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From AUB to Afghanistan

Over twenty years of war and destruction have left much of Afghanistan shattered and in rubble, including its political, social, and educational systems. May Farah learns that many AUB alumni of Afghani origin are returning to rebuild their country. She talks with two female activists, Nasrine Gross (BA ’70) and Abeda Osman (MA ’81), who are determined to see it through.

In many areas of Afghanistan now, there are real indications that recovery and reconstruction are under way, a welcome sign for a country that has spent most of the past 23 years under occupation and at war.
Until very recently, most of the physical infrastructure and institutions were in complete shatters. However, many of the country’s streets and bridges that were destroyed during the years of war are being reconstructed, including a 480-kilometer portion of the road connecting Kabul to Kandahar. This major accomplishment alone will help in the rebuilding efforts already launched in the areas of security, communication, healthcare, education, and trade.
Looking more closely at the education sector, as just one example of widespread transformation,
there already has been much progress. Today over four million Afghani children and young adults
are enrolled in schools, among them more than one million girls, the first such achievement in the country’s history. Moreover, the Minister of Education has held meetings with the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) to introduce a 12-year education plan for Afghanistan, which will include building schools and other institutions of learning. There is also some interest in opening an American-style university, based on the American University of Beirut.
In each sector, the guiding principle is to apply muscle, clear the damaged decks, and look forward. However, although there are plans in abundance, the funding, sadly, is not. While the Afghani government received $4.5 billion in aid to be spent over five years, most of the funds have gone into coping with emergency needs. Still, many projects are under way—roads, hospitals, clinics, and schools are being reconstructed; national institutions, the army, and productive sectors of the economy are being rehabilitated. The work continues, but at a slower pace than anticipated or desired.
Even the diehard critics do not recognize the changes that have already taken place.
Rebuilding the country’s infrastructure and improving its security are being achieved, thanks to the combined aid, assistance, and cooperation of relief groups, donor countries, and international organizations. And ever since the new government was installed in 2001, many ex-patriates have been returning to help shoulder the task of raising the Afghani phoenix from the ashes. Among them are a number of AUB alumni, whose individual and combined initiatives are penetrating all branches of the reconstruction effort, from finance, education, and urban development to public health, agriculture, and public administration.
Like Nasrine Gross, who left her native Afghanistan for Lebanon and AUB in 1965 and returned in 2002. Her concern for the future of her country began long before returning to Kabul two years ago, where she is now working on the ground to reclaim the Afghanistan of her youth, the Afghanistan before the Russians and before the Taliban took over. And like Abeeda Othman, who returned to AUB in 1997 for a second MA, for which she concentrated her studies on the formation of a new Afghanistan government. Subsequently, she went back home to become more actively and directly involved in the rebuilding process. These are merely two of the many other AUB alumni working at the ministries, the universities, the schools, and the construction sites all over Afghanistan, doing what they can to help.
Gross recalls that it was during her days at AUB when she first learned—often by participation—about demonstrations, sit-ins, and non-political activism. She had completed her first year of law and political science at Kabul University, when she was awarded a USAID scholarship to study at AUB. Gross remembers well the cosmopolitan campus in those seemingly carefree days of the mid-1960s. There were students from Somalia, Sudan, Japan, the United States, and other countries near and far, including about 50 to 70 fellow Afghanis. “It was very global…populations of students distinctively different from one another,” she recalls. “I heard all these different languages and saw these different faces of humanity. It was very enriching.” She also remembers how very activist the student body was, the frequent demonstrations and sit-ins. “The hippie culture was coming,” she says, “and AUB was affected.”
Then as today, AUB prided itself on the many clubs and extracurricular activities available to students, something Gross says she took full advantage of. She joined the Social Welfare Club, the Social Outreach Society, the Bridge Club—which would prove very auspicious; that’s where she met the man she married—and, of course, the Students Afghanistan Association.
“I was fascinated and impressed by the freedom the students had to get involved in so many activities outside of studying,” says Gross, who herself had come from an activist family. When she was six, her father was jailed for overtly calling for democracy in Afghanistan. But at AUB, it was different; there Gross experienced how advocacy politics worked. “I learned non-political activism, the kind that wouldn’t land you in jail,” she says. “AUB opened the way for new ideas; my horizons changed, evolved. The level of debate at the Milk Bar on all subjects was phenomenal.”
