Remarkable activist, author, filmmaker and artist shares her powerful story
Nahid Shahalimi is an author, human rights activist, international consultant on gender, former professional athlete, filmmaker and one of the most prolific international artists in the art world today.
She was born in Kabul, Afghanistan, during the nation's flourishing golden age. She grew up in a society of acceptance and tolerance with a father who was a feminist and wanted the best for his four daughters.
When she was just 8 years old, everything changed for Nahid and her family when her father passed away. From then on, gender became an important issue in her life, as Sharia law is not kind to women and girls when there is no male head of household.
When she was 11, Nahid's mother decided to leave Afghanistan with her parents and children. After almost a year as refugees in Pakistan, the family settled in Canada and eventually moved to Germany.
Nahid now lives in Munich, Germany, but continues to support women in her home country. She traveled 19 times from 2014-2018 to Afghanistan, where she collected inspiring stories of hope and courage from women who are great testaments of resilience for her first book in German, Where Courage Bears the Soul. The book was a continuation of "We the Women," a collection of inspiring stories of courageous and resilient women from around the world told through paintings, books and documentary films.
Nahid's second book, We Are Still Here: The Women of Afghanistan, releases in August 2022. The book shares the story of 13 powerful, insightful and influential Afghan women who have worked as politicians, journalists, scientists, filmmakers, artists, coders, musicians and more.
In March, Nahid was featured by Zonta International in a Remarkable Women, Powerful Stories event, a leadership series hosted by Lynne Foley OAM, chairman of the Zonta International Leadership Development Committee.
Here are some of the top takeaways from their conversation:
"By my 12th birthday I was in Pakistan as a refugee, and I remember on top of those mountains were the pivotal junctures of my life. I knew exactly what I wanted to do; ever since I knew I was going to come back to Afghanistan one day. I knew that the injustices that I endured and had seen, was something that I know now in my 40s that you don't even get to see sometimes in your 40s and 50s and I had seen it already by the time I was 11."
"Most of my work has been outside of Afghanistan but always involved Afghanistan and Afghan women because that's where the roots come from. I will always have a soft spot for that region. I will never be able to be completely neutral about it."
Becoming an advocate
"I've made something constructive out of all these traumatic experiences. There's one side where you can go and sit down in a corner and whine about it and do nothing. The other thing is that you can actually make it into something constructive. So, I've found a way to put all of what I do today—whether it's the films, paintings, digital art … [or] my social impact company—I make sure that the core of all of that is based on something that has to do with justice."
"You have to make sure that you understand the society very well in order to make changes."
"I think it has to do with making that conscious decision to say, 'Well, enough.' And yes, it's going to be uncomfortable. Yes, people are going to be closing doors on you. It may even have some financial repercussions."
"Women represent close to 50% of the population of the world, but we don't have representation. How could we make policies when we don't even have half of the policymaking tables?"
"I hope that we are able to make life better for the women of Afghanistan, and not only for women of Afghanistan but for all women so that we learn from these situations and go to the core of the problems and try to solve them and not just push them under the rug."
"Until we have all women truly … not accepting that women's and girls' rights will always be bargaining chips … we will have issues and we have to come into solidarity because we have some powerful women around the world. We just have to connect the dots in the right places and make a strategy. That is what I hope to achieve in the next five to 10 years with all of these projects."
The 'f' word
"I'm a feminist. Being a feminist is not a bad thing. Let's change and control the narrative [around women and feminism and equality] because it's being controlled by others. It has to be informed by women. No man can inform the narrative of feminism."
"A good leader … would have to be open-minded, solution-oriented and execute firm decision-making abilities. That, to me, are the pillars of a good leader."
Lessons for women because of 2021 events
"As professional female leaders, there's a huge responsibility on our shoulders. … We have to teach young women and especially young entrepreneurs. You have to give them the spaces and platforms and, in a way, open doors for them … so they don't have the same problems as we did. I think that solidarity in that sense is extremely important. I have seen a lot of women that have built incredible things in this world, but they have never thought about having somebody replace them one day…. Every generation has something beautiful that they bring in—something new—and then teach these young women, bring them in and become their mentors. That's what I think is going to be the key to not making the same problems, but rather creating and finding new solutions for new problems."
"The women and the people that have influenced me are people that nobody knows, starting with my mother. Living through what I lived through at that young age, it gave me the strength to see a woman like that go through hell and back five times, and just because she was a young, beautiful widow of four little girls."
"I see them as a sign that tells me to reassess whatever it is. … It gives you a chance to go back and look at the whole project and assess. And then you may actually scrap the whole project."
"Take a breather. If you need to sleep, go for a walk, whatever you need. You need those hours to completely empty your head. … The most important thing is to make sure that you keep the emotions away. That way, you can make a clear conscious decision."
"I don't want to instill anything else but good values and righteousness and to be a kind human. … I have left [my two daughters] with the ability to make decisions. I let them do that very early in their lives. … I think the decision-making ability is extremely important … and to be solution-oriented always because there's no point losing energy on things that don't matter."
To keep up with Nahid, follow her on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram or LinkedIn.
Watch Nahid's Remarkable Women, Powerful Stories session:
4 APRIL 2022