Teaching a “Neutral” Quran in Afghanistan

Isobel Coleman
Sakena Yacoobi (left) speaks with Afghan women at an AIL training session in Kabul in 2008.

The women sit on the floor, shifting their weight from time to time to keep the blood flowing to their feet. As they move about, the plastic floor covering crinkles, bunching up under their blue burqas and black chadors. Through a small window, the rays of the morning sun begin to cut across the room, illuminating the dust floating in the air. Many of the women have walked miles from neighboring villages to attend this workshop in Jibril, a small town about forty-five minutes outside of Herat in the western part of Afghanistan. Their feet and skirt bottoms are covered in the countryside’s ubiquitous brown dirt. It is summer and already the temperature is climbing in the crowded space. A lone fan in the corner strains to stir the heavy air. There is no furniture in the room, except for a large blackboard on one wall. Every inch of floor space is occupied by a shrouded figure. Although there are no men present, the women keep their burqas and chadors in place. Some even have their faces covered. Murmurs of expectation, tinged with suspicion, ripple through the crowd.

Sakena Yacoobi, a short, stocky woman wearing a flowered headscarf tied tightly under her chin, stands in front of the blackboard. She senses the women’s nervousness and starts with a cheery “Salaam Alaikum—peace be with you.” The women mumble a greeting back. Sakena, a native of Herat, speaks local Dari with little trace of the nearly twenty years she has lived off and on in the United States. She is the founder and director of the Afghan Institute of Learning (AIL), a nonprofit organization that provides health and educational services to more than 350,000 women and children across Afghanistan. This morning, she is visiting AIL’s women’s center in Jibril. The center is a converted house AIL has rented in a newer section of town. It is surrounded by a high mud wall. A wiry, bearded older man guards the thick metal door, carefully monitoring the constant stream of humanity. A pile of worn shoes accumulates by the door. It is a mystery how people manage to leave with their own pair. From morning until night, each of the house’s six rooms are packed with classes—literacy classes for the unread; tailoring, English, accounting, and computer classes to build job skills; health and hygiene classes for mothers.

The women in this room have gathered for a “human rights” workshop. Sakena starts by asking everyone to introduce themselves. The room remains quiet, so she jumps into the silence and runs through her own life story, dwelling on her years growing up in Herat so that the women can better relate. Eventually, she begins to draw out some of the other women in the room until almost everyone is volunteering personal tidbits.

Later, Sakena explains to me that these sessions always start out slowly. The women who come are curious but cautious, and it takes at least a day just to build some trust. I am not surprised. It seems quixotic to be teaching human rights to a group of rural Afghan housewives. Most of them are illiterate and have spent their whole lives doing the bidding of others. But Sakena insists that these sessions are among the most powerful and beneficial courses that AIL offers. “We call it a human rights workshop,” she says, “but what we are really teaching is the Quran. These women can read very little so they have never actually read the Quran. Or if they can read, they don’t understand the meaning of it. By working within our culture, and respecting our traditions, we are able to give them the tools they need to communicate—and negotiate—better with their husbands.”

After warming up the group, Sakena turns the blackboard over to Fatima Makia, one of AIL’s “master teachers,” who has come from Kabul to run the workshop. Fatima grew up in Afghanistan but, like so many others, fled to Pakistan as a refugee in the late 1990s. She was 27 years old and started teaching in Peshawar at a high school supported by AIL. There she met Sakena and, after four years, she started working directly for AIL. Now, she travels all over Afghanistan training AIL’s growing corps of teachers and instructors, mostly women but some men too.

Today, Fatima focuses on the subject of orphans. Many of the women in the group are caring for orphans, the children of dead relatives or neighbors who have no place else to go. Some complain that their husbands beat the children and resent sharing their meager resources with them. Fatima recites Surah 4:10 from the Quran to the women: “Those who unjustly eat up the property of orphans eat up a Fire into their own bodies. They will soon be enduring a Blazing Fire!”

This passage unleashes a torrent of discussion for the rest of the morning, not only about Islamic obligations to orphans, but also about more sensitive subjects. From the complaints of the women present, domestic abuse seems to be an endemic problem. Fatima keeps the discussion moving and fills the blackboard with the women’s ideas and statements. I am told this is no off-the-cuff process. Rather, she is following a program that has been carefully developed and tested by the Women’s Learning Partnership (WLP), a U.S.-based nonprofit, in collaboration with women’s groups in Muslim-majority countries around the world. Fatima has even been to Washington, DC, for training. Sakena Yacoobi was an adviser to the project and has tailored it for use in Afghanistan.1 This, I realize, is how Islamic feminism is trickling down to the village level.

“I remember the first time we did one of these training sessions. It was in Peshawar, in 2001,” Sakena excitedly recalls, her usual rapid-fire speech revving up another notch. “One of the women in the group was a mother so upset that her husband was marrying off their daughter to a much older man. He had told her she had no right to interfere in the matter, and she was very upset. We went through the Quran with her, showing her the various passages that say marriage must be consensual, that it is the daughter’s right to choose. This gave her the courage to go home and speak with him. Based on the Quran, she got him to change his mind. Pretty soon, many people were coming up to us asking for help to resolve their family disputes too. These counseling sessions really began to change the women’s lives.”

In Jibril and across Afghanistan, Sakena has seen the impact of AIL’s classes on many women. She tells me about Najiba, a Tajik woman from the Kushk District to the north. Najiba’s husband died in the war, and she was living with her parents-in-law and four brothers-in-law, two married and two single. With three small children of her own, she was forced to do all the housework and was regularly beaten. Her own children were made to eat scraps and wear rags. Her father-in-law announced one day that she would have to marry one of the single brothers, the one who beat her the most. She obeyed and now has a child with him too. Her life was miserable.

Through a neighbor, Najiba had heard about the classes at the Afghan Institute of Learning and snuck away from home to attend one of the sessions. “We were scared for her,” remembers Sakena. “We urged her not to come if it was dangerous for her. For several days, she did not appear. Then she showed up again with a sister-in-law in tow. They had both come with the mother-in-law’s knowledge. All the women in the house wanted to learn more about the Quran, what it says about their rights. Soon, the mother-in-law herself was coming, and all the sisters-in-law, bringing their children too, to the medical clinic. Najiba started taking literacy and sewing classes and earning some extra money. Her husband stopped beating her.”

Sakena is well aware of the culturally sensitive line AIL is walking. “We only teach the Quran in a ‘neutral’ way,” she insists. “We work with the local mullahs to make sure they have no objections to our materials. And we welcome the involvement of husbands too. All of us observe our culture and traditions ourselves. We go slowly, and very carefully.… I don’t want to criticize the work of foreigners, but when they come here and start teaching the women about their rights, the women often go home and criticize their husbands and their life just gets worse. We are helping the women learn how to negotiate with their husbands. The Quran is most helpful for that.”