Lauryn Oates’ Fight For Afghan Women’s Rights

It’s not every life story that swings from being a guest of Uzbekistan’s dictator Islam Karimov to surviving a near-fatal motorcycle accident in northern Uganda to getting tossed into a Syrian prison. Or that has both funny, pedestrian episodes—like losing luggage for the umpteenth time in Dubai—and darker ones: say, taking calls in the middle of the night from BBC reporters in the chaotic aftermath of September 11, and patiently explaining, also for the umpteenth time, the nature of Islamist barbarism in Afghanistan. But then, not everyone is Lauryn Oates, the 28-year-old firefighter’s kid from the North Shore.

You can do the math. When those airliners plunged into the World Trade Center towers and the world suddenly needed people to explain what the Taliban was, she was barely 19. She’d already been an anti-Taliban activist for five years. That’s the thing: the first thing you have to do is get over her youth. It’s what I had to do the first time we met, at a panel discussion about Afghanistan at the Alibi Room in 2007.

The other panellists were the journalist Jared Ferrie and the New Democratic Party’s Michael Byers, and I knew them well enough. Lauryn Oates I knew only by her reputation managing the CIDA-backed Women’s Rights in Afghanistan Fund. I was expecting someone around my age, probably a bit stern and tweedy, when up bounded a sparkly young woman in heels who introduced herself with a firm handshake: “So you’re Terry Glavin. Sweet!”

Sweet. She says that a lot. It’s probably right here that I should confess that Lauryn and I have been fast friends ever since.

 As for the Syria story, as things turned out Lauryn spent only a day in that Damascus jail cell, but even so she did manage to lay into a stiff gin and tonic smuggled in by a local contact. That was in 2004, when she was running a project with funds from the International Centre for Human Rights and Development involving the translation and distribution of international human rights law and literature, in Arabic and Farsi. She’d developed the program herself. Her brief incarceration arose from a misunderstanding.

The 2008 Uganda motorcycle accident left Lauryn with a fractured skull, nasty scrapes and bruises, a bit of useful downtime in hospital, and some lingering memory loss. She was in East Africa for her UBC doctoral research. It’s on the role of digital technologies in training primary school teachers, and methods to expand their access to knowledge. She’s big on that kind of thing. It’s her preferred remedy for what ails Afghanistan: by all means let’s shoot Talibs, but in the long run, it’s education that brings peace.

The way Lauryn tells it, it all started in 1996. She was in Grade 9—quick with the backchat and utterly shiftless—when one day her mother left a clipping from the Vancouver Sun on her bed. It was an article about the rise of the Taliban and their brutal enslavement of Afghan women. “I just couldn’t believe this was happening,” she remembers. “And the story wasn’t even on the front page.” That was the really hard part. “How could the world let this happen?”

So began her transformation. She spent a few days in a funk, but soon enough she’d drafted a petition and extracted about 400 signatures, mostly from friends and family, her fellow students at Sentinel secondary, and shoppers she browbeat at the Park Royal mall. She sent the petition to Ottawa, Washington, and the UN. She found a fax number on a Taliban website and fired the petition off to the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan. She hasn’t slowed down since.

For two years, she spent every spare minute devouring everything she could find about Afghanistan, about international human-rights conventions, refugees, torture, prisoners of conscience, the lot. Every weekend she’d take the bus to the Amnesty International offices on Hastings Street to work as a volunteer. She did anything and everything, from sweeping floors to giving presentations at high-school assemblies. Soon she was Amnesty Canada’s youngest fieldworker.

Her kid brother James never knew differently. Her sister Carlen, three years her junior, became the popular one. “I was kind of a dork,” says Lauryn. That’s not quite the way English teacher Michael Weinberg remembers her.

At the time, West Van was closing schools and consolidating. Lauryn was among a cohort of kids from around the school district thrown together at Sentinel in the tony British Properties. She was part of a group of French-

immersion kids Weinberg taught English, and she ended up in his creative-writing club, too. “They were a super bunch, but some kids, you remember. Kids like Lauryn, they come along almost never. She was really bright, and she really cared. I still remember her in my prayers every morning.”

Right through high school, she kept at it. The main thing was Afghanistan and the way its women were being so savagely brutalized—the stadium executions, the forced confinement, the slavery. It was a tough slog. Then something tectonic happened. Sally Armstrong, the pioneering editor of Homemakers magazine, had travelled to Afghanistan to look into the condition of women under Taliban rule. The result was a blockbuster article that mobilized thousands of Homemakers subscribers—not the sort of women who spring to mind as political activists. The tiny Canadian Women for Women in Afghanistan (CW4WA) was thrown into the spotlight. It was only after Lauryn founded its Vancouver chapter that the CW4WA head office learned she was only 16.

It was still an uphill effort. She and her comrades would be overjoyed to find an article about CW4WA and the Afghan women’s struggle in some little newsletter. It stayed that way until September 11, 2001. Lauryn had just begun her studies in international development at McGill University (one of the first things she did upon arriving was to organize a CW4WA Montreal chapter) when the news broke. “It was like the whole world had turned upside down.”

