An interview with Kabultec founder Nasrine Gross appears this month in Central Asia Institute’s quarterly magazine Journey of Hope, in which she discusses her family, influences, the current state of Afghanistan, and Kabultec’s impact.. The full text of the interview appears below, but you can access the full magazine here, or request a free hard copy from CAI.
LOVE IN THE TIME OF HOMEWORK
A CONVERSATION WITH EDUCATION & WOMEN’S RIGHTS ACTIVIST NASRINE GROSS
by Hannah White
For more than 20 years, Nasrine Gross has been a pioneer in educational programming and a champion of women’s rights. A dual citizen of both Afghanistan and the U.S., she runs an organization that provides literacy classes for husbands and wives in Kabul, an innovative approach not seen anywhere else in the country. The courses allow 10 couples at a time to meet in their neighborhoods and learn to read, write, do arithmetic, and eventually delve into historical and social issues. At the end of the one-year course, students are performing at a third-grade level. The second year program is the equivalent of the fourth grade. Recently, her organization has also started offering scholarships to talented, orphaned, or poor students who would be unable to attend college without financial aid.
In addition to her work on education, Nasrine was also instrumental in crafting what eventually became the section on women’s rights in the Afghan constitution. She currently serves as a media affairs advisor to the Office of the Chief Executive and divides her time between Falls Church, Virginia, and Kabul, Afghanistan.
This piece is a selection of excerpts from a conversation that Central Asia Institute Communications Director Hannah White had with Mrs. Gross in late 2015.
Hannah: Did you grow up in Afghanistan?
Nasrine: Yes, in Kabul. I grew up during the kind of Golden Age of progress in Afghanistan. I went to school in the first girls’ school in Afghanistan. My entire 12 years. I had my baccalaureate from there and I graduated first in my class. And then I went for one year to Kabul University to the faculty (department) of Law and Political Science. And there, at that time, the entrance exam was not for entering the university; it was to determine which university students would become eligible to receive scholarships. And so I got third place. The first place guy went to America; the second place guy went to France; and the third place went to the American University of Beirut in Lebanon.
Hannah: Did you meet your husband there?
Nasrine: I did. What are the chances of someone from Iowa and someone from Afghanistan ever meeting? We got married in 1968. So is it 45 years? It’s very nice. I recommend marriage.
Hannah: Do you think the fact that you met your husband at the American University of Beirut influenced your decision to offer literacy classes for couples instead of individuals?
Nasrine: Maybe to a certain extent, but certainly the effect, the importance of civil activism and how civil advocacy was very much part of the ethos of the university at that time. We were all encouraged to become members of all these other societies. And you know, I was a member of four or five of them…Really the couples literacy, I have to say, is a legacy of my father and mother. My father and mother were the first, literally the first, Afghan couple with both the husband and wife as graduates of Afghan high school. It’s really a very important event in the history of Afghanistan. My mom was one of the first six girls who graduated from high school for the first time.
Hannah: How did your mother and father meet?
Nasrine: Well, my mom was at that time in 10th or 11th grade and had problems in sciences – calculus, algebra, and physics — and my dad’s Ph.D. was in physics and mathematics. So her brothers hired him to be her private tutor. And the way she reported it, they fell in love the first night. So that is kind of history. Yeah.
So my house as a result of these two marrying, we had the most educated of Kabul come to our house. They were not necessarily very wealthy people, but they were the most educated. So it was like a grandiose salon of beautiful ideas, of books, of progress. All these things that in the early 1950s, after the Second World War coming into being in the world. Extremely exciting. And with it, of course, all these ideals and aspirations for Afghanistan. My father was a teacher of course, a professor, and my mom was the first female member of parliament and the first director of the literacy program in Afghanistan. Nineteen seventy, I think she was the first director of it in the Ministry of Education.
Hannah: How did your upbringing impact your work later in life?
Nasrine: So when we were successful in putting the equality clause in article 22 of the constitution in 2003 and 2004, then I kind of sat back and said ‘OK Nasrine. You got the rights enshrined in the constitution. Now how do you make it happen? How do you make it part and parcel of life?’ Do you know, there is a big difference between having something in the law and realizing actually that law? And so, I thought well one of the ways is for a grownup to actually learn how to read and write. So that they can not only read the constitution and be- come aware of their own rights, but that they could also help their children with their schooling. Without education you cannot make laws realized. You cannot make laws become reality of daily life. And so I couldn’t do any other education, and besides the largest group, is the adults that are decision makers and they were 90 percent of women and 85 percent of men were illiterate. And to this day it’s almost like that, but it’s getting better. So that’s why I did the couples. I thought if I do just women, most of the men are illiterate too. So in the household it may not be such an effective way. And so I said if I do only the husbands then the women will continue to be bypassed. So why not bring both of them? And I knew, another thing, that most Afghan men are not against education with their wives or their daughters or their children. And we’ve never had any problems with them.
Hannah: How do you think the classes have changed the husbands and wives, and their relationships?
Nasrine: The couples say it, they say ‘be- fore we used to fight. And now we don’t have time to fight. We come home and we have to do our homework.’ Because you know what we do? We give only one textbook per couple. So they have to work with each other in order to finish their homework. And they also say that they know that fighting and quarrelling is not the way to solve a problem. Talking and writing are the way to go, and reading about something. It has really affected them very positively. They don’t quarrel. They talk to each other and they develop better interests.
Hannah: Are there any challenges that are particularly difficult?
Nasrine: The other challenge is that we don’t have [a special needs] education segment. I’m sure among some of these people are dyslexic. You know they have dyslexia. Some don’t hear very well and some cannot see very well. But these people are so afraid to own up to it that they don’t say it and it’s very difficult to test and we cannot attend to these needs.
Hannah: So after all these years, what is it that makes you want to keep doing this work?
Nasrine: Well, these people are so deprived. When somebody in the 21st century cannot read the place where the bus is going, cannot read their constitution, cannot read their children’s prescription, or cannot read their candidates name, and when some- body cannot write their own name, cannot sign their name, I as a citizen of this world feel really like I’m letting these people down. That is the least we can do for these people. Imagine if we had a majority of people this way in America. The 21st century is no longer a time when an illiterate person can have a quality of life, even the smallest quality of life. You have to be literate to have a phone; you have to be literate to have a computer; you have to be literate to have a microwave oven; you have to be literate to have a car. You know what I’m saying?
Hannah: Do you see that happening in Afghanistan? What do you see happening in the future?
Nasrine: Yes, education is making a difference in this area. Afghans are very, very loud in their wants, in stating their wants and needs…I am extremely impressed with how quickly they learn. And so I’m very hopeful.
Hannah: Are you worried that the withdrawal of international troops will change things?
Nasrine: Well it has changed. Since the troops left last year the level of violence has skyrocketed. … So I am happy that they are now reconsidering certain components of it because no you cannot perform an operation on somebody, open heart surgery, and then leave the patient on the sidewalk. We really need to stick with the Afghans. We need to be very clear that we want the Taliban and al Qaida and Daesh and ISIS, and all these other games played by a number of countries, stopped in Afghanistan. That we want an Afghanistan that is at peace… And that to me is to the benefit of everybody concerned.
Hannah: If you had to say one thing to someone in Afghanistan who wanted an education, what would you tell them?
Nasrine: To read and write and not to give up and to send their children to school. It’s not important that the children have the latest Nike shoes, but it is very import- ant that the children know how to read and write and to continue their education. It’s for their own good. They’re not doing it to do me a favor. They are truly investing in themselves.