War stories are most often read as victim chronicles or stoic statics. Although the numbers representing death and destruction are important in establishing the devastating effects of war, they do not capture the essence of those who go through it.
People die in wars, but many also survive. To survive is arguably even more painful than death, and yet there are those that triumph over the worst imaginable odds, and rise above poverty and oppression to rebuild their war torn lives. For those of us enjoying a peaceful and safe existence, we can never truly understand. War is not what we see on television or read in the papers, it is not even the statics or politics. In its most real sense, war is the painful transition of victims into survivors. It is their stories that are the true “war” — the layman’s war, a battle for normalcy in the midst of chaos.
Some of the most ardent and inspirational survivors of war are women. From Afghanistan to Africa, Bosnia to Yemen, women can be found battling the aftermath of war. With limited resources, the burden of loss and the fear of retribution, these women are attempting to turn the dust of their broken lives into new bricks to build with — not just for themselves, but for their families, communities and future generations.
The Business of Survival
War ravishes economies. In the Third World, where most of today’s warfare is raging, this places an almost insurmountable burden on economies that were already struggling. With consequent corruption and the destruction of infrastructure and natural resources, most families are left to live hand-to-mouth and even that is often considered a luxury. Thousands face the loss of jobs, homes and loved ones; many end up in refugee camps. In all of this turmoil, it’s often the women that pick up the pieces and hold families together. Some women find the courage and drive to go out and support themselves; they also develop creative and unique business solutions out of virtually nothing. These women are the authors of very unique and unlikely success stories.
In 1996, Kamila Sadiqui was a young teacher in Afghanistan ready to embark on her career — enter the Taliban, and exit Kamila’s aspirations. The Taliban’s aggressively enforced rules and restrictions for women cloistered Kamila within the four walls of her home. As violence in Afghanistan escalated, her family became desperate to survive. She learned how to sew, and then taught some of her family members and then some women in the neighborhood, developing a high quality dressmaking business in the process. What started off as a means to survive eventually became one of Kabul’s most sought after fashion brands. But, her success was not easy to come by.
She took great risks to go to the local market and take orders, all the while hiding the secret that she was the proprietor of a booming underground business. “It was an unbelievable experience. There was such fear that the Taliban would come after me for running this business and taking orders in the marketplace, but it was empowering to go out and speak to others about my dresses and what they wanted as customers,” Kamila says about the early days of her business.
In 2005, ABC News journalist Gayle Lemmon discovered Kamila and took her story to the international level with the New York Times bestseller, The Dressmaker of Khair Khana. With the help of USAID’s project FAIDA (Financial Access for Investing in the Development of Afghanistan), Kamila is today a successful entrepreneur who aims to set up a training institute in Kabul. “I want women to believe in themselves and know that women can bring change to better their own lives.”
Kamila’s story is unique yet known. There are women like her worldwide. Zainab Salbi, a survivor of the Saddam Regime, created Women for Women International, an organization that helps women rebuild their lives. The organization has helped women in Afghanistan, Bosnia, Iraq, Nigeria, Rwanda and other countries set up and expand small, homegrown businesses that have become the lifelines of their respective communities. From farming to rug weaving, beekeeping, jewelry and brick making or salon services, women in these war torn nations are learning simple trades to gain independence and improve their quality of life.
Gaining a Political Voice
Another way in which women are rebuilding their lives after war is through establishing a political presence. This is significant especially in patriarchal societies where women on the political spectrum are not the norm. Up until now the participation of women in politics was limited to those who are from political families and have been honed for the role. However, years of unrest have produced a new brand of female politician in many countries that are recovering from wars. These women are your everyday mothers, daughters and wives. They are often middle or working class females who are attempting to change their circumstances by directly influencing the policies that affect their lives.
One such woman is Badam Zari, a 40-year-old Pakistani housewife who became the first woman to run for parliament in the conservative Bajur tribal area that borders Afghanistan. Her aim is to push the government to help Pakistani women, especially those living in tribal regions with limited or nonexistent access to government aid. “I want to reach the assembly to become a voice for women,” she said. Zari made her well-spoken comments from behind a cloak covering everything but her eyes, yet she exuded a firm confidence — already defying stereotypes. She is a strong advocate for action, calling on the government to keep its word as well as support education for all girls. This is a risky yet necessary stance on Zari’s behalf as she is running in the same region where young Malala Yousafzai was shot on her way to school.
Being Who They Are
Perhaps the most profound way in which women have triumphed over war’s devastation is to insist on living their lives despite the precariousness of their situations. Not only must they fight against the effects of war to rebuild their lives, they are up against pre-existing cultural norms that become road blocks to establishing normalcy. Many do, however, find a way to be themselves and do what they love, often using their talents as a means to express their war experiences. From literature to spoken word, fine art to graffiti, music to sports, “war women” have found remarkable ways to tell their stories.
Sabah and Shrouq Abu Gunaim are doing just that in a very unique way. In Gaza, where most women are seen at home or accompanied by male relatives, the 14- and 17-year-old sisters can be found riding the waves in the early morning or late nights. After the Gaza War in 2008-2009, all that was left of the sea for Gazans was a three nautical mile stretch. Due to imposed blockades, fishing and sailing are nearly impossible and the import of luxuries such as surf boards is also not allowed, but Sabah and Shrouq have not given up on the sea or their love for sport. The girls ride on boards donated by “Surfing For Peace,” a cross border cooperation organization. Not only are they restricted by political circumstances, they are also up against cultural values that consider their hobby somewhat of a taboo for females. “My family encourages me although the community thinks it’s shameful,” says Sabah. Despite all this, these sisters as well as thousands of other women like them insist on chasing their dreams. To go back to living a normal life is perhaps the greatest challenge to recovering from war and also the most triumphant protest against it.