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U.S. Recognizes Afghans, Iranian As Among 'International Women Of Courage'

  • Heather Maher

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton (left) presents the award to Sister Marie Claude Naddaf of Syria as first lady Michelle Obama looks on.

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton (left) presents the award to Sister Marie Claude Naddaf of Syria as first lady Michelle Obama looks on.

WASHINGTON -- Ten extraordinary women have been recognized by the U.S. State Department in a ceremony in Washington.

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton appeared alongside first lady Michelle Obama to praise the group of women that she and her staff have chosen as this year's International Women of Courage.

"We are honoring women from around the world who have endured isolation and intimidation, violence and imprisonment," Clinton said. "Many have even risked their lives to advance justice, freedom, and equal rights for everyone. Their stories remind us of how much work there is left to do before the rights and dignity of all people -- no matter who you are or where you live -- are respected and protected by the world's governments."

The awards were established in 2007 to "recognize women around the globe who have shown exceptional courage and leadership in advocating for women's rights and advancement."

Clinton said each woman chosen personifies "the courage that really is required in so many places to stand up for women's rights and human rights [and] to protect those who are vulnerable."

"These women prove that change is possible," Clinton said. "They are brave and they are making a difference. And they are up against powerful interests determined to bring them down. By honoring them today, the United States and the Obama administration sends a very clear message -- that though they make work in lonely circumstances, they are not alone. We are standing with you."

This year's recipients come from Zimbabwe, Korea, Cyprus, the Dominican Republic, Kenya, Sri Lanka, Syria, Iran, and Afghanistan.

'Changes For Women'

As a student in Afghanistan, Shafiqa Quraishi was passionate about becoming a police officer. She became not just a police officer but rose to the rank of colonel and now directs the Department of Gender, Human, and Children's Rights at the Ministry of the Interior.

In that role, she has made it her mission to increase the ministry's responsiveness to the needs of women across Afghanistan, including in villages and remote areas.

Through a translator, she said: "When you are talking about services for women, you are not only talking about services in the capital city of Kabul, but we would like to spread out our services in the very remote areas and villages in the country. Programs for health and development, employment -- these are some of the issues we would like to tackle and to make sure we provide them throughout the country -- even in remote areas -- to bring about [positive] changes for women."

Shukria Asil
One of Quraishi's other main goals is to add thousands of women to the ministry's employment roles. There are currently 950; she wants 5,000.

Increasing participation by women in the country's workforce is a central theme of her work, so she is pushing the Afghan government, hard, to offer incentives for female workers, like child care, skills training, and health care.

It is clearly an uphill struggle, but she says things are slowly improving, and there is even a national plan specifically to help women enter the workforce. She smiles as she says this.

The other Afghan recipient of the State Department's Woman of Courage award is Shukria Asil. Asil is a member of the Baghlan Provincial Council and works as an advocate for people who have few champions in Afghanistan -- among them, the mentally disabled, children, and women.

She is tiny but her accomplishments are undeniably large. She has created networking groups for women, led the push for woman's driving schools, helped remote communities connect to their provincial governments, and expanded educational opportunities for young girls.

In many cases, her biggest obstacle is centuries of tradition.

"Afghan society is a very traditional and conservative society, in spite of some of the improvements in women's status," Asil said. "Women, unfortunately, still face limitations, some of which are based on unnecessary cultural traditions. These have been an obstacle in improving women's status and limit what they can do."

The U.S. State Department says it honored Asil for choosing "a public and dangerous role in her dedication to fighting injustice." She has been threatened with kidnapping and death, but she ignores pleas from the police and security forces to stop her work and think of her own safety.

She recently had to change her address, but still says she feels safe.

Everything she has done so far has given her great satisfaction, she says. She will not stop.
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