Jamila Afghani Offers A Leadership Model For The World

By Alan Stoga

Jamila Afghani accepting the Tällberg Foundation Global Leadership Prize in Stockholm November 11, 2015.

When looking for leadership models around the world, one can do no better than Jamila Afghani, a short attractive woman who walks with a crutch, because of a childhood disability, and is courageously working to expand dramatically the opportunities for women and girls in Afghanistan. The challenge that she has adopted is daunting: the United Nations ranks Afghanistan 147th out of 148 nations on gender equality. Her tools are education and, surprisingly, Islam.


Jamila Afghani is Founder and Program Director of the Noor Educational and Capacity Development Organization (NECDO) in Kabul. I’ve come to know her, because the Tällberg Foundation, which I lead, searched the world — with the support of the Stavros Niarchos Foundation — for nominees for our Global Leadership Prize. Jamila Afghani was one of two nominees — out of several hundred from 56 countries — to be recently awarded the Tällberg Foundation Global Leadership Prize in 2015.

What’s so impressive is not just the challenge that she’s undertaken but the approach. She is trying as a Muslim to persuade her country’s (all male) Imams that they are wrong about what the Koran and the hadiths say about women.

Shortly after Jamila Afghani started NECDO, she says that she realized that it would be useless to educate women if Imams then prevented the women from using their training and asserting their rights. As she tells the story, an Imam came to one of the first NECDO schools for women and girls to tell her that the center should be shut because it was contrary to the Prophet’s teachings. She countered with a citation from the Quran — she had learned Arabic in order to read the key Muslim texts in their original language — which led to a long conversation as the two traded quotations. The Imam gave ground and eventually, reluctantly, agreed that the school could remain.

“What we had in common were what all Muslims have: the Quran and Hadith. It gave us both time to listen and to think,” she remembers.

Since then, Afghani has built on her conviction that Imams could be forces for positive social change, but only if they are engaged respectfully and on their own terms.

The strategy is simple: “when you work with the most influential people in a community, it’s like a drop of ink on paper: it just spreads.”

Since then, Afghani has built on her conviction that Imams could be forces for positive social change, but only if they are engaged respectfully and on their own terms. The strategy is simple: “when you work with the most influential people in a community, it’s like a drop of ink on paper: it just spreads.”

Today, more than 6,000 of Afghanistan’s Imams have been persuaded to change their attitudes toward women’s education, women’s social participation, and arranged marriages for young girls.

Change comes slowly to a deeply conservative country like Afghanistan. Yet Jamila Afghani insists that she sees important changes in attitudes almost every day.

“In one of our centers in Ghazni Province,” she recalls, “a lady was gossiping all the time, saying that ‘Jamila is very bad woman, she is traveling alone outside the country; she is working with men in her organization.’ But then her daughter joined our classes, and after a year she came to me and said, ‘Always I was praying to God that my daughter had been born a boy. But, now that she is coming to your center and getting an education, I see how she has changed. Now I wish all of my sons had been born girls.”

Afghani’s work — and her life — are under almost constant threat. What drives her?

“To be honest, I’m a woman, and that is why I feel responsibility,” she says. “Being an educated woman in this community, I feel a double responsibility; being a women with a disability, I feel a triple responsibility; being a mother of two young daughters, I feel even more responsibility to act.”

Jamila Afghani provides us all with an extraordinary model of leadership: one that tackles a daunting challenge; confronts it with a persuasive peaceful approach that many might consider impossible to achieve; demonstrates progress on a scale that would have been considered unimaginable, and perseveres undaunted and constantly reinforced by the rightness of the mission. Jamila Afghani is a Global Leader from whom we can all learn and by whom we can all be inspired to tackle with peaceful persuasion the daunting challenges in our own communities.


Jamila Afghani
Country: Afghanistan
Organization: Founder and Program Director of the Noor Educational and Capacity Development Organization (NECDO) in Kabul
Website: necdo.org.af

The 2015 Tallberg Foundation Global Leadership Prize is awarded to Jamila Afghani, a Women’s Rights Activist in Afghanistan, and Martín von Hildebrand, an Environmental Activist in Colombia, in recognition for their Innovative, Principled, and Courageous Leadership.

Don’t miss your chance to nominate for Tällber Foundation Global Leadership prize. Which artists, scientists, activisst, diplomats, businesspeople, naturalists, technologists, academics, public servants should be recognized for principled, courageous work?

Nominate here: tallbergfoundation.org/prize