Overcoming security risks and prejudice to inspire change

Reflecting on the recent Taliban attack on her former workplace in which at least five died and dozens were injured, Farishta Hellali cuts a quietly stoic figure.

“My friends and the guards in Counterpart were hit – they are in a very bad way, mentally. They are all in trauma,” the Bath School of Management graduate says of the attack on the offices of the civic development and educational NGO on 8 May in Kabul.

“You never know what will happen in this country. When we go out, we do not know if we will come back home. I have an Australian friend who asks, how do you cope with this? I laugh, and say, we don’t have a choice. I know how it is and I accept that reality,” she says, speaking from the Afghan capital city.

Hellali, 31, returned to Afghanistan after graduating with an MSc in Advanced Management Practice from the University of Bath in 2013. She had studied business administration at a private institute in Kabul and was able to join the School of Management in Bath thanks to support from the Vice-Chancellor's Strategic Endowment fund.

Her family had urged her to pursue a career outside Afghanistan after graduation but Hellali felt strongly that her newfound skills would be better put to building her homeland, and particularly in education for girls and women.

“I didn’t want to be selfish. I didn’t want to misuse the opportunity that the Bath scholarship gave me. I felt I could do better in my community and set an example to women in my country – I wanted to do something for my people,” she says.

Hellali worked for Counterpart International Inc. for three years, travelling across Afghanistan to help deliver civic and education programmes to adults in what she called an enriching experience that helped her better understand her homeland.

“Counterpart was about civic dialogue, sitting in communities and discussing peace and reconciliation with adults – men and women. We talked through community issues, worked on them, and found resources to resolve them”.

She now works with Tetra Tech, leading a programme which focuses specifically on developing leadership skills in women. She is unashamedly passionate about education.

“It is my motivation – I worked first with children in this area. Then in civil adult education programmes, and now education for women. A lot has improved in Afghanistan but there is a lot more to do – we should have much greater focus on the education sector,” she says.

Hellali lives with her family in Kabul, beyond the guarded compounds that house the NGOs, international aid agencies and companies. Her neighbours are a large family, who are living in a tent in the capital. She visited them every day for a year to offer what help she could and to convince them of the importance of educating their offspring.

“Six of the nine children now go to school. I try to help as best I can with stationery, clothes and some modest financial support. Seeing such a change means a great deal to me. They have a tough life, and I can’t help with everything - but I can afford to help with education.”

Hellali says she is now approached frequently to mentor younger women and that she hopes she is setting a good example to those who want to take on leadership roles in a country where, as she says, female leaders of her age are a surprise to many.

“I hope I inspire – I worked hard for this and my education and degree from Bath have helped a lot. Am I creating change? Yes, but it’s not just me. Every woman in Afghanistan who leaves her house and does something is setting an example,” she says.

Hellali is candid about the challenges she and other working women face, including physical safety, prejudice and entrenched traditional views. Part of her role is urging women to face to these issues and accept them if they want to help their country’s development and people.

The biggest challenge is security but she is sanguine about the dangers.

“I chose to live in this country and didn’t find it difficult returning to Kabul. I know how it is and have to accept that reality. So far, I am happy because I think I have been a useful person to this society.”

Hellali would like to take her own education one step further and is looking into options for PhDs in education management although finding the funds will be a challenge.

Ian Crawford, Senior Teaching Fellow at the University of Bath’s School of Management, paid tribute to Hellali. Crawford was instrumental in setting up the Afghan scholarship after visiting universities in Kabul.

“Farishta is an inspiring woman – we were proud to help her and play a small but positive role in the reconstruction of Afghanistan and the building of new educational foundations there,” he said.