Hope and heroism from an Afghani torchbearer

2016 - Nasima

Born into a nation about to descend into ongoing war and terror, Nasima Rahmani has risen above prejudice and personal risk to help provide the prospect of a better life for women in Afghanistan.

The Nasima Rahmani story is as chillingly scary as it is powerfully inspiring. After hearing the story of this heroine of Afghanistan, it unquestionably challenges anyone to ask – do I really have anything to worry about in my day-to-day life?

Her tale also compels one to understand the value of those who can force themselves out of their comfort zone to genuinely help others. This is not just about a strong and giving person; it is about a trailblazer who subjugates her own interests for the sake of others. Is there any better leader?

Rahmani, who obtained a Master of Laws from UTS, recently received the UTS Chancellor's Award for Excellence and was invited to be a member of the UTS Luminaries program, an initiative which recognises a select group of alumni at the University who have a sustained record of outstanding achievement. Asked how she feels about the acknowledgements, Rahmani responds with the graciousness that often comes from the kind of heroes who capture the hearts of a nation, nay the world. "I am not worthy of this award – there must be better people who are more deserving," she says. Few would agree.

Rahmani is the Director of the Women's Empowerment Centre at the Gawharshad Institute of Higher Education in Kabul, Afghanistan. This is not merely an educational institution showing women how to compete in a man's world – it represents a substantial human rights commitment from Rahmani and her colleagues.

Afghanistan is not just a dangerous place for soldiers and locals in the line of fire. The Taliban insurgents will kill to prevent women accessing education, as highlighted by the recent case of Pakistani schoolgirl, Malala Yousufzai, who was shot in the head while travelling to school on a bus. Her crime? Protesting about being denied her right to education because she is a girl.

In announcing Rahmani's Excellence award, UTS Chancellor Professor Vicki Sara commented: "Nasima is someone who has selflessly devoted herself to bettering the lives of others. Learning about her work and her accomplishments, I've been inspired and have come to understand that what she does truly makes this world of ours a better, kinder, more dignified place."

Rahmani's working life is dedicated to promoting gender equality and education for Afghani women, which sounds like a noble and genteel goal if it were not so dangerous in a country where extremists see educating women as a disease that has to be stamped out.

Asked if she fears for her safety going to work each day, her answer is blunt. "Of course," she says. "I avoid appearing on TV, though I have allowed a video for an international law development organisation about successful women in the legal sector to encourage other girls and schools to apply for the law faculties and to study law. I am one of five ladies in the video that will be broadcast and shown all over the country and schools. I allowed that because it is [a] women's education issue. Otherwise, I don't go on TV programs, to keep a low profile … I do what I think is appropriate to keep a low profile and to keep myself alive."

Overcoming obstacles

So how did Rahmani end up being a celebrated postgraduate student of UTS?

"Growing up in Afghanistan was a difficult experience because I lived through war, conflict and miseries and in between that I had to struggle to work hard to do something to at least achieve what I wanted," she recalls.

Image: Nasima Rahmani-2

Born in the mid-1970s, Rahmani's childhood played out in a theatre of conflict after the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979 sparked a decade-long war, until the Russians eventually withdrew in 1989 after a constant battle with the Mujahideen guerrilla fighters. The temporary ceasefire did little to put Afghanis at ease. As Rahmani notes, the guerrillas "later started to fight against everybody". In turn, they were replaced by the more organised and even more extreme Taliban.

This constant warring and the arrival of new tyrannical governments in the 1970s resulted in Rahmani's family members fleeing their village before it was burnt to the ground. She then found herself in Kabul for a short time, but later was sent back to her village for about three years to rejoin her mother, stepmother and grandmother, who had been left there when her other family members fled to Kabul.

The constant changing of address worked against her early education.

"I was in my village for a couple of years, which meant I missed enrolment at school. When I was sent back to Kabul… it was too late for me at that time and the schools would not accept an older student. When I eventually started my studies in the fourth grade, I was the right age."

Rahmani's parents came from humble stock: her father was a casual worker in an unstable country, while her mother was a housewife. Nevertheless, her brothers offered the prospect of advancing the family's prospects by studying medicine and law.

