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Inside Islam, a woman's roar

Wazhma Frogh, an Afghan, uses her religion to press for women's rights – and development agencies take note.

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Western visit: Wazhma Frogh (pronounced 'WHUZH-mah Frohkh') spoke at a forum on women and security at Harvard University earlier this year.

Nicole Hill

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Just hours after Wazhma Frogh arrived in an isolated, conservative district in northeastern Afghanistan in 2002, the local mullah was preaching to his congregation to kill her. Ms. Frogh was meddling with their women with her plan to start a literacy program, he told the assembly.

As she walked past the mosque during noon prayers, his words caught her ear. Shocked, she marched straight into the mosque. In a flowing black chador that left her face uncovered, she strode past the male worshipers and faced the mullah. Trembling inside, she challenged him.

"Mullah, give me five minutes," she recalls saying. "I will tell you something, and after that if you want to say I am an infidel and I am a threat to you, just kill me."

She then rattled off five Koranic verses – in both Arabic and the local Dari language – that extol the virtues of education, tolerance, and not harming others. She criticized local practices of allowing men to use Islam to justify beating their wives, betrothing young girls, and denying women an education.

The room was silent. All eyes were on Frogh and the mullah. Then the mullah rested his hand on her head.

"God bless you, my daughter," he said.

With that, Frogh won permission to start the literacy program that later helped women from Badakhshan Province participate in local government and run for the national assembly.

Where rigid interpretations of Islam relegate women to second-class status, Frogh uses rhetorical jujitsu to turn religious arguments on their heads and win women's rights. Her steely determination has earned her attention in Washington.

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