When Gross left Kabul in 1965, she was one of the second generation of educated women in Afghanistan. Her mother had been of the first. “It was a very recent phenomenon. I was coming from a country where modernity was still in its infancy, and at AUB I discovered its advanced stages.”
But her innocence and that of those around her soon came to an abrupt halt. It was June 1967 and the six-day war. When she and her fellow students were confronted by the sudden tragedy and its human implications, they were devastated. Thirty-seven years later, the memories remain still so vivid, still so painful. “All our hopes and optimism were rudely shaken by the news of destruction, war, and human suffering. The world had changed, and it hasn’t really been the same since.”
Gross graduated with a BA in education in 1970. The next year, she and her American husband went to the United States, where they chose to live in the Washington, DC area. “With all the embassies, it was the most cosmopolitan place we could settle in,” says Gross, who has called DC home ever since. She also comments that there were very few Afghanis in the US at that time.
Between 1979 and 1992, when Afghanistan came under Russian occupation and members of Gross’s entire family were becoming refugees, she helped them resettle in the US. Perhaps it was at that time that her activism began to turn toward Afghanistan. Then, when her son left for college in 1992 and she found herself with much more free time, she realized how much she wanted to find and reconnect with her Afghan side.
“I was trying to think of what I could do that was non-political and from so far away,” she explains. It wasn’t long before she found it. “I thought about the first high school for girls in Afghanistan and how most of the 10,000 girls had become refugees scattered all over the world,” she recalls, “and I knew I wanted to
tell their story.”
As she began trying to locate those women, her former classmates, she found that many of them were also in the US. So she organized a reunion. The research, the reunion and the conversations sparked her interest in writing a book, her first, entitled Memories of the First Girls’ High School in Afghanistan. “It took me two years to collect all the testimonials. My phone bill was $1,200 a month. because I was calling all over the world,” says Gross. She recalls that many of the women were initially suspicious and couldn’t believe she was interested in talking to them simply because of a connection to the school. “But through that experience, I got to know them and I got to know myself…and I began to realize the extent of our shared pain.”
Gross also began to perceive the pattern of women’s contribution to Afghanistan and how extensive and deep it was. “Then I began to resent the men of Afghanistan for not recognizing that women were a pillar of advancement in that society.” So, she wrote a second book, Steps of Peace and Our Responsibility as Afghans, in which she focused on understanding why people were so angry with each other. “In a way, my activism began through my books.”
Then the Taliban came. Although she was initially excited by the prospect of the internal calm and cooperation that was expected to come with their arrival, by the end of the first week, she was utterly despondent. “I felt that somebody had stabbed me in the stomach with a dagger,” she says. “I was reading all the articles coming from Kabul and I was on fire; something in my soul was telling me this is not Afghanistan. It was evil and I must fight it. In a way, I really haven’t slept well since.”
Gross, the writer, activist, and women’s rights defender, began her fight immediately. She experienced extremes of passion and pain, which she admits were being manifested in anger. There were also the feelings of helplessness, she says, often asking herself: how can one person make a difference from so far away? “I realized the situation was political and that I needed to defend it in a political way. So I started working towards restoring the rights of women in the constitution,” she says. “For me, that was the way to restore Afghanistan.”
“I wanted to respond to the Taliban policy of negating women as rightful citizens,” she adds. “So, I set out to educate and mobilize world public opinion.” Women under Taliban rule had no rights to education or employment; and to her, the fact that very high numbers are now returning to school is cause enough for commemoration. The government generally and the Minister of Education specifically are still making efforts to increase the number of women in education and the work force, and to make them full partners of society once again.
In pursuing her strategy to bring world attention to what was happening in Afghanistan, Gross sent off letter after letter to the editors of major newspapers, wrote articles for publication, organized demonstrations, attended conferences, gave talks and interviews, and met with Afghan and non-Afghan organizations. In 1995, she joined the National Center for Policy Research (NCPR), a newly established think tank at Kabul University that is involved in research projects related to the various facets of building the new Afghanistan. Since its inception, the NCPR has worked closely with the government, the United Nations, Afghan civil society, and with a number of donor and NGO groups. Although she was still residing in the United States at that time, she eventually became the head of NCPR’s Department of Social Sciences.

