A surprising story about empowering women in Afghanistan

As a member of the non-profit/non-governmental organization Women in Building, Sahir Nawab has been an adviser for three decades on all aspects of developmental programs that rely on social media. A former trader, she now has her own business and runs many of the social media businesses at Women in Building. Her company is called Union Weave, which sponsors tweakers, artists and designers for different social cause campaigns. She has been featured on BBC and has been supported by F&WB as well as Williamsburg Social Media Guild.

At the New York International Women’s Day event held in 2016, I introduced her and asked her to tell a few stories about working with organizations involved in the empowerment of women in Afghanistan. It was her organization, Women in Building, that introduced me to the cause and particularly to Ms. Nawab. She was so surprised at the Iranian President Rouhani’s message of tolerance, equality and acceptance and impressed with what Mr. Trump has done there that she sent him an email wishing him luck, as I explained in my article “Why America is Missing This Women’s Week.” I presented the resulting email exchange at the talk.

Before we talk about her, though, I wanted to encourage you to re-read my discussion of Imara S. Sargsyan, the founder of the Women’s Exchange of Kabul and founder of a school for girls at the Kabul Fashion School. I talked about her book, Perseverance: Three decades of Amina Sargsyan’s Walk to Freedom, and how it showed us how an Afghan woman with a child could manage to be a prime minister, while remaining dignified. As my friend, Hikmat Habibi, put it in the comment thread, the book is “a work of genius.”

As we made it more than halfway through my talk, I mentioned the engagement of an activist in Queens who was actually backing Afghan women at an address in Kabul. A woman’s voice on social media is an important part of democracy, and Sahir Nawab was the perfect example of a woman who made a difference by literally talking the talk. It was a highly effective way of conveying an understanding of what makes a difference, and thereby the group’s devotion to the cause. I suggested in my talk that the “voice of everyday women and men in Afghanistan around the world, supporting their sisters and brothers” was a unique source of strength for the nation. Sahir told me that although she was originally just an advisor to the program for Afghan women and girls at Women in Building, she now is the Co-Founder of Women in Building.

I asked her how her advocacy began. She was sure to mention that she was once very depressed and a victim of social insecurity as a trader. She spent six months in a poverty camp when her husband cheated on her and she could no longer get in touch with her clients. She said she felt powerless at the time. But when she met an artist and felt a deep connection, she decided to support the woman to keep painting. She said this made her feel that one day she might be able to change her situation. What began as a strong creative inclination evolved into her work to uplift and empower women across the world.

In response to my question about her support for Afghan women, she said that she has taken them in with her in all her activities and that she is giving them a chance. She just now feels more confident and comfortable and wants to help them in all their battles. The trick, as I guess it must be for all the activists that I have interviewed, is in making people feel comfortable with what you are doing. Because they are probably also scared.

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