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Smith Medalist Shaharzad Akbar ’09
“I am a firm believer in the power of sisterhood”
A native of Afghanistan, Shaharzad Akbar ’09 is a pioneering human rights activist dedicated to political issues related to her country and her generation. She was the first Afghan woman to complete postgraduate studies at Oxford University, where, in 2011, she earned a master’s in philosophy as a Weidenfeld-Hoffmann scholar.
Akbar has written for countless international and Afghan media, including The Washington Post, Newsweek, Al Jazeera and CNN. Though currently in exile, she continues to advocate for the people of her country through her human rights work and writing. She is the former chair of the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission, the national human rights institution of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan.
She is currently an Academy Fellow in Human Rights at the Queen Elizabeth II Academy for Leadership in International Affairs, Chatham House, an independent world-leading policy institute. She is also the executive director for the newly formed Rawadari, an organization dedicated to growing the human rights culture of Afghanistan.
What is your proudest accomplishment?
On August 15, 2021, I had to leave my home and my country behind. On that day, I still hoped I would be returning soon to Kabul, Afghanistan, and to continue with my role as the chairperson of the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission. At the time, I was one of the youngest chairs for a national human rights institution, the youngest in the team of commissioners I was leading, and I hoped to end my term with major accomplishments for the commission in July 2024. But the Taliban took over Kabul, and I was unable to return. Almost overnight, I was in exile with my husband and son, away from my family and colleagues, having to start my professional life from scratch, not knowing where I would live next and what the next few months would hold. Sixteen months later, I spend every day with a fire burning in my heart with the pain of injustice that women in my country face. Every week brings more bad news for women of Afghanistan. Amidst this pain and grief, I am proud that my colleagues and I continue to work on the human rights situation of Afghanistan and, after almost a year of volunteer work, have established our new organization Rawadari. I am proud of my ability to reemerge from the biggest loss of my life as an Afghan professional and activist, and to continue to build, to fight, and to have hope. I am proud of the collective we have created in Rawadari and to have the honor of leading them. I am proud of our effort to keep the light on in a period of deep darkness for Afghanistan.
What Smith lesson continues to impact your life today?
My time at Smith changed my perspective on a few issues, including the power and the role of women throughout history. This impacted my understanding of the gender dynamics in Afghanistan and has continued to inform my work. This knowledge was also immensely empowering and contributed to my gaining confidence. I knew that women could lead, but at Smith, I learned that every woman can be a leader given the education and support. This was immensely empowering. I also learned how history and society undermine women’s roles and leadership. I trained myself to look deeper and be fully aware of women’s contributions in every aspect. This allowed me to find incredible mentors as well as to identify and support women younger than myself. I am a firm believer in the power of sisterhood and have experienced this power in some of the most difficult moments of my own life. Some of my closest friends are the friends I made at Smith, and they continue to impact my life.
What advice do you have for seniors graduating this year?
Invest in people and relationships. Surround yourself with love. The rest will come together.
Do you have any special memories of Rally Day at Smith?
I loved Rally Day at Smith. I was awestruck on my first Rally Day to learn about and see Smith’s powerful alumnae. It showed me what is possible for me as a young woman, and it was truly inspiring to hear incredible women leaders talk about the challenges they had faced and overcome. I felt energized, empowered and hopeful, and I still carry that memory as a source of light.
What does being honored with the Smith Medal mean to you?
Smith was the first place outside my family where I felt fully recognized, appreciated and supported. I thrived at Smith. I found my voice and improved my confidence. Smith helped me build a community of love and support. It gave me so much more than an education. I am forever indebted. Smith inspires me as an institution. It is an incredible honor to be recognized with a Smith Medal. It gives new significance to all my efforts since my graduation in 2009.
Rally Day is a celebration of the many ways Smithies have changed the world. What do you see as major issues today that you would like to see Smithies tackle?
Climate change is where we need more innovative and inspired leadership, and I believe more Smithies in this field will do us all good. As someone who was directly impacted by war since childhood, I believe our world needs better political leaders, stronger diplomacy and more peace activism.
In conjunction with Rally Day, the Smith board of trustees is planning to collectively donate $500,000 in support of student scholarships. Why is it critical to support Smith philanthropically?
I could not dream of studying at Smith without a scholarship and generous financial aid package. My family’s income was below $300 a month when I came to Smith in 2006, and we had to fundraise from relatives and friends to buy my ticket. My education at Smith not only helped my family and me but also the broader community. Donating to Smith is contributing to more empowered women, and, ultimately, a better world.