Advocacy As Liberation

By Linda Hemby
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Gaisu Yari is a 27 year old survivor of the Taliban regime, child marriage, and other traumatic Afghan crises, like her father’s disappearance as a result of her escaping forced marriage, and the ever increasing presence and brutal deaths caused by the Taliban and Islamic State in areas where her family resides. By choosing advocacy in response to these and other life challenges, Gaisu embodies the saying of the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, “that which does not kill us, makes us stronger.”

Her defiance towards the Afghan patriarchic cultural mindset of warlords, violent extremists, religious institutions, and government, was and still is manifested in her passion for promoting awareness about women’s rights. In Afghanistan, she found expression in strengthening libraries and girls access to them, teaching literacy classes, and campaigning for a female political candidate. It led to her being one of a small group of women selected, trained and hired as community radio reporters in 2004. And three years later, her uniqueness was again recognized when she was one of two Afghan women invited to come to the U.S. to share their stories.

Hearing about the plight of Afghan women from a nineteen year old who had lived some of the worst atrocities, several women’s organizations encouraged and obtained Gaisu’s residency in the U.S. Among these was the Feminist Majority which supported Gaisu’s college education with a scholarship that paid for her books. Even more important, the Feminist Majority facilitated Gaisu’s growth as a women’s rights defender, offering an internship that equipped her with lobbying and networking skills. It also published her articles and provided public platforms, as a speaker and panelist, to inform larger audiences about the needs, obstacles and advances of Afghan women. With each article and event, Gaisu was contacted by other international women’s organizations that afforded her diverse venues to continue her advocacy work on behalf of Afghan women’s rights.

Even though she had to work, and sometimes two jobs, to meet the costs of her college studies and to send money home to help out her family, Gaisu took advantage of every college opportunity to engender interest in and support of Afghan women. She presented at cultural and academic events, wrote articles for college publications, and was an energetic participant in her classes, always expounding upon and often challenging, perceptions of women and culture in the Middle East. Students, professors, residents in the dorms where she lived, along with coworkers and customers, have all expressed how they have been enlightened and inspired by Gaisu sharing her experiences and insights.

This past May, Gaisu graduated from the University of Virginia with two degrees, in Women’s and Middle Eastern studies. Her embrace of advocacy both before and during college has provided her a positive way to respond to the many negative experiences and challenges of her short life, enhanced her personal development, and opened numerous doors. In addition to being liberating, her advocacy has influenced innumerable people, increasing their awareness of Afghanistan and support for women’s rights.

The way Gaisu has chosen to live her life proves that one person can indeed make a difference. For women studying in the U.S. from Afghanistan and other parts of the world where extreme patriarchy, misogyny, and conflict flourish, hers is truly an example to be emulated. I hope they will follow in Gaisu’s footsteps and reach out to the Feminist Majority which has demonstrated its enthusiasm to share its resources in support of international women’s rights defenders.

Meanwhile, now that Gaisu has her U.S. citizenship, she is returning to her beloved Afghanistan to explore how she can best contribute to sustainable change for Afghan women. I, like everyone else who knows her, wishes her the very best.

By Linda Hemby

Linda Hemby is a political sociologist and human rights specialist. She survived nine years of war in El Salvador where, most recently, she has been supporting rural youth who use art to protest the country’s rampant violence. For almost two years, she has also operated two news services, one via Twitter and the Facebook group Blue Bra, which addresses women in the Middle East, North Africa, Turkey and Afghanistan. Among other projects, she is Gaisu Yari’s mentor.

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