By Kaveri Jain
The only sister of four brothers, and raised in a family of Afghan refugees in Iran, Zahra Rasouli’s school teacher father and homemaker mother made sure she had a happy and loving childhood, surrounded by positive female role models. Today, the feminist activist, who works for the rights of vulnerable women and girls in the United Kingdom, is trying to do the same for countless others.
Advocating for women’s rights was always Zahra’s first goal and passion in life. Despite having been brought up in Iran until she was 19, where the current political dispensation has brutally suppressed the personal freedoms of women, she never had to face any discrimination in her own family.
“My father and my grandmother – who, despite belonging to an older time, always prioritised gender equality – were the biggest influencers in her life and have inspired me to move forward,” says the young woman, who has been working in the field of women’s empowerment for a decade.
Zahra completed her graduation in political science and her Master’s in gender, development and globalisation from London School of Economics. She worked with the Ministry of Women Affairs in Afghanistan as a civil servant and was a consultant for Afghan Women Business Federation for a short while, which set the tone for her career.
She first started working in London in 2012 as a volunteer fundraiser with Womenkind Worldwide and, subsequently, after completing her degree, she worked with Iranian and Kurdish Women’s Rights Organisation for four years, primarily focusing on honour-based violence and forced marriages amongst Middle Eastern and North African women.
Today, she spends most of her time helping girls between the ages of 12 to 18. The organisation she works with, Women and Girls Network, tackles gender and gang-based violence and child sexual exploitation, amongst other issues, for women across varied backgrounds.
Though all the cases she comes across are extremely shocking and even unimaginable for the rest of us, she is always inspired by the resilience of the young girls and their ability to bounce back and recover. “While most cases are extremely challenging and heartbreaking, the journey of healing is also personally rewarding,” she says.
She recounts an incident when they helped a nine-year-old Afghan girl living in the UK who was being married off and sent to Afghanistan by her own father. Despite living in a seemingly progressive nation, the mindset continues to remains regressive, she says.
“The financial or educational background of an individual really doesn’t impact patriarchal values and norms. These are embedded in society. Misogyny exists no matter where you go, but in different forms.”
She talks about gender violence issues for white women as well and reiterates that rates of women affected by domestic violence in the UK are higher than one expects from a first-world country. “Men still feel that it is okay to treat women as sexual objects,” she avers.
Some women who have been helped by the organisation refuse to stay in touch, as the contact reminds them of painful and sad times. But there are many others – specifically younger women – often come back and even volunteer.
While the cause she works for brings along an array of challenges at every step, Zahra states that the biggest challenge she faces is protecting herself from trauma. “The women I work with have gone through so much in their lives and so my job can get emotionally draining,” she admits.
To deal with the taxing nature of her work, she listens to music, meets friends and is “kind to herself”. At the same time, she believes that these challenges are worth it, because her work helps her grow as an individual.
Zahra strongly believes specific training regarding women’s rights and gender equality should be included in every country’s formal education system. Her biggest desire is to be able to help Afghan women fight for their rights, back in her homeland.
Full of positivity, laughter and a drive to do more, she says she loves life and always likes to “see the good in people.” One can hear the passion and strength in her voice; she is definitely in it for the long run.
First published in the July 2018 issue of eShe magazine