As a young woman attending Afghanistan’s Kabul University, Shaharzad Akbar ’09 wasn’t the happiest of students. “There wasn’t much space for discussion and debate, particularly as a young female student,” she says. When a university lecturer, whose daughter had graduated from Smith, recommended the college to Akbar, she jumped at the opportunity to transfer to a school where she could explore her ideas in a more welcoming environment. Today she is a country director for Open Society Afghanistan (a branch of Open Society Foundations), which seeks to create more vibrant and tolerant societies.
The culture shock was real.
“When I arrived at Smith, I saw young people around me who were stressed about schoolwork, relationships and finances. In Afghanistan, women of my age are often worried about getting married to someone they don’t know, moving to a new household and raising kids. Being at Smith made me think about a lot of new things, including what it means to be a Muslim woman. Is there any possibility of a conversation between Islam and feminism?”
Smith’s writing course for international students transformed her.
“English is my second language, and writing was challenging for me. The writing course helped me gain confidence and say, ‘I know I have the ideas, so how do I articulate them in a style that is accepted and appreciated here?’”
“We want to mobilize people around values like democracy, freedom of expression and gender equality.”
She pressured herself to excel.
“There are so many negative ideas about Afghanistan, so I always felt that I must be on my best behavior. I should have the best grades.Whenever I had the opportunity to represent Afghanistan in a new way, I took it. I felt I wasn’t only an individual student, I was representing a country.”
After becoming the first Afghan woman to study at the graduate level at Oxford University, she became a founder of Afghanistan 1400.
“This group is dedicated to changing the way that politics is done in Afghanistan. Right now, people mobilize around ethnicity or religion, but this has led to fragmentation. It’s allowed for a culture of impunity and corruption. We want to mobilize people around values like democracy, freedom of expression and gender equality. We believe these values will help us build a better Afghanistan, where everyone feels safe and is treated with respect.”
With Open Society Afghanistan, she is finding ways to move big ideas about democracy forward.
“We work with civil service organizations to hold the government accountable, and we support the media so they can do investigative journalism. We are always seeking to create a more open society.”
She has dreams for her country.
“Many people have given up on the cause of a democratic future. But I believe in the cause of Afghanistan, and I want to be part of that journey. I want to change the destiny of Afghanistan. Is that overly optimistic? Maybe. But I will continue to stand up for the values I believe in—in whatever capacity I can.”
SAQ, Spring 2017