Afghan women's activist Razia Jan points the way for girls

The women's rights activist Razia Jan talks about the school she has set up for underprivileged girls in Afghanistan.

There's always something a little askew about people who want to change the world. It's unsettling: all their talk of making our planet a better place, of planned revolutions and promised enlightenments. Whenever I listen to them, I can't shake the thought that the world is a big place, its problems vast and, in some cases, seemingly insurmountable. Anyone who takes on the narcissistic task of altering the grand narrative of our planet is either doomed to failure or blowing hot air.

I suppose this is what the postmodernists are saying when they snub their noses at humanists: there are no grand narratives, nothing that ties together human beings into a universal collective. Our world is composed of localised details, the postmodernists tell us, of mini-stories that weave themselves together in an often messy but nonetheless compelling whole. Changing one story doesn't necessarily alter that whole, but it perhaps adds colour to a part of it, sheds light on an area wallowing in darkness.

Here in Afghanistan, the narratives playing out every day defy the logic of the grand. This is the first mistake foreigners have made here: to believe that applying the arcs of history from their own homelands will somehow magically transform this tragic nation into a bastion of peace and prosperity.

After a decade of trying, it hasn't worked. "And it never will work," says Razia Jan. "It's impossible. It will take a generation for any real change to come about in Afghanistan."

Jan's assessment is refreshing considering all of the "save Afghanistan" rhetoric floating around out there. For her, change in a country plagued by decades of war is not impossible, or even elusive. It is simply slow. This is the message she says she will bring to the Women as Global Leaders Conference taking place next week in Abu Dhabi.

"I want to tell the world that I'm hopeful about Afghanistan's future," says the 67-year old Kabul native and women's rights activist. "I wouldn't have come back here if I wasn't. I have so many memories from my teenage years, beautiful memories: women working and going to school, the beauty and vibrancy of Kabul, and the openness. Afghanistan is just like a pot that has spilt over because of war. People are lost and displaced. It's a different culture now from when I was young; it's absolutely another world."

After she spent more than three decades in the US, Jan's return to her homeland, beginning with exploratory trips in 2002, has revived her love for Afghanistan. There is nothing she won't do now for her countrywomen, from setting up a girls' school to helping widows find purpose and economic stability in their lives, to designing and manufacturing dresses for a denuded fashion industry.

Her passion knows no bounds. Sitting in her living room, hugging the warmth of a wood-burning stove to ward off the bone-prickling chill of Afghanistan's worst winter in 20 years, Jan tells her story like a schoolgirl spilling her heart's desire.

"It was 9/11 that changed everything for me," she says. "At the time, I had no idea who Osama bin Laden was. I was living a quiet life in Duxbury, Massachusetts. I was already involved in my community and being the only Muslim there, and the only Afghan, after 9/11 I became the centre of attention. Every day people would come to me. They would ask me to comment on what had happened but I told them: 'Really, I can't. I have to find out where I stand'."

Introspection is the first stage in finding a life purpose, and for Jan it was this reappraisal of her life that led her to make the decision that would change it forever. Her most vivid memory from those days, she says, was the image of New York's firefighters running into the ruined remains of the World Trade Center, dashing into destruction while other people ran away.

"I so admired those men," she says. "I thought: this is the courage needed to make a difference in the world." So, like the firefighters she so admired, Jan ran towards the flames of war, at a time when most Afghans were running the other way.

Thus began her journey home. From the beginning, she knew she wanted to help women and girls.

"Women have seen such hard days in Afghanistan, especially during the Taliban," she says. "Their freedom was taken away, their self-respect was taken away. And for them to gain that back, this is where I believe Afghanistan's healing will begin."

Ultimately, it was the small stories that inspired her. Much of the work international agencies have done in Afghanistan has tried to focus on large-scale projects, primarily in the country's major cities. Women's issues have occupied a hallowed space on the budget sheets of many non-governmental organisations. Money has poured into efforts to include women in government, the workplace and civil society. The results have been mixed at best.

