A Fearless Woman

Sakena Yacoobi's Story

Rabia Povich

I first met Sakena Yacoobi at a gathering hosted by the Global Peace Initiative of Women in Aspen Colorado in 2008. Both of us knew few people in attendance, so we had dinner together as we discovered each other and shared interests. I was struck by Sakena's quiet yet confident manner, her modesty despite significant achievements as I learned more about her life and work at presentations over the next few days.

Several months later I saw Sakena give a presentation to over 900 women at the National Cathedral's Sacred Circles gathering, and in a smaller forum I again was moved by her heartfelt but clear-headed answers about life and work in Afghanistan. While Sakena's personal story is moving and her remarkable work has been recognized by several organizations, it is her calm, lucid presence, her quiet yet compelling demeanor, that impresses most. After meeting her you can imagine Sakena participating in conversations with warlords, never raising her voice nor showing fear, but respectfully carrying a message for education and peace that cuts through distrust and division as she promotes a better life for all Afghans.

For me, she embodies a modern chivalry, and I was moved to ask her if I could share her story through Seven Pillars.

Amidst the violence, chaos and destruction that engulf Afghanistan, a quiet force is transforming lives. Beginning with the creation of underground schools for women and children in 1995, Sakena Yacoobi, a small, soft-spoken Afghan woman, has been opening the door for a brighter future in her country. Today, as the founder and executive director of the Afghan Institute of Learning, which now has over 40 centers, she oversees educational, health care, vocational and leadership services for 350,000 women and girls each year.

Sakena’s eyes shine brightly as she modestly but clearly recounts both the challenges in Afghanistan and the successes she can claim. She neither preaches nor admonishes, and, though she has faced threats and personal danger, she shows no sign of anger or despair. Instead, she exudes optimism and hope, and a strong commitment to the possibility of a better future. She knows that most of the Afghan people want only to improve their lives, and believes in their ability to learn and change no matter how set in their ways they may appear. Seeking nothing less than transformation of her nation, Sakena's work puts fierce love into action.

As a youth growing up in Herat, Sakena witnessed the poor health conditions in her community. Her mother had 16 pregnancies that resulted in five live births. These foundational experiences contributed to Sakena first desire—to become a doctor and bring better health to Afghan women. Although Sakena’s father was illiterate, he believed in education, and he sent her to the United States for college just before the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan. The timing of her departure would have lasting repercussions for her. While she obtained her college degree and went on to obtain a graduate degree in public health, her family suffered incessant invasions, political upheaval and counter-insurgency. War and conflict prevented Sakena from returning to Afghanistan for 20 years. During this time half of her family was killed and the other half became refugees in Pakistan and Iran. In time she was able to get some of her family relocated from the refugee camps to the U.S.

While in the United States, Sakena's natural compassion, empathy and quiet leadership led her to want to help the young and those who were struggling, so she decided to become a health worker and teacher, and also to work with refugees. She worked in California and Michigan, teaching and providing social services, until it became possible to return home in the mid-1990s. Upon her return, Sakena first visited the refugee camps in Pakistan, and took a job to train female teachers and open girls’ schools there. She also undertook a listening tour in Afghanistan. She asked people what they needed. She saw the whole society suffering, and felt the fear that was part of people's daily lives. Since she had experienced the power of education to open doors, her first effort to help was to send books and support for the teachers to 80 underground schools for girls. Through trust, listening and prayer she built a community of knowledge that led to the subsequent visionary programs of her own NGO, the Afghan Institute of Learning.

A photograph of Sakena Yacoobi.

Sakena is deeply aware of the obstacles to a better future. She recounts the numerous challenges of the local residents: most of the country lacks water, roads, electricity and security; women are kidnapped and raped; children have acid thrown in their faces; schools are burned; and the terrain is covered with 30 million land mines. A master of understatement, when asked, Sakena says, the U.S. war has not helped to rebuild Afghanistan. She recognizes that the people need security and feels the U.S. military can help train the Afghan people to provide that security. While political leaders continue to fight for control of Afghanistan, she notes that none of them ask the Afghans what they want.

Thirty-six years of war have dissolved trust in Afghanistan. Sakena feels that to build trust and welcome people from other religions and cultures, the Afghans must first know about their own culture and religion—so education is a critical element. She notes that while most Afghans are Muslims, they are not fanatics. She uses her personal faith, knowledge of the Qur’an, and appreciation of the culture to reduce barriers and distrust. Since most mullahs cannot read Arabic, she teaches her people to read Arabic and to understand the Qur’an in Persian or Pashtun. She uses the teachings of the Qur’an to convince doubting warlords and mullahs that education is appropriate for women and children. And she does not open a school or educational learning center in a new area until she is asked by community leaders.

Despite challenges from local warlords, Sakena continues to take steps forward to educate and empower women and children. And now men are included as well. Sakena has been stopped on the road by armed soldiers on a number of occasions; in several cases what they wanted was to be taught to read. When the men wanted a separate space to learn, she accommodated them by placing a curtain in the classroom. She notes that it took three days for the men to ask for the curtain to be taken down.

Her primary focus is reducing Afghanistan’s very high illiteracy rate, knowing that with education the people can ask questions, gain knowledge and analyze for themselves, reducing the tendency to follow blindly. She says that boys, from very young ages, need to be taught to be responsible for their actions, to be sensitive toward women, and to learn and live the ethics and values of the Qur’an. And she has included leadership training to help residents, particularly women, become better citizens and enable them to better support their families.

Having placed her trust in God, Sakena constantly seeks guidance about her next steps by listening to her heart. She serves with openness and joy, bringing peace by exemplifying forgiveness and brotherhood, and her love for people and God suffuses her work. While she prays privately, in closing a meeting at the National Cathedral, she offered this prayer from the first sura of the Qur’an:

“Bismillah, in the name of God, the only one God, we pray by thy name to guide us on the straight path and to keep evil away from us.”
Comments (9)
  • Sakena Yacoobi is a living inspiration. May her vision and noble intentions become reality in our life time.

    — Prahaladan on October 19, 2009

  • Many thanks so Sakena for her courage, vision, and faith; and to Rabia for writing this article.

    — Linda George on October 19, 2009

  • Amen! May we all be moved to support such inspirational efforts.

    — Junayad on October 21, 2009

  • inspiring story beautifully written!

    — mirabai on October 22, 2009

  • Wonderfully written! I often feel that fearless women will one day save the world. An inspiring role model for today’s young girls and women.

    — ned on October 22, 2009

  • Encouragement in the midst of darkness; inspiration in a drought of hopelessness…  Blessed be.

    — John on October 23, 2009

  • Sakena proves that actions and words both speak loudly. Let’s pray for her well being and follow her example of compassionate and dedicated service.

    — kumari on October 25, 2009

  • What an inspiration!  Thank you for the article

    — maria Lancaster on October 28, 2009

  • Sakena Yacoobi is definitely a “fearless woman” and a example for all woman. May Allah continue to bless her and her work.

    — Jamila Ali on October 27, 2010

15 October 2009

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