“Adding Women to the Leadership Equation in Afghanistan”: A Panel Discussion at the U.S. Institute of Peace in Washington, DC 

USIP panel members Anita McBride, Phyllis Magrab, Lauren Lovelace, Scott Smith

L to R: Anita McBride, Phyllis Magrab, Lauren Lovelace, Scott Smith

Can leadership be taught? Are leadership tools developed in the West useful to Afghan women? Are the gains Afghan women have made in recent years sustainable?

At a discussion at the U.S. Institute of Peace (USIP) on Tuesday, May 20, panelists addressed these questions and more in a program called “Adding Women to the Leadership Equation in Afghanistan: Lessons Learned from the U.S. – Afghan Women’s Council’s Rising Afghan Women Leadership Initiative.”

The panelists included members of the U.S.-Afghan Women’s Council (USAWC)— Anita McBride, Executive-in-Residence at the American University School of Public Affairs; Phyllis Magrab, director of the Georgetown University Center for Child and Human Development (GUCCHD) and vice chair of the USAWC; Lauren Lovelace, Executive Director of the USAWC—and Scott Smith, Director of Afghanistan and Central Asia, USIP. The conversation was moderated by Ambassador Steven Steiner, senior advisor at the USIP Center for Gender and Peacebuilding.

The Rising Afghan Women’s Leadership Initiative (RAWLI) is a program designed to help young women from various sectors of Afghan society cultivate leadership skills. This spring, 22 Afghan women, including members of parliament, entrepreneurs and other leaders, together with six Georgetown University students, attended the intensive session from March 9 -12 at Georgetown’s Doha, Qatar campus.

Learning from One Another

Magrab explained that RAWLI is based on a successful professional and personal development program for leaders that she helped to create and which members of USAWC wanted to offer to Afghan women in order to help them meet the significant challenges they face in their communities. Although there was no guarantee, going in, that a program developed in the U.S. would translate across cultures, the comments and evaluations participants submitted after the training were overwhelmingly positive.

At the same time, however, during the training some cultural contrasts emerged. McBride described how the Afghan women conceived of leadership somewhat differently from the way their American counterparts did. Many of the Afghan women initially expressed a belief that leadership is an inborn trait that some people have and others do not. The program introduced them to the idea that leadership traits can be nurtured and that people can be leaders in different ways.

Learning alongside Afghan women proved inspiring and eye opening for the American students who participated as well, Magrab said. For example, when American women talk about having a “safe space” to discuss workplace issues openly, it usually has to do with the opportunity to express dissent or vulnerability without fear of harsh criticism or ostracism, but for Afghans, it can literally mean having a place to go where one’s life is not in danger.

Hope for the Future

With the uncertainty surrounding the future in Afghanistan, panelists discussed the concern that recent gains women have made might be rolled back. One positive sign for the future is the high turnout for the recent election and the fact that the results have been accepted as valid so far, without the high degree of corruption that was seen in the 2009 election. In light of such progress, McBride expressed optimism that Afghans will be able to pull together and draw upon the country’s “considerable resources” and use them in a way that benefits all Afghans and helps them claim Afghanistan’s status as a “stable partner and major player” in the region and the world.

–Lisa Moscatiello