Empowering myself—and other womenSajia Darwish ’18
“Have you built a restaurant for the school?” a teacher asked on his first visit to the Baale Parwaz Library. I laughed in response. The space—bare except for some newly set up furniture—did not yet give off much of a library feeling. The books had not even been delivered yet. But his question revealed something even greater: a cultural lack of familiarity with an open, peaceful space for studying and collaborating.
Chaos takes a toll
In Afghanistan there are few, if any, public libraries. The chaotic outside world, which escalated due to the presence of the Taliban and ISIS, has taken a toll. It has restrained and limited how people, especially females, live. Many leave home only when necessary. Most are not allowed to go to school or university. They are too vulnerable to all kinds of abuse, which would reflect badly on their families.
According to the United Nations, only 12 percent of Afghan women are literate. The summer of 2016, I decided to create a library for schoolgirls in a public high school in my hometown of Kabul. I was driven by the hope that a library could help change this number.
Securing approval, building a library
I spent three months battling my way to build a library—and contending all the while with social restrictions, traditional values, and religious views on how a woman should be. During my first of four visits to the Ministry of Education to request approval, it took an entire day just to find the right department to speak with. As I pitched my plan, some at the Ministry—all men—were fascinated to see a young woman deliver her ideas. And I think they were impressed by my love for my country, despite my having studied in the United States since age 14.
Others were openly disappointed by what the Western world had “done” to me. But such disappointment is my greatest asset. Being at a women’s college has prepared me to take on life beyond the College’s boundaries. Mount Holyoke has taught me to resist against whatever pushes me down—including those with a narrow view of what women can and can’t do.
With approval finally in hand, and with the support of my family, I then visited several schools, signed contracts, and negotiated for and purchased items. My most challenging moments were in the markets. The carpenter, the painter, and the other contractors were disturbed to take orders from me. But despite how hard and awkward it felt at times, I believe it was a learning experience for them too.
Embracing “wings to fly”
On the library’s opening day, it felt good to see people embrace what I had to offer. Having lived through war for over four decades, Afghans are in desperate need of education. I hope this library will help bring new perspectives to a war-torn society. I also hope to expand to other schools in the years to come.
Darwish addresses the crowd during the library’s opening ceremony.
Shortly after the opening ceremony, when some seventh-grade girls visited the library, I shared with them a personal story. It was about a young girl who did not have access to any children’s books. From a closet-sized room called the school library, she would find and read graduate-level books. The room had only two shelves and less than a hundred books—nearly all of which were advanced academic texts. Those days, the girl wanted to find a space safe from the turmoil around her. And she found that amidst pages of books. They gave her peace, strength, and wings to fly away from bombs and rockets.
Thanks to the Afghan Financial Assistance Fund, which provided the money to build and furnish the library and supports my Mount Holyoke education, many girls can now have that experience. That is why I named the library Baale Parwaz, which means “wings to fly.” The library is open six days a week, from seven in the morning until two in the afternoon. When school is in session, only girls who attend the school can use it. But during the three months of winter that the school is off, the library is open to other children as well.
Keeping a counter-model running
Although I’m now far from Kabul, I try to stay involved with the library as much as possible. We have created two reading clubs that encourage students to read a book each week and discuss it. Such an activity is completely new to them, as students in Afghanistan are not encouraged to analyze or think critically.
This project—challenging and exhilarating—has fostered personal growth in many areas of my life. It also connected me to the Afghan people on a much deeper level than I’ve experienced during any prior trip home. And on a larger scale, I have learned how to create a counter-model for the patriarchal society of Afghanistan: through first empowering myself, and then empowering other girls and women.