An Afghan woman lays foundations of reform
Globe and Mail (Canada)
September 1, 2008
KANDAHAR, AFGHANISTAN — A strange man phoned Masoda Younasy about a year ago at the construction company she owns in downtown Kandahar.
He would not give his name. And when Ms. Younasy, who is now 22, suggested that he come to her offices, the man explained that he was already outside the building but the watchman would not let him through the door.
The man was eventually ushered in to meet her and she understood her guard’s concern.
“I was very scared. He was totally like a terrorist,” Ms. Younasy said. Her sister Hameda, who was in the office at the time and who accompanied her during an interview with The Globe and Mail, nodded in wide-eyed agreement.
But the man had come on an errand of mercy and not murder.
“He said, ‘When you were two months old, I came to your home and I met your family. Your parents, your mom, were very kind to me.’ So he said, ‘I want to let you know about something,’ ” Ms. Younasy said.
He showed her a piece of paper with the names of five men involved in Afghan politics and private business. At the bottom of the list was her own name.
“He said, ‘Okay, Masoda, I got money to kill all these people on this list. First these five gentlemen. At the end, you. And I got $500 to kill you,’ ” she related.
“I said, ‘Oh my god, the price of my life is only $500!’ He said, ‘It’s much money for me. Killing people is very easy for me.’ I said, ‘Okay, so you are going to kill me now?’ He said, ‘No, I am not going to kill you. I am going to kill these five gentlemen and I am going to give them their money back for you.’ “
There are those in Afghanistan who do not like the fact that Ms. Younasy, the granddaughter of the revered former king, Mohammad Zahir Shah, runs her own construction business.
But the tiny woman in a head scarf, lipstick and sparkling gold and silver jewellery stubbornly insists on charting her own course, defying tradition and murderous insurgents in one of the most dangerous cities on Earth.
Ms. Younasy was raised in Pakistan, where her Afghan family fled during the war with the Russians. Her parents returned to Afghanistan after the fall of the Taliban and summoned their 10 children to join them. For Ms. Younasy, it was a homecoming.
She took a series of positions – from justice assistant to the Afghan human-rights commission to field officer for the electoral-management body – and then landed a job as a project manager with a group of construction companies.
One of the draws of the work, she said, was that it was unconventional.
“I said, ‘Oh, this is my wish – to do something in Afghanistan that a lady cannot do because of our culture,’ ” Ms. Younasy said. “They are not doing these things because they are scared of family, culture, the Taliban. So I said, ‘Why don’t I do this?’ “
A year later, she quit to start her own firm, the Younasy Construction Company. The firm, she said, has built bridges, an 18-kilometre stretch of highway, schools, police outposts, part of a hospital and a market in Dubai.
Not that it has been easy.
On one occasion she was the successful bidder on a contract to build a prayer building outside government offices. Former governor Asadullah Khalid asked to speak to the head of her company.
“When I went to the governor’s office, he said, ‘Who are you?’ I said, ‘I am a contractor and I am a director of the Younasy Construction Company.’ And he said, ‘Oh my God, so I gave this project to you!’ ” said Ms. Younasy.
“I said, ‘You didn’t give me the project, I won the project.’ He said, ‘Okay, I will do whatever you want, but please leave this project. You cannot work on it. It’s not your field. Females can work at the home with babies but they cannot work with construction, with machinery.’ “
She pleaded for a chance to show what she could do. The governor reluctantly gave in and the project was completed 1½ months early. But there have been no more contracts from the provincial government.
Meanwhile, her extended family is enraged by Ms. Younasy’s chosen occupation.
About 1½ months ago, in the days before she was leaving to take an entrepreneurial course in Michigan, two uncles and three cousins who own their own construction company asked her into their home to discuss business.
She accepted the invitation and brought her mother and sister along for company.
The uncles “asked ‘Why are you going to the U.S.A.? It’s time for you to stay home. This is against our culture, that a single girl is going to the U.S.A. So sit in your home and we will get you married with your cousin,’ ” she said.
She refused. A fight broke out. She was slapped and her uncles locked her and her mother and her sister in a room, saying they were calling the rest of her family over. “They said, ‘We will kill all you here. No one will know about it. Soon you will be finished,’ ” said Ms. Younasy.
Once the door was closed, she said, she pulled out her cellphone and called the Afghan police. They arrived and rescued the three women but refused to lay charges, saying it was a family matter. Ms. Younasy said she has not heard from her uncles since that day.
Her next ambition, she said, is to get a degree in politics at a Canadian or American university. Hameda, her sister, will look after the construction company and her other projects in her absence.
Then, she plans to come back and become a politician in Afghanistan.
“And this is my goal, it’s not my dream or my wish, it is my goal: I want to offer myself as a candidate for the president of Afghanistan,” she said.