It was one of those things that didn't hit her until it was under her nose. Anne E. Brodsky, a psychologist, had been fascinated since childhood by stories of how ordinary people find the strength to resist oppression. In graduate school in Washington, she wrote about impoverished single mothers and how they coped. In Baltimore, she wrote about African-American women so busy with their daily struggle to survive they didn't have time to organize a community to help one another. In both cases, she left feeling she had little to offer, and the whole point of her research on how people create communities was to give something back.
One day in the spring of 2000 in her dining room in Baltimore's Hunting Ridge, Brodsky heard visitors from Afghanistan tell of their secret efforts to run schools for girls.
The women were visiting Baltimore to speak at the Feminist Expo, and they were invited to stay at her house by her then-partner. Listening to their stories, Brodsky realized they were the first revolutionary women she'd ever met, the first example of people she'd read about in her suburban youth. There she was, with these young women who were risking their lives because of what they believed in, and she was moved to join them.
She has met many members of the Revolutionary Association of the Women in Afghanistan (RAWA) since that day. They are women who fight with words and deeds for equal rights in Afghanistan.
Photographs after the American bombing of Kabul that toppled the Taliban government showed women in the Afghan capital shedding their required burqas, the veil covering all but a woman's eyes. Coverage of the bombing at the time showed women freed by the same campaign to capture Osama bin Laden. The U.S. war against terrorism moved on to Iraq, but the battle for women in Afghanistan is hardly over. Last week, another school for girls in rural Logar province was set afire and the doors padlocked. Many women continue to wear the veil for their own safety and, for many, the dream of education remains dim.
Brodsky, 38, is still an activist on their behalf, being host to RAWA women when they travel to the United States in search of supporters, and risking her own life to travel abroad and document their history in With All Our Strength, a book full of personal hardship and struggle.
The women she writes about say they don't expect to see freedom and equal rights for women in their lifetimes.
The photos of freed women now seem like a cheap public relations ploy, and it pains her to think they might be used as evidence of improvement.
"Here in the U.S. it seems like the story is over," she says, "but there, it's far from over."
It was a personal mission at first. After meeting the RAWA women, Brodsky taught herself Persian and for the next six months read everything she could find on Afghanistan. She talked about the women's group to her friends, her students at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, where she is an associate professor of psychology, and the public. She sold the women's rugs and crafts to raise money for them. In numerous e-mails, she learned that the women she met were part of a remarkable political and humanitarian movement that flourished despite no central office, no public meetings, no single leader and members without real names.
It occurred to her that she studied people like them, people who are resilient in the face of crisis, professionally. Why not research RAWA?
Brodsky was nervous about asking if they would be her research subjects. It seemed silly, given the dangerous lives they lived and the amount of work ahead of them.
But RAWA wanted somebody to document what they do. Brodsky paid her own way to Pakistan in the summer of 2001 after colleagues at UMBC, looking over her grant application, worried that travel there was too dangerous. She arrived at the airport in Islamabad knowing no one - the three RAWA women who had visited Brodsky in Baltimore were traveling outside the country - and at the luggage counter, a stranger approached her and asked, "Are you Anne?"
She was driven to a RAWA guest house in Pakistan. A few days later, introduced to little girls studying at a refugee camp, she discovered they had been studying her e-mails in English class. "You're the lady writing the book," one of them told her. She had never considered or promised a book, only a scholarly article, but by the end of her two-week stay, they had convinced her.
With All Our Strength, published in the spring by Routledge, an academic press based in New York, is the first to provide an intimate history of the 26-year-old underground movement for women's rights in Afghanistan, a country where women still risk their lives if they leave home without a male escort.
Over countless interviews, and months of research, Brodsky gathered stories from people whose lives were changed by the movement and who themselves became part of it. Here, too, she found stories where she wasn't looking.