November 13 2006
She fought—and died at the age of 30—for the rights of Afghan women
Meena called the women of Afghanistan sleeping lions, pledging that one day they would awake and roar. In 1977, at the age of 20, she launched the country's first movement for women's rights, calling her group the Revolutionary Association for the Women of Afghanistan (RAWA). Its goals: the restoration of democracy, equality for men and women, social justice, and the separation of religion from the affairs of the state. But in a country mired in tradition and occupied by the Soviet Union, Meena's beliefs were threatening enough to get her assassinated. Ten years after founding RAWA, she was kidnapped and killed; many Afghans held agents of the local communist intelligence agency responsible.
Although she was only 30 when she died, Meena had already planted the seeds of an Afghan women's rights movement based on the power of knowledge. She believed that if women were able to read and write, that if they could communicate and learn about the world, they would discover their own strength and could make a difference in their own society. After the Soviet invasion in 1979 she established schools and orphanages for refugees pouring over the border into Pakistan. Those schools offered opportunities never available previously to young Afghan women. "Meena didn't just give me an education; she taught me that I had the right to live a better life," says Sahar Saba, an early student at RAWA's first school in Quetta.
Today, for the first time in Afghan history, women have campaigned for, and won, seats in the national parliament. One of these women is Gulhar Jalal, a childhood friend of Meena's and an illiterate widow who now represents the province of Kunar. "I ran," she says, "because this was Meena's dream."