Perhaps no other country of the world has received so much censure about its treatment of women in recent years than Afghanistan. First the cold war, then the civil war, then the oppressive rule of the Taliban, and finally the American war on terror – Afghanistan’s female population has been continually left in poverty, danger, and tragedy as long as memory serves. In recent years, however, with the help of American troops in some cases, and as a result of more education and awareness in others, Afghani women have made great strides in their standard of living, from serving in the police force to hopefuls in politics, and it looks like their luck may finally be changing.

Queen Soraya Tarzi of Afghanistan (1899-1968). Credit: Creative Commons.

This month, in honor of Women’s History Month, I wrote about Noor Inayat Khan and Benazir Bhutto as two exceptional ladies whose lives speak volumes for the role Islam expects women to play every day. As my last post in the series, I will highlight the remarkable female heritage of Afghanistan. In a time when Islam seems synonymous in many countries with inequality, and when Muslim women often seem content to sit back while the world rushes by, the month of March is a great opportunity for Muslim women like myself to learn about the contributions of our sisters from the past. For Afghani women in particular the narratives of women just like them who were independent and successful in what they did in centuries past can be tremendous motivators. Here’s my last salute this month, to not one but two amazing Afghani women.

Soraya Tarzi was the Queen of Afghanistan in the early twentieth century. Born in Syria in 1899, she was the daughter of famed Afghani intellectual Mahmud Tarzi, often called the father of Afghani journalism. Her life in Syria led to an exposure to modern western values and a solid education. Upon her family’s return to Afghanistan, Soraya met Prince Amanullah and later agreed to marry him in 1913. When he became King in 1926 Soraya began to have a say in legislation and policy. The King once told his countrymen: “I am your King, but the Minister of Education is my wife, your Queen.” She contributed to everything from politics to social life, but the issue closest to her heart was women’s education and serving in the public arena. While thoroughly westernized and abandoing many conservative values that angered the religious clergy, Soraya always maintained that her inspiration came from Islam. “Do you think that our nation from the outset needs only men to serve it? Women should also take their part as women did in the early years of our nation and Islam.” The westernized habits, liberal values and policy changes instituted by Soraya and the King earned her the wrath of the religious factions of Afghanistan who feared a loss of their religious and cultural identity. As a result, civil war became imminent, and the King abdicated in 1929 to avoid it. He and Queen Soraya went into exile in Rome, where she died in 1968.

Meena, a feminist activist, founded the Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan in 1977. Credit: Creative Commons/RAWA.

Perhaps taking her cue from Queen Soraya, another Afghani woman of substance who soon emerged on Afghanistan’s political climate was Meena Keshwar Kamal, a women’s rights activist born in 1956. While studying at Kabul University, Meena formed the Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan (RAWA) in 1977 to promote equality and education for Afghani women. In 1979 she began a public campaign against Russian forces and their puppet government established in Afghanistan, including street processions, college meetings and more. In 1981 she launched a feminist magazine Payam-e-Zan (Women’s Message), as well as Watan Schools for refugee women and children, and a hospital for treating wounded Afghan soldiers. Strongly and vocally opposed to the Soviet occupation of her country, Meena became the face of the Afghani resistance movement and in 1981, and was invited by the French government to attend the French Socialist Party Congress as its representative. A poetess, she used words to explain her motivations: “I’ve been reborn amidst epics of resistance and courage/ I’ve learned the song of freedom in the last breaths, in the waves of blood and in victory/ Oh compatriot, Oh brother, no longer regard me as weak and incapable/ With all my strength I’m with you on the path of my land’s liberation.”

As result of her political activism and her championing of women’s causes, Meena was assassinated probably by the Afghan arm of the KGB in 1987. She died at the age of 30, accomplishing in a decade what few women achieve in their lifetimes. Her husband Faiz Ahmad, leader of the Afghan Liberation Organization, was also murdered a few months before her, and her three children remain unaccounted for. Due to her bravery, activism and amazing contribution to Afghanistan, Time Magazine on November 13, 2006, in a special issue included Meena among “60 Asian Heroes.”

Both Queen Soraya and Meena symbolize the fiercely independent nature of Afghani Muslim women, and their efforts towards women’s empowerment has led many others today to participate in politics, society, education and sports. This month, I salute the sacrifices made by both these incredible heroes and hope that my readers have gained a better understanding of Islam and Muslim women as a result of my posts.

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