afgan women

More action for Afghan women
AWO tackles a legacy of oppression

By Tom G. Kernaghan

There is an Afghan proverb that reads, “Little talk, more action.”

Here in Toronto, the Afghan Women’s Organization (AWO) is talking and acting in an effort to serve the specific needs of Afghan women. Through its Village area head office on Dundas Street West, and three additional outlets in the Greater Toronto Area (GTA), the AWO provides Afghan refugees and immigrants with a wide array of services in the areas of advocacy, settlement, employment, language, training, and education.

“Women’s issues have been the same for years,” say Fahima Fatah, the Kabul-born educational coordinator of the AWO. “Our women were highly educated and stood side-by-side with men.”

That was until the 1970s, when communism and then Soviet occupation turned the resilient ancient country into a land of civil war and misery. Land mines maimed indiscriminately and lack of water made farming impossible and health precarious. Economic hardship led to more conservative religious practices, which limited women’s mobility and expression. Then, under Taliban rule (1996-2001), women and children suffered additional psychological and emotional hardship.

“It became extremely drastic,” says Fatah, regarding the oppressive regime, which denied women access to employment, health care, and education. “There was a great impact on the mental health of women.”

In fact, an individual case of depression inspired Afghan-Canadian journalist Nelofer Pazira to make the 2001 film Kandahar, which portrays her attempt to enter Afghanistan and prevent her childhood friend from committing suicide.

“There was much trauma,” says Fatah, who left Kabul after grade 8 and moved to India, where she benefited from life in a different country. “[Afghan women] have had a great length of uncertainty in life. And they have further struggles here.”

Counselling is one of the key settlement services that the AWO offers. Some Afghan refugees arrive here having suffered torture or the loss of loved ones. Language and cultural barriers only compound their plight: most Afghanis speak Dari or Pashtu.

When Afghan refugees began arriving in Canada in the late 1970s, there was little for them by way of support, and no organizations addressing the specific needs of Afghan women. It was this lack of services that prompted Adeena Niazi to found the AWO in 1990, two years after her arrival from Afghanistan.

Today the organization has a multi-ethnic staff of more than 51 people, and is funded by all three levels of government as well as The Maytree Foundation, an anti-poverty group. Niazi has been a strong advocate for the rights of Afghan women here and in Afghanistan, which is the largest single recipient of Canadian foreign aid.

The AWO also educates girls in Kabul and in the GTA, and is deeply committed not only to training and educating Afghan women, but also to maintaining cultural self-awareness in their children while they move forward. They want progress and integration for all, but focus on women because, in the words of the AWO website, “their well being is important and as well directly influences and supports the successful adaptation of all other members of their families and communities.”

In Afghan tradition, “women are in charge of the house,” says Fatah.

As family educators, Afghan women see their free voice as vital to their people’s heritage, identity, spirituality, and progress. The restriction of this important role under oppressive regimes like the Taliban has caused them profound stress.

Though the AWO’s immediate priority is to serve women, they do understand the pressures entire families face as they try to adapt to life in Canada, which now has an Afghan community numbering over 20,000.

Like other immigrant cultures, they experience generational clashes within the family, and workers and educated professionals experience difficulties finding positions in a labour market that requires Canadian experience and/or accreditation.

“Getting educated and licensed here takes a lot of time and money,” says Fatah. “It takes time away from the family, which only adds to the strain they already feel.”

(Gleaner News, Toronto)

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