Jan has rejected such grand schemes. Her efforts have focused on individuals, her philosophy grounded in a basic truth: countries are comprised of communities, communities of individual people; to help a country recover from disaster, you start with individuals.

Her school, for example, is one of the few in Afghanistan where girls from poor backgrounds can receive a modern education without the burden of tuition fees. It serves the truly marginalised: girls in Afghanistan's rural hinterland where access to education remains a distant dream for most.

"I wanted to touch those girls," she explains, "the ones caught in a culture of slavery, where young girls are sold into marriage and condemned to a life of serving their new masters. I couldn't do that in Kabul working for the big aid agencies."

But working in Afghanistan's rural communities comes with some serious risks. Jan recounts one incident, just days before the school opened in 2008:

"I was inside the school cleaning, getting things ready for the opening," she says. "I was so dirty and dusty and tired. Then one of my workers told me there were four men waiting to speak to me outside. I went out to them, so tired that I even forgot to cover my head, and there they were, these immaculately dressed men standing there. Compared to them I looked like a street urchin. They told me they had a concern: 'We are from this area and we appreciate what you have done in getting this school built,' one of them said. 'But we want to tell you that you still have one last chance to turn this into a boys' school. Boys are the backbone of Afghanistan.'

"I looked him right in the eyes and I said: 'I'm sorry brother, but you know, girls are the eyesight of Afghanistan and unfortunately you are all blind.' They were so shocked they couldn't speak; they just turned around and walked away. And I've never seen them again."

Since then, the community has come to embrace the school, though occasionally they still pester Jan to offer boys education as well. She refuses. "I tell them I don't want boys in the school because they break things," she says, laughing with girlish delight. "If they break a desk, I can't afford to replace it."

Money is a constant concern. Jan's fashion business, a small operation she runs out of her home producing dresses inspired by traditional Afghan designs, primarily for foreign buyers from the expat community in Kabul, helps meet some of her costs. She also spends the one month of vacation she gives herself every year fund-raising for the school in the United States.

"It's a struggle," she says. "But I'm slowly trying to make the school self-sufficient. I want to make sure that when I die, it keeps running." What affects her most profoundly are the girls themselves, all of whom were illiterate when the school opened. At that time, she divided them into age groups but had to start them all from the beginning. Over the years, many have evolved into star pupils.

"They have such a passion for learning," Jan says, beaming. "I don't want to criticise Afghan boys - they are wonderful in themselves - but there is such a warrior culture that's developed among the males of Afghanistan. Boys glorify mujaheddin fighters. They want to be just like them. So many of them simply don't want to go to school. But I have girls in my school who have worked so hard that they are asking me if they can take exams to skip ahead grades. Some of my seventh-graders want to jump ahead to the ninth grade, fifth-graders to the seventh, and so on. They are totally capable, because of their desire to learn."

These are the small victories that Jan believes will, in time, fundamentally change Afghanistan. Her work with Arzu, a US-based organisation that helps Afghan women achieve financial independence by selling the rugs they weave on the international market, is another of the mini-narratives quietly transforming the country. Many of the women Arzu helps are widows who have gone from being dependent on men to survive to having to find a way to make it on their own, often with children to support. Jan recounts story after story of women who have gone from destitution to living vibrant, productive lives, all because they were simply given the opportunity to earn a living.

"What's great about this project," she says, "is that every time we sell a rug, we send it to the buyer with a small write-up about the woman who made it."

These are the stories that matter in Afghanistan, the ones that breathe life into a country suffocating from the imposition of grand truths. People such as Razia Jan have got it right: to change the world, we must focus on the details. And to rewrite Afghanistan's future means helping Afghans write their story for themselves.

Women as Global Leaders Conference, March 13-15, Zayed University, Abu Dhabi,; day passes can be purchased for the conferences and tickets can be bought on site.

How to help To make a contribution to Razia's Ray of Hope Foundation, a non-profit organisation dedicated to improving the lives of women and children in Afghanistan through community-based education, visit