News: Arzu Studio Hope creates oasis of opportunity for Afghan women
BAMYAN PROVINCE, Afghanistan – Women in Afghanistan have suffered tremendously through the last few decades. The Taliban were especially harsh to them, but even without that heartless regime, the overall attitude towards women here remains disappointingly archaic. Domestic abuse is rampant, families still sell their daughters into marriage like livestock, and honor killings are still in the news.
It’s encouraging that the country has taken huge leaps forward in the decade since the U.S. overthrew the Taliban, with women making hard-won gains in basic rights, but the difficult truth is that Afghanistan is still one of the most inhospitable places in the world to be female.
Two ladies from the West are working to change that.
Razia Jan and Connie Duckworth are worlds apart, literally and metaphorically, but together they are spearheading one of the most unique, tenacious, and successful non-governmental organizations operating in Afghanistan.
Non-governmental organizations, known as NGO’s, are plentiful here. They operate independently from any form of government, but are supported by the U.S.-led coalition. Usually run as non-profits that seek to improve the environment, human rights, or poverty levels, they have been thriving in Bamyan for years, where security is not the over-encompassing concern that it is in other provinces.
Turns out, there are people all over the world who are willing to give of themselves to make Afghanistan a better place, if given the chance. This is just one example of that.
Connie Duckworth was the first female sales and trading partner at Goldman Sachs, and co-head of its Chicago office. She retired in 2001 – or tried to. Shortly after she stepped down, the State Department invited her to join the U.S.-Afghan Women’s Council, a non-partisan effort to improve economic opportunity for women.
She traveled to Kabul with the council, and what she saw there changed her life.
“There were dozens of women and children living in this bombed-out building,” she said. “No windows, no heat, no electricity, no running water, no food, no furniture – trying to live through the winter. I looked at the children’s faces and thought, those could be my children. I literally went back on the plane and thought, I am doing something.”
What she did was start a grass-roots level NGO that she named Arzu Studio Hope. Inspired by the Dari word for “hope,” it employs women to weave traditional Afghan rugs while providing their families with education, health, and social opportunities.
“Rug weaving is a labor-intensive industry with work that can be done at home, producing a highly valued export product,” said Melissa Bertenthal, the director of international programs for Arzu Studio Hope. “Duckworth founded Arzu Studio Hope with one simple objective: to fairly employ as many Afghan women as possible doing something that is culturally acceptable.”
But Arzu Studio Hope isn’t simply a business enterprise. Duckworth recognized that the women in her programs would need much more than money to attain true liberty. They needed to feel self-worth, and confidence in themselves – and the key to that is education.
For that reason, more classrooms than production rooms were built at Arzu Studio Hope’s headquarters, and workers are required to attend literacy classes. Their children attend school there as well and, taking it one step further, Arzu Studio Hope insists that all women in the household attend school – not just the weaver.
The support the women receive is quite comprehensive. In addition to the schools, there is a laundry, showers, day care, a full kitchen, and a community garden where each woman gets a small plot to grow herbs and vegetables.
The fringe benefits of being accepted into the Arzu Studio Hope program would be almost overwhelming to a woman who, until then, had only known a life of subjection behind dirt walls.
The overall goal is to break the cycle of co-dependence and abuse and, through Duckworth’s business savvy, develop a reliable stream of earned income that will ultimately ensure sustainability for all Arzu Studio Hope programs without the need for outside funding. Arzu Studio Hope rugs sell very well, so chances for success look good.
“She has brought to Arzu everything she learned in her first career in business, from distribution, production and quality control, to branding and marketing,” said Bertenthal. “From a starting point in 2004 of only 30 weavers, Arzu now provides employment for over 1,300 Afghans – 95 percent of whom are women.”
Razia Jan is the kind of woman they make movies about. Born and raised in Afghanistan, she moved to the United States in the early 90’s with her husband. When he died suddenly, Jan was left with the prospect of raising their young son alone in an unfamiliar country.
“Our son was two, and I had no relatives there, but I managed to survive,” she said. “Not once do I remember asking anybody for help. I knew there was welfare and food stamps, but that was beyond my conscience to ask for.”
Instead, she built a successful tailoring business near Boston while her son grew up.
Then 9/11 changed the course of her life, aiming her trajectory straight back to her homeland.
“I saw it on television and it affected me terribly that innocent people died,” she said. “I didn’t know what to do – the only Afghan Muslim in a small town. Everybody wanted me to tell them who Osama Bin Laden was. I said to hell with him! I have no idea! I literally had no idea who he was.”
Jan had always volunteered at homeless shelters and recovery centers, so it was natural for her to get involved after 9/11. Using the resources she had at her fingertips, she began making ponchos and blankets and sending them to New York City fire fighters.
“She rallied her community to send over 400 homemade blankets to rescue workers at Ground Zero,” said Bertenthal. “Her efforts expanded to include sending care packages to our troops in Afghanistan and, through her involvement in the military’s Operation Shoefly, she coordinated the delivery of over 30,000 pairs of shoes to needy Afghan children.”