In March 2001, Gross marched in front of the State Department and gave an anti-Taliban speech. “There were three countries that recognized the Taliban—Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Pakistan—and I knew the United States carried a lot of weight with each.” As Gross continued with her activism, with writing letters and doing all she could to be heard, history intervened. After the tragedy of 9/11, the United States began its preparations to bomb Afghanistan and defeat the Taliban.
At that time, Gross had escorted a group of women to Afghanistan so they could see for themselves how oppressed Afghani women were. “I wanted them to see how they lived imprisoned in their homes,” she says, “and to see that although they were poor, even illiterate, they still had so much activism in them, despite the fact that the whole world had forgotten them.”
Gross remained in Afghanistan up until two days before the bombardment by the US military began. After the fall of Kabul and the subsequent transfer of power, the new Afghan government invited her to return, recognizing her dedicated work over the years to reclaim women’s rights and the rights of all Afghanis. “They asked me specifically because they wanted and needed a woman activist to give hope and courage to the women there,” she says, recalling the day that a number of women walked the streets of Kabul without headscarves, so that people “could see that the new Afghanistan was built on tolerance.”

In 2002, Gross moved back to Kabul, but continues to visit the United States frequently, where her husband—who hasn’t retired yet—remains. The move, she says, was necessary.
“During the Taliban days, activism had to be from the outside; it was more effective,” she explains. “Now activism inside Afghanistan is
a must. Now we’re in a phase where we have to look inward.”
“Our efforts are definitely paying off,” adds Gross, who since March 2002 has been teaching in the Departments of History and Philosophy at Kabul University. Also, as part of a Paris-based group called Negar, which supports Afghani women, she has been working to ensure that all inalienable rights of Afghani women are restored in the constitution because, as she firmly states, women and men must have equal rights.
Now, thanks to the efforts of Gross and her fellow activists, all 10 articles of the constitution have been restored. The new constitution, which was ratified in January, states that women are equal to men—which makes Afghanistan the only country in the region to acknowledge such equality. Already, 25 percent of government posts and seats in the lower house of parliament are reserved for women.
But, while Gross recognizes that there indeed has been a marked improvement in the situation of Afghan women since the fall of the Taliban, a great deal more needs to be done. The job now is to help Afghan women obtain jobs, support their families, and integrate into political and public life. And Gross has every intention of making this happen.
“I know this is something I have to do, and I am happy,” she says of her work in and for Afghanistan. “It may have been an accident of time and place, but when it did happen, I freely gave myself to it.”
Although Abeda Osman’s connection to Afghanistan has remained constant over the years, it was only very recently that she became proactively involved in the country’s efforts to rebuild and reclaim its place internationally.

Having first graduated from AUB in 1977, Osman enrolled for an MA in 1997 after her family moved back to Lebanon, where her husband works with the Economic and Social Commission for Western Asia (ESCWA). After teaching for a semester at AUB and eventually realizing that work possibilities in Lebanon were limited, she began to audit classes in public administration. Entirely captivated with the courses—and with an eye on applying what she was learning to Afghanistan—Osman formally enrolled in the MA program in public administration. So, when the time came to propose a thesis topic, she was prepared. Her interest was the public sphere in Afghanistan and, more specifically related to what the new government was doing.
“They wanted a broad-based, gender-sensitive, democratic government,” she says, of the post-Taliban regime. “I asked myself what that meant; was it a public service entity based on ethnic representation or merit?” Osman then wondered: if the government were to be more interested in the former option, what would happen if it could no longer fill the quota? “So, I set out to investigate whether the government could balance ethnic representation and merit,” she explains.
Immediately after graduating last year, Osman went to Afghanistan for three months as a consultant with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. “They were impressed because I went prepared; I had done my homework,” she says, referring to the needs assessment study she had completed as part of her research.
During that period, Osman was exposed to the workings of civil service. She learned that, given the workforce pool available in Afghanistan, there wasn’t always a choice in who could be hired. And while there wasn’t really any gender insensitivity so to speak, there was gender insecurity.
“There are many women who are qualified but have never worked, and may therefore lack the know-how,” she says. “When I returned I realized how much society had changed from the time when I was a young woman and we had so much freedom.”
In March, Osman returned to Afghanistan on a full-time basis for a year. It was a difficult decision, especially since it required leaving her family in Beirut.
“It’s important to have a country, and the people in Afghanistan are trying so hard to make it happen,” she says, referring to those already there working for the country’s reconstruction.
Osman’s thesis was so well received, she was hired to work as a member of the Independent Administrative Reform and Civil Service Commission, whose chairperson is the vice president of Afghanistan. The commission was established as part of the proposed government reforms shortly after the World Bank completed its development plan for Afghanistan for the next seven years. Among Osman’s immediate objectives are to show women what they can do, to educate them and show them their options so that they can choose. “It took 25 years to eliminate women from the workforce, so it will take time to encourage them to be more active.”
“My AUB degree gave me back my access to Afghanistan,” she says. “I was really curious about how to restart.” Osman believes that while much has been destroyed over the past couple of decades, the basics remain. And the task at hand now is to build on what’s there. That’s where the commission comes in. Osman would like to see people being hired for public service employment on the basis of merit. “The job gets done properly, and it also helps to unite the country,” she insists. “People look back on the 1970s fondly because it was a time when people were recruited based on merit. We had national unity then.”
She recognizes, however, that with the present arduous living conditions in Afghanistan, recruitment (especially from outside) will be more difficult. “So, the commission will try to do something to attract people from outside, perhaps by offering higher salaries,” she says. “Change will come, but slowly.” For now, while there is a good measure of activity and effort,
it’s still not enough. “It goes back to the availability of resources,” Osman remarks, “and both human and capital resources are lacking.”
“We have to look to other countries and ask how they got so far. Is it our traditions that are keeping us behind?” she asks. “Is it that half the population is inactive? It’s like using only one hand when working. It isn’t nearly as effective.”
Those questions, and many others, are being slowly answered by the initiative of people like Gross and Osman, plus countless others who have made the reconstruction of Afghanistan their priority. It may be a slow process and the changes may be gradual, but with determination, they are bound to happen. And, as Gross learned, one person is often all that is needed to get things going.
“My experiences over the years convinced me that one voice can indeed count, because with perseverance and confidence, one voice becomes larger and larger, and louder and louder,” she says. “It’s very rewarding to me that there is a place for activism in life. It has convinced me that activism is the right way to bring about change.”