"My oldest brother who studied law was the support to the family and to me, and maybe they realised that I was capable [too]. So I prepared myself and they helped me to prepare and I passed the exam for three years that I had missed school, and so I started my studies from the fourth grade."

Despite the happy memories of being able to go to school, Rahmani would have been learning how to do long division while the Mujahideen was relentlessly bombing Kabul in pursuit of the pro-Soviet government. To comprehend the inputs into her young life, contemplate her answer to the question: Did you see many dead people as a young child?

"Oh, of course," she replies. "Pieces of bodies... I have grown up with all of those things, so it has impacted me psychologically. My life started that way in the conflict, but I did work very well during the school years and in 1991 I enrolled in the law faculty [at Kabul University]."

A life less ordinary

Rahmani was supposed to follow in the footsteps of two of her brothers and become a doctor.

"In Afghanistan, most people prefer women to be teachers or doctors, so my father was also very happy that I would follow my other two brothers," she says. "So we never ever spoke about that I would like to become a lawyer and study law – there was no question of that and I would never dare talk about it. But in the last years of high school I decided for myself that I would go and select what I wanted to do. My score was a very good one, meaning I could have been accepted for medicine as well, but when my family realised that I had such a high score and that I selected law, my father said there's no way that you will do it!"

He ordered Rahmani to stay at home and wait for the following year's entrance exam so she could pursue medicine as a career.

"That was a really difficult time, but one of my uncles worked hard with my father and he convinced him to let me do law," Rahmani explains.

She was able to finish her first year of study before the Mujahideen started bombing Kabul, killing 66,000 residents. Then the Taliban arrived. Prior to the years of civil war, Kabul was a relatively westernised city and women had many rights. That was about to change.

Undeterred, and despite the power of the Taliban and an extended period of war with the West, Rahmani stuck at her studies and ultimately graduated from the Faculty of Law and Political Science in Kabul University in December 2003. She later studied a Master of Laws at UTS, which she undertook with the aid of a scholarship through the IDP Peace Scholarship Program, and completed with funding from UTS:Law. After completing the final semester of her degree and achieving outstanding results, she returned to Afghanistan to promote gender equality and education for Afghani women.

Image: Nasima Rahmani-2

Rahmani regards the UTS experience as a pivotal moment in her career.

"The education I received in Australia and finishing my law degrees has enabled me to become a lecturer, to work with international institutes, to travel a lot, and these are all very helpful towards achieving what I dream about. Once, maybe 20 years ago I was dreaming to understand English or maybe to see another country, so see, that's possible now. I wouldn't have been able to do it without the education." What of her aspirations now? "Sometimes now I dream [of] getting a prize like a Nobel Prize, getting to that level – so the dreams are much bigger now."

This epic journey of an inspirational woman who has risked her life to give young women the chance to be educated and to live in a more equal society has been assisted by a number of people who Rahmani continually recognises when she recounts her story.

"My boss, Mazir Bazal, who had a Master of Laws from Washington University in America, encouraged me to apply for the Master of Laws at UTS," says Rahmani, who says the Australian degree was achieved despite a titanic battle with written English, which she finally conquered to a satisfactory standard. She is also eternally grateful for the understanding and encouragement that senior people in the Faculty of Law at UTS showed her, especially Jill McKeough, the Dean of Law at the time of her study, Professor Philip Griffith, lecturer Michelle Sanson and others.

Making a difference

That is the past, however. Today, Rahmani works a long day teaching, holding meetings and attending to the issues of her students. Asked about what she does in her leisure time, she looks nonplussed as if to say: "What is that?"

She draws inspiration from Gawharshad Institute founder Dr Sima Samar, a well-known human rights activist who serves as the chairperson of the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission (AIHRC). At the Gawharshad Institute, Rahmani has established the Women's Empowerment Centre as part of her efforts to help Afghani females. She also wants to set up a women's college.

Asked what she finds the most satisfying element of working life, she instantly replies: "I am very happy with the fact that I can provide education facilities for women and that I can give the opportunity for young girls to study – that is the most joyous element of it."

This writer's time with Nasima Rahmani was a personal privilege. Her story, told with humility, underscores the selfless nature of a great human being.

UTS can be proud of its great work with someone who will leave this world a much better place than she found it.

Words: Peter Switzer
Images: Nick Cubbin