Through time, she decided her life’s mission was to act as a force for women’s empowerment in her home country. She tried desperately to return to Afghanistan, but had to turn back at the Pakistan border out of fear for her life. She finally made it back in 2002, after the Taliban was deposed.
In 2008 she opened a school in Kabul, the Zabuli Education Center for Women and Girls.
That same year she met Duckworth through a mutual friend. It was immediately clear that she and the founder of Arzu Studio Hope were a perfect fit, and so she became the organization’s Director of Social Programs.
Jan is known for being a lion on behalf of the women Arzu Studio Hope takes in – especially those who are abused.
“In a very passive way I talk to the women and tell them they have rights,” she said. “God forbid if one of our women is abused, I face the men and tell them, you behave yourself, and if this happens again you’re going to jail for 15 years. I’ll put you there.”
It’s not the way men are used to being spoken to by women here, but Jan is fearless when it comes to protecting her girls.
“Men respect me because I’m not scared of them, first of all,” she said matter-of-factly.
“It’s heart-breaking,” she continued, her tone shifting quickly from defiance to sadness. “The women give birth to the children, do all the chores, and they get beaten from the day they are married. I want them to have some kind of dignity and self- respect. Unfortunately it will take a long time to break the cycle. It’s so hard to interfere in something like that because it is very, very personal.”
“I never say anything to put [the men] down. I know the culture, I know the limitations, and that it could backfire,” she explained. “But then I know that maybe it might help a little bit.”
“Razia Jan is an incredible woman whose dedication helping the people of Afghanistan is unmatched. She has long been a champion for the women of Afghanistan,” said Bertenthal. “The connections that Razia has made on the ground with the people, local government and other international organizations has enabled Arzu to effectively accomplish projects that would otherwise have been impossible to implement in these villages.”
After 10 years, Jan remains a steadfast supporter of the U.S. mission.
“I’m Afghan, but I’m an American citizen,” she said. “I could give my life for you guys – I’m not talking politics. You [Americans] are putting your lives in your hands to serve a country that is so crazy. I’m with you 110 percent.”
ARZU STUDIO HOPE
Together with their respective crews in Afghanistan and the U.S., Jan and Duckworth marched forward and built a pastoral oasis of opportunity for women in the midst of war – proving that women can accomplish miracles for their sisters who are suffering.
A 30-minute drive over a cratered and washed-out dirt road west of the town of Bamyan takes you to the metal gates of the Arzu Studio Hope compound in Dragon Valley. Pulling into the courtyard one can’t help but be filled with a sense of wonder at the effort it took to build a place like this ... in a place like this.
The man-hours and energy to acquire and transport the materials alone would be astronomical.
“We had to figure out how to operate effectively in a gender-segregated, highly tribal society,” said Duckworth. “We had to work around the aftermath of war – returning refugees, no infrastructure, disrupted supply chains, and in the early days no banks, no internet, and limited mobile technology.”
On top of all that, Duckworth insisted on staffing the project with Afghans.
“[That] one decision complicated and slowed down our getting off the starting blocks. But like the tortoise and the hare, it has paid our biggest dividends. I now have a competent Afghan management team that always get the sniff test right. Arzu can fly below the radar-screen as locals, which means we can move around and operate, when traditional international development organizations get locked down.”
Stark sandstone cliff walls and a sandy riverbed corral the Arzu Studio Hope compound, contrasting sharply with the neatly painted cluster of modern stucco buildings that lie behind a ten-foot wall and round-the-clock security guards.
Inside it is peaceful. Women and children pitterpat over smooth sidewalks from doorway to doorway, classrooms to craft rooms, and smile at visitors – something that is extremely rare for women to do in the villages outside.
The grounds are abuzz with a satisfied busyness. The classrooms are full of well-groomed and attentive children and, in one, middle-aged women who have just started the first grade. Their young teacher, Sakina, paces quietly between the rows of desks, happily quizzing her students.
“I have been teaching here for two months,” she said. “It makes me very happy that I’m helping these ladies.”
Other women are busy in the kitchen washing vegetables from the community garden, preparing lunch for the day. Still another room is full of concrete sinks where a group of ladies are washing clothes and chit-chatting.
In the loom room, several young women are weaving a beautiful modern blue and white rug with intricate diamond patterns – a special order from a customer overseas.
“I like the work,” said one of the women, Zara. “I’ve been doing it for two years. It’s not tedious – it’s my job. The first thing I bought with my first pay check was gold!”
“I bought clothes!” smiled the young lady sitting next to her.
A feeling of safety and comfort permeates the air, and it’s easy to see that what Jan, Duckworth and their teams have built here is not just a school, or a factory, but a sanctuary that, hopefully, will serve as one of many solid bases the women of Afghanistan will launch from to win their long race for equality.
Date Posted:07.12.2012 01:02
Location:BAMYAN PROVINCE, AF
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