Perseverance defines Shireen. Born and raised in Afghanistan’s Badakshan province, she dreamt of becoming a doctor. However, a ban on women pursuing educational and professional opportunities from a growing Taliban influence in the late 90’s forced Shireen to leave Balkh University in the middle of her studies. This did not deter Shireen from pursuing a career, however. Instead, it ignited a passion in her to empower Afghan women and pave the way for change for future generations.
In 2003, Shireen began her career at Roshan and was named Director of Human Resources in 2011, and today leads the largest private workforce in Afghanistan. Having overcome extreme adversity, Shireen has truly given Afghan women hope for their own future. She has helped create a dynamic working environment at Roshan where women thrive alongside their male colleagues. A pillar of strength, Shireen’s impact can be felt throughout not only Roshan, but across Afghanistan.
At the age of 18, I was forced to give up on my dream of becoming a physician. The year was 1998. The Taliban had taken control of northern Afghanistan after a long siege and announced that girls and women would now be prevented from pursuing an education. It was a poignant moment because I had just enrolled in university to study medicine. The dream was within my grasp one moment – and taken away the next.
As you can imagine, this was not easy for me to accept. Since childhood I had been focused on this goal; it had given me purpose. Without it I was scared and unsure of what my life would become.
But if there is a single trait that all Afghan women share, it’s determination. Put another way, we lean in.
Despite my anger and disappointment, I was determined to make a meaningful contribution to my country and my family, even if it required plunging into an entirely new profession.
In 2003, I was living in Kabul when an opportunity arose to work for a new telecommunications company called Roshan. The role was executive assistant to the CEO, Karim Khoja. After accepting the position, I quickly learned that working in business was intense yet rewarding. To my surprise, I thrived in the high-pressure environment. And I believed in the company’s mission to rebuild Afghanistan and create economic opportunity and a better life for all Afghans.
After a short time, I transitioned to the human resources department, where I focused on finding and cultivating the company’s future leaders. Recruiting capable employees in a country with limited education and professional opportunities is a major challenge. In my world, a bad day isn’t a train delay on the way to work or a line in the coffee shop. It’s a rush hour terrorist attack that attempts to thwart the progress we are making in Afghanistan every day.
My country remains a challenging place to run a business. To those abroad who only know what they read in the news, I can only imagine the perception you hold. But I can tell you that there is more to the story.
At Roshan, we are making tremendous progress hiring and elevating women to leadership positions. I cannot tell you how many fathers my CEO and I have met to convince them that their daughters are capable and independent and a tremendous asset to our company if only given the chance to build a career. While I have no doubt that many of these fathers only want what’s best for their daughters, it takes time and persistence to introduce them to a new reality.
Afghanistan has a long way to go in achieving better economic opportunities, rights and equality for women and security for our communities. But I wish you could see the world through my eyes even for just a day. There are brave and courageous women who lean in every day to make our country and the world we all share a greater place.