Amplifying Women’s Voices
Ambassador Adela Raz, left, attends unveiling ceremony for gift to the U.N. from the Government of Islamic Republic of Afghanistan at U.N. Headquarters on June 28, 2021 in New York City. (Shutterstock.com)
Under the leadership of Adela Raz, Princeton’s Afghanistan Policy Lab aims to restore educational opportunities to girls, and to alleviate the humanitarian crisis in her nation
By Ilene Dube
When students in the U.S. missed up to two years of schooling during the height of the pandemic, experts weighed in on the harm done to the nation’s youth. And yet when the Taliban first took control of Afghanistan (1996-2001), girls were banned from going to school altogether, missing out on five years of their education. Sadly, since the Taliban takeover in August 2021, girls in Afghanistan are once again barred from the classroom.
Adela (pronounced Ahd-ullah) Raz was 10 years old when the Taliban came to Kabul in 1996 and shut down the schools. An ardent student, she had just completed a skeleton drawing for biology class — a project she proudly absorbed herself in for days — and would have to hide it away in a closet.
Despite the five-year gap, Raz was lucky, she says, to live in an educated community. Her parents knew education was essential — her father, who had completed his higher education in Japan, worked at Kabul University and as a civil servant in the ministries of economics, culture, planning, and international relations. “He said education is the wealth that no one can steal from you,” she recounts.
When it became apparent that the schools would not reopen, teachers turned their homes into classrooms. It was through such homeschooling that Raz would learn to speak fluent English. Soon her mother opened a school, teaching sewing, and Raz, not yet 16, began teaching first graders reading, writing, and basic math.
Through hard work and drive, Raz grew up to become the first female deputy spokesperson and director of communications for President Hamid Karzai in 2013. From there she became the deputy foreign minister and, in 2018, the first female permanent representative and ambassador of Afghanistan to the United Nations (U.N.).
Socialist women attend a rally in Kabul in the late 1970s. (Wikimedia Commons)
Raz began serving as the Afghan government’s ambassador to Washington just weeks before the Taliban took over in summer 2021, moving to Washington, D.C. That lasted until February of this year, when the position was eliminated.
Taliban policies restrict women’s access to work. They dictate what women must wear, how they should travel, workplace segregation by sex, and enforce these rules through intimidation and inspections, according to Human Rights Watch. They particularly target those who worked for the previous Afghan government.
“The crisis for women and girls in Afghanistan is escalating with no end in sight,” says Heather Barr, associate women’s rights director at Human Rights Watch, according to the organization’s website news. “Taliban policies have rapidly turned many women and girls into virtual prisoners in their homes, depriving the country of one of its most precious resources, the skills and talents of the female half of the population.”
This has led to serious physical and mental health consequences including fear, anxiety, hopelessness, insomnia, and a deep sense of loss and helplessness.
In March Raz became the director of Princeton University’s School of Public and International Affairs Afghanistan Policy Lab. The Lab aims to “help build an inclusive, peaceful, and prosperous Afghanistan that represents all its citizens equally,” according to its website.
Speaking via video chat from a book-lined studio in her Washington, D.C., home, Raz wears a silky headscarf that sometimes slips down, revealing sleek dark hair and captivating eyes. She chooses to wear the scarf, she says, as a celebration of her culture. Her three children — two girls and a baby boy — are tended to in another room by Raz’s husband, who is earning a second master’s degree from Georgetown University while in the U.S. There is little interruption from the children. “He’s probably bribing them with ice cream and TV,” Raz says jokingly.
Despite all she’s been through in her 36 years, Raz demonstrates the resilience to be able to joke. When asked what it was like being the only woman in the room she says, “it was a moment of honor but at times intimidating and challenging. Traveling around the world, I was also the youngest. I was very petite, wore a scarf, and for a time was pregnant. My counterparts didn’t always take me seriously.”
And yet when she went behind closed doors with her female colleagues and they talked about the challenges, “we would crack up. We had a strong women’s network among female ambassadors,” she says.
She calls it a historical time.
Kabul, Afghanistan, August 10, 2021. Refugee children after the collapse of the country in August 2021 by the Taliban. (Shutterstock.com)
Although some sources say Raz grew up in the Padtika Province in the eastern section of the country, she points out that she is from a paternalistic society that attributes her father’s place of origin to her own. In fact, she was born and raised in Kabul.
