“I became very happy. When I got to school, it was my whole world,” she says.
Afghani was in fifth grade when the fighting between the mujahideen and the Soviet Union became so fierce that her family left Afghanistan for Pakistan. In Peshawar, she enrolled in master’s-level classes in Islamic studies and began learning Arabic. Once there, she came to see an Islam that was not what she had been familiar with.
“When I started learning Arabic and studying by myself, I found out that Islam is totally different from what my family was saying, what my environment was teaching,” she says.
“Everything was always a discrimination in our family,” says Afghani, who observed how her brothers behaved with their wives. “They were educated women, but my brothers stopped them from continuing their education and working,” she recounts. “I thought, if [my brothers] can go outside, why not my sisters-in-law?”
After 2001, when the Taliban were ousted from power in Afghanistan, scores of refugees started returning to the country, Afghani among them. She began setting up women’s centers where literacy was taught.
But when the project was taken to Afghani’s native Ghazni province, she ran into problems with the community – especially the imams of the mosques. She decided to invite one of the imams to her center, but he was embarrassed to meet a woman and said he wished nobody would find out. Afghani couldn’t believe his attitude: “I thought, my God, what is this?” But she chose to take a respectful approach and explained that she was educating women about Islam. “I said, ‘If you can find a single verse from the Quran or the hadith that education is bad, then I’ll stop right now and hand over the key of this center to you.’ ”
Slowly, she says, the imam became impressed with Afghani’s knowledge of Islam, and he started encouraging men to let their wives and daughters go to the center. Suddenly, the space was crowded with women hungry for education.
In 2008, Afghani was invited to a conference in Malaysia organized by the Women’s Islamic Initiative in Spirituality and Equality (WISE), a network for Muslim women. There she learned about a Filipina woman who was writing Friday sermons for imams about women’s rights. This gave Afghani the idea about gender-sensitivity training for imams. With the support of WISE and female Muslim scholars, “we developed a manual for the training,” she says.