The Chrysalis Effect
Journalist Scott Heidler ’90 captures the stories of post-Taliban Afghan women in his new book, Parwana

Afghanistan is not a new place for me. Just after 9/11, I worked for a humanitarian organization and then later as a freelance print journalist in the southern provinces. But over the past few years — when I lived in Kabul as a correspondent for the Fox News Channel — I covered a story that forever changed my outlook.

I had moved there a few years after the Taliban fell with my fiancée, Katherine Kiviat, an amazing documentary photographer. She’d been in Afghanistan the previous year teaching photojournalism to young Afghan women and capturing images of the changes taking place in the post-Taliban era.

The pair of us had been plotting out a way for us to work together on a project, and one hot and sticky August, that opportunity presented itself. We came up with the idea of telling the inside story of how the women of Afghanistan were pushing, and continue to push, for change. Together, we decided that the most appropriate way to tell their stories would be through their unfiltered experience — a Q&A transcript of my interview on one page and Katherine’s portrait on the facing page — so as you read a particular woman’s words, you would be looking directly into her eyes.

As we met with them, we were amazed that each one of the nearly 70 women — young and old, rich and poor, educated and illiterate — was doing something to help improve the lives of other women in their country. We were struck that we were hearing the stories of Afghanistan’s Parwanas (butterflies in the Dari language) just as they were just coming out of their cocoon to become active participants in their country for the first time in years

As we began stitching the book together, we originally thought our audience was Westerners who had never been to Afghanistan. We felt those were the people who needed a deeper look at the real women of this far-off place whose fate was now directly tied to that of the United States. But as we met more of the women — and were touched by how inspiring they were — we realized that there was a more important audience, and it was a lot closer.

With the help of the U.S. Embassy in Kabul and USAID, we refocused the project for internal Afghan consumption. We wanted the people of Afghanistan to have the opportunity to hear what women were doing to change the situation in their country, and to realize that these were women just like them or their wives, their sisters, their mothers.

So with our newfound backers, we produced 5,000 copies of our book, Parwana, in both Dari and Pashto languages, which were then distributed to universities, girls’ high schools, women’s centers and libraries in all 34 provinces of Afghanistan.

Katherine and I now live in Jerusalem, and we miss Afghanistan horribly. But we still have one direct and tangible link to our time there — the Akbar family. Zubaida was only 14 years old when Katherine was her photojournalism teacher. She caught Katherine’s attention then and kept it ever since. When we secured funding for the book, we were able to hire Zubaida and her sister Sharharzad as our interns.

In the Akbar family, the head of the household is Sharharzad and Zubaida’s mom. She’s a teacher, and in fact, she was the first subject of the book. When they were living at home, she did not require that the two oldest girls — our interns — do normal household duties. She wanted them to devote every moment, thought and ounce of energy to their education. I say, “When they were living at home,” because since we finished the book project Zubaida is now at a boarding high school in Switzerland and Sharharzad is at Smith College in Massachusetts. Both are on full scholarships that we were able to help them secure through our circle of contacts.

Every summer Katherine and I send out e-mails seeking help for the two girls as they embark on another year of school. Relatives and our friends from college and high school all assist in helping these two Afghan girls take the next step in improving their country by improving their lives.

And every once in a while we get word from Afghanistan that one of our friends saw a copy of the book in a classroom or a women’s center. Our hope is that Parwana stays on shelves for years for the next generation of Afghan women. Or, in the case of the Akbar family, long enough for the youngest daughter to read it. She is a little girl who just happens to be named Parwana.

American publisher Gibbs-Smith will publish an English version of “Parwana”, which is due to hit bookstores and other outlets in August 2007.