“It’s a city I’m still in love with,” she says, even though, during Taliban rule, she and her family — she has three younger brothers — had to move six to eight times. “It’s difficult to remember all the times.”
There are also happy memories of friends and family. “We were all in same place and could stay in touch,” she says.
When Raz was 12, her father died, quite suddenly, at work. It’s a difficult subject, one she shies away from discussing, but admits the loss was devastating to the family. She and her mother had to take in sewing and do whatever work they could find. They had to sell belongings that weren’t essential. One of her beloved possessions was a badminton racket her father had brought from an overseas trip. When her mother told her she didn’t need it anymore and to sell it, “I didn’t have the strength to say I love it so much,” says Raz.
“That’s how we survived,” she continues. “It’s not just our story but so many others’.”
When American forces invaded Afghanistan after the terrorist attacks of 9/11, “it opened doors for us,” Raz says. “We were able to go back to school. It was a new chapter.”
All students were bumped up one grade, and when tested, Raz moved up two grades into an accelerated program. “My brothers and I just wanted to study hard,” she says. “In Kabul, it’s common to be competitive.” In no time, she was caught up.
Did she ever dream she would someday serve as ambassador to the U.S.?
“Never,” she says. “I was going to school and working full time. My only dream was that I could study without interruption.”
After the collapse of the Taliban, in 2002, she worked for the U.N. Assistance Mission in Afghanistan, a job she was able to get because of her fluency in English.
“There was a dire need for people to do translation,” she says. Among her jobs was working on a TV documentary on women struggling for their rights.
She earned a scholarship to study at Simmons University in Boston, where she held three majors: political science, economics, and international relations. Growing up listening to BBC World Service stoked her interest in international affairs, as did her father’s career. While at Simmons, she maintained a 3.98 GPA, she notes with pride.
From there, she earned a scholarship to pursue her master’s degree in law and diplomacy at the Fletcher School at Tufts. During those college and grad school years, Raz returned home in summers, working to help women who were victims of violence.
“I realized I could never become a lawyer because I’m too emotional,” she says. “Attending to my clients makes me emotional, so I decided to stick to the diplomacy side.”
Her first job in Washington, D.C., in 2010, was for an international development organization. But in 2013 she had a sort of reckoning. As the U.S. was taking steps to withdraw troops from Afghanistan, she foresaw the collapse of her country. “I realized that if I wanted to make change, I had to be a part of the change,” she says.
She flew to Afghanistan with one carry-on item to interview for the position of spokesperson and director of communications for President Hamid Karzai. She was offered the position and accepted, not getting back on her return flight to the U.S.
After succeeding in that position, the ambassadorships followed. Raz considers herself lucky to have held these positions, and credits her family’s values. Because of her struggles to get an education, she developed an incredible hunger for it.
She also has praise for her female professors. “They gave me so much good advice which helped to develop my view, my vision, to become the person I am,” she says. “Globally, women leaders tend to have so much knowledge and wisdom because they had to work so hard for it.”
Raz is excited to be in Princeton (she commutes from their home in Washington, D.C.) “because of its energy, its drive for knowledge. I long to be a part of that rich community once more. I want to learn with students.”
Along with Amaney Jamal, dean, Princeton School of Public and International Affairs, Raz was on the team that launched the Policy Lab in April.
“It’s a critical moment and I look forward to the potential of what we can offer,” she says. “It’s not in the interest of anyone to see Afghanistan fall into the hands of terrorists. Women, half of the population, have been rendered voiceless. We hope to not only give their voices back but to amplify those voices.”
The Lab will have up to nine fellows, “a diverse group of men and women,” to conduct research and make recommendations to resolve the humanitarian crisis faced by Afghanistan during the Taliban regime, says Raz. “The expertise and knowledge that a school like Princeton provides will influence policy in the U.S. and Europe. We need hope and space for optimism.”
Asked if she thinks that Afghanistan will ever be a safe place for her children to return to, Raz pauses. “Without hope, I cannot move forward.”
A biology class at Kabul University during the late 1950s or early 1960s. (Wikimedia Commons)