreciate and values Ms. Alaha’s poems. She is mashallah very much talented and very mature than her age.
    I think Afghanistan is going to become once again a luck country we are having bright women now and for the future of our country we can obsolutely rely on Alaha and other women her age.
    I am sure she will turn to become a very strong opinioniative leader in the future. I can’t forget her interview with National TV of Afghanistan I think it was 2006 that she said, she wants to become President of Afghanistan and a leader for Afghan women. Suraya Pakzad is already done a lot for Afghan women. Everyone can see how hard working woman she is. She is really very much talented and motivated and hardworking. I wish Afghanistan produce lots of women like each of them. Now there is a hope for the future of Afghan women. It is great that now we will have women to serve for their own women.
    Suraya Pakzad if you read this message we really appreciate your hard work. We are proud of you and Ms. Alaha we count on you. You are responsible for the future of this country and Afghan women. Please you both keep up the hard work.
    Suraya Pakzad and Ms. Alaha you both have Afghans supports with you.

    Thank you,
    sorry if I went further than my limits, it is because I want to assure you both that you are encouraged and you have our support.

  9. فوزیه محمودی says:

    سجیه الهه جان احرار
    نام خدا به شما واقعا که شما افغان اصیل هستید.
    افغانستان یک جوان نهایت فرزانه را در دامان پاک خویش پروریده است که سجیه الهه احرار میباشد.
    اما متاسفانه از این استعداد شما که عبارت از گنجینه ادب و ادبیات زبان دری فارسی بشمار میرود همه غافل اند
    اکثر دوستان نمیدانند.
    خداوند شما را جانجور عمر دراز و خوشبختی دارین را نصیب بگرداند.
    در پناه حق تعالی باشید. زنان افغان و افغانستان انتظارت را میکشند. و به دوشیزه های تحصیل کرده مانند خودت ضرورت دارد. شما ضرورت مملکت ما هستید. لطفا بعد از تحصیلات خویش به افغانستان بیاید که کشور به شما محتاج است البته قشر جوان تحصیل کرده.
    موفق و کامیاب باشید
    با احترام
    فوزیه محمودی .

  10. What a lovely poem! This entire story is truly inspirational because it is one of great love. As always–we women all seem to want the same things throughout the globe: peaceful coexistence; the opportunity to share and care for loved ones; the right to think as individuals; and the joy of simply being human! I can’t even begin to imagine the suffering of some of my sisters worldwide. Even here is the USA we still find abuse of women and girls but, it is nothing in comparison to the worldwide problem. How sad that many of us must still live the life described by Emerson as one of “quiet desperation”. When do we begin to teach true self worth and self sufficiency to girls?

  11. Mujahed says:

    This is amazing. Proud of these women!

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