Two years later, she was in Afghanistan for the first time. She’d come for the constitutional loya jirga, the grand assembly that established the current Afghan state. She’d been assigned to write a report on the proceedings for the International Centre for Human Rights and Democratic Development. “I remember stepping off the plane. It felt beautiful. It was like coming home.”

Lauryn’s work as CW4WA’s project director has brought her back to Afghanistan 17 times. Not once since 2001 has she flinched from her early conviction that a profound moral duty demands Canada send soldiers to Afghanistan. Cheery and forgiving as she is, she has no patience for “anti-war” equivocations. First things come first. Women are human beings, and women’s rights are human rights. Sometimes you need soldiers. No pipsqueaking allowed.

CW4WA has raised over $3 million for Afghanistan, mainly from the small-scale fundraising efforts of chapters across Canada, over the past decade. The effort has put hundreds of teachers to work and tens of thousands of Afghan girls through school. “This is all I want to do now,” she says, and everything she does in Afghanistan unfolds on an uncluttered bedrock: only with the emancipation of Afghan women will Afghans free themselves from barbarism, and universal access to a liberal education is the one sure path to lasting peace.

All this is a bit hard on the home life, mind you. When she’s not in Afghanistan, she lives in a cabin on Bowen Island with partner Brad Lysak, a 26-year-old carpenter. July 7, 2008, was especially hard on him. A Taliban suicide bomber detonated himself outside the Indian embassy. There were bodies everywhere, scores of people screaming from grisly injuries, 58 dead. Lauryn happened to be nearby, but she was unhurt. “All kinds of horrible things can happen,” Brad told me. “You just get used to it.”

What sustains her is something you’d never guess from the way Afghans are glimpsed through the mass media. After everything the Afghan people have suffered, there is still an exuberant kindness, a sort of gallantry, and a happy generosity that seems to animate even the poorest among them. “I love these people,” Lauryn once told me. “That’s all there is to it.”

This brings us to the bit about Uzbekistan’s president, Islam Karimov, the Butcher of Tashkent. “What a douche bag that guy is,” she says.

A couple of years ago Lauryn was invited to Tashkent to attend what was billed as an international conference on elections. The gathering followed another of Karimov’s comically fraudulent elections. The event quickly revealed itself to be an exercise in burnishing the patina of legitimacy that Karimov uses to justify his bloody regime. The third-tier diplomats, NGO big shots, and European pseudo-intellectuals in attendance took pains to mind their manners. Even in the low murmurs over coffee in the corridors you couldn’t get a decent disagreement going over whether Karimov boiled his enemies in oil or just plain water.

Lauryn decided she’d had enough and took off. At the border, Uzbek guards tried to exact a fee for allowing her to leave, and a noisy and protracted standoff ensued. She won, and when she finally trudged into her beloved Afghanistan, she was welcomed into the arms of a crowd of whooping well-wishers who’d witnessed the whole thing.

Straight away she fell in with a boisterous Afghan family who insisted she accompany them to the wedding they were headed for in a village on a mountainside above Kabul. The long and bumpy ride over the Salang Pass was relieved by crazy Bollywood music sing-alongs and punctuated by several steam explosions and periodic pit stops to replenish the crowded van’s leaking radiator. She ended up conscripted as a kind of honorary bridesmaid.

Afghan weddings tend to be like festivals, so she was in a bit of a state when she came to collect me at the airport in Kabul the next day. I’d come to do some freelance writing and to work on a series of profiles of Afghan activists I’d been commissioned to prepare for the Funders Network for Afghan Women and the Canada-Afghanistan Solidarity Committee. This meant spending a lot of time with women’s rights leaders, politicians, journalists, student leaders, civil rights lawyers, the gamut. Everyone seemed to know Lauryn.

I met up with her in Afghanistan again earlier this year. I was doing research for the solidarity committee. She was preoccupied with finding a new office and a new director for the CW4WA teacher-training program, but we spent a good bit of time together and as things turned out we were scheduled to leave for Dubai the same day on the same flight.

It was her 28th birthday. I’d conspired with Afghan friends to surprise her with a quick visit to a dress shop so she could pick out something fancy for herself. Alas, the shop was closed, so we headed to the airport, where we had to deal with a lame attempt at a bribe shakedown. Our alleged offence was that Lauryn was travelling in my company and I was not a male relative. We strong-armed our way through. In the grim departure lounge, surrounded by throngs of wide-eyed and friendly rubes from Zabul on their way to find work in the Emirates, we had to wait for hours. There were also quite a few dreary-looking Pakistani geezers in black turbans making their way to Mecca. They didn’t seem to like the looks of us much, either.

“You look as old as those guys,” Lauryn said, “plus you should get me a bag of pistachios for my birthday.” A while later I wandered off and found her some at a kiosk.

“Hey, thanks,” she said. “Man, I love pistachio nuts. Sweet.” VM