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Rights For Afghan Women Improving, But Fragile


So, we just heard about the numbers of people trying to leave Afghanistan. Now, we'll hear from one woman who is committed to staying.

SAKENA YACOOBI: Because that is our country. That's our homeland.

MARTIN: Sakena Yacoobi is an Afghan woman who's been working on women's education in Afghanistan for the past several decades. She started in 1995, opening schools for Afghan girls in refugee camps across the Pakistan border. After the Taliban fell, she went back to her hometown, Herat, near the Afghanistan-Iran border, and she set up home schools for women and girls. Yacoobi says today there are roughly six million Afghan children in school; about a quarter of them are girls.

Well, I'm so glad we got to catch you while you were here.

YACOOBI: Well, thank you.

MARTIN: Sakena Yacoobi stopped by our studios during a recent visit to Washington, D.C., and I asked her to describe the state of women's education right now in Afghanistan.

YACOOBI: I think the women of Afghanistan have been progressing their education, self-sufficiency. They are empowered in terms of leadership. But what will happen to the women of Afghanistan if all these things that we have been working for almost 20 years, if this is going to be jeopardized because somebody else is going to come over and take over Afghanistan. And that is going to be very hard.

MARTIN: It's hard to overstate how restrictive life was for Afghan women under the Taliban, and life now is unequivocally better. Women can walk in public without a male relative, they can go to school, even work outside the home. They are doctors, engineers, members of Parliament. But there's a real feeling among Afghan women that all the gains they've made in the past decade could vanish overnight. Women's rights in Afghanistan are as fragile as the Afghan government and national army that are supposed to protect them. And outside of Kabul - in the provinces - there are still conservative elements sympathetic to the Taliban that can make life difficult for girls and women who want to get an education. And while many Afghans say they're ready for US troops to leave Afghanistan in 2014, others, like Sakena Yacoobi, say Afghan forces simply aren't ready to step up and fill the void.

YACOOBI: If the security is not available for the women of Afghanistan, they will be in trouble. Getting out of the house, going to school, going to work tasks - they are all going to be an issue that we are really concerned about it. So, I think that the security is the most important thing. And who is there to really guarantee their security? We don't have really right now an army. The army is not really capable. How they are capable to protect our women, our children?

MARTIN: There are still attacks on girls' schools, which makes it hard to convince teachers to show up for work and it makes parents think twice before sending their girls to school. I asked Yacoobi about the young Pakistani girl, Malala Yousafzai, who was shot by the Taliban for defending the rights of girls in this part of the world to get an education.

YACOOBI: It's very sad to listen to this issue, but the point is that not only one girl, there is thousands of girl in Afghanistan. Day after day, they are being taken away.

MARTIN: What do you mean taken away?

YACOOBI: Their life has been threatened. They have been disappeared - all kinds of things happen to the girls in Afghanistan. But the issue become a huge issue now. To see that happening, it hurts me. But this was one case. How about the thousand other cases going to happen? This is my concern.

MARTIN: Again, Yacoobi turns the conversation to the future. It's the uncertainty about what comes next that worries her. We just heard a story about Afghans doing everything they can to leave Afghanistan, to start a new life somewhere else. I asked Yacoobi what she thinks about this; if she would encourage a young Afghan woman to leave if there was an opportunity to do so.

YACOOBI: I will never encourage the women of Afghanistan, the boys or the girls, the young ones, to get out of Afghanistan, because Afghanistan is their country, Afghanistan is their land. They should stay there and fight for it. That is our country. That's our homeland.

MARTIN: But am I remember correctly that you yourself studied abroad. You studied in the United States.

YACOOBI: Absolutely. I am not saying that they shouldn't go abroad to study. But if they are going to the United States or to Europe, they have a responsibility to return back home.

MARTIN: You've gotten a lot of international attention for your work. You've received many honors. Has this attention made it in some ways more difficult because you have such a high profile? Has it made you a target for critics?

MARTIN: Now, up until this point in the interview, Yacoobi had been quick to answer every question. But when asked about her own safety, she paused, she leaned back in her chair and chose her words carefully.

YACOOBI: You know, I love my country, I love my people, especially the women of Afghanistan in my heart. And when you choose to do something, you do what you will, it takes you to do it, when you have a passion and love for it.

MARTIN: Have you ever been threatened as a result of your work?

YACOOBI: Well, you decide what you do in life, and that you do, no matter what it takes.

MARTIN: Sakena Yacoobi is the executive director of the Afghan Institute of Learning in Herat. She's helped hundreds of thousands of women and girls in Afghanistan to educate themselves and their families. Sakena, thanks so much for taking the time to come in and talk with us.

YACOOBI: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.