Susan Retik and Patti Quigley lead privileged American lives,
7,000 miles away from the hardscrabble existence of two Afghan
sisters-in-law, Sahera and Sadiqa.
But when the four women met this month in Sahera's tiny mud-
brick home in Kabul, Afghanistan, barriers of distance, culture, and
class melted as they shared two powerful bonds: motherhood and
"Our core values are the same," says Mrs. Retik, of Needham,
Mass. "We want our kids to be healthy, we want them to be happy, we
want them to be educated. It's the same."
What isn't the same is the treatment of widows in their
respective countries. When Retik and Mrs. Quigley lost their
husbands in the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, the two women, both
pregnant at the time, received an outpouring of financial and
By contrast, when Sahera and Sadiqa, who like many Afghan women
use only their first names, became war widows, they became
impoverished and largely ignored. "To be a widow in Afghanistan is
the worst," Retik says. "You're not worth anything."
Stirred by the plight of the estimated 1 million widows in
Afghanistan - nearly 50,000 in Kabul alone - Retik and Quigley began
a journey born of tragedy and hope. In 2003 they established a
foundation, Beyond the 11th, to help women in conflict-ridden
countries. They made substantial personal donations from money they
received after the attacks. To raise more money, they pedaled 270
miles from ground zero in New York to Boston as part of a
fundraising bicycle trek. They collected $325,000 in the first two
years. This year they hope to raise $250,000.
"Our goal is to help a woman become self-sufficient so she can
give to her children what she didn't have for herself," Retik says,
relaxing at home while her three children are at school.
During a six-day visit to Kabul to meet recipients of their aid,
Quigley and Retik saw firsthand the challenges widows face in a
country that grants women few rights. Under the Taliban regime,
women could not work or leave the house without a male escort. Today
they have more freedom, Retik notes, "but it's not like the veil has
been lifted and there's equality."
Inequality was evident as they watched long lines of burqa-clad
widows wait at food-distribution centers for monthly rations. It was
apparent in literacy classes, where illiterate women are learning
the power of the written word. And it appeared again when they
visited widows at their homes, sharing laughter and tears as they
sat in one-room houses with no furniture, electricity, or running
The magnitude of the challenge is etched in the experience of
Sahera and Sadiqa's mother-in-law. She lost seven sons, one to
illness and six in war. "All of those widows and all of those
children - who's going to take care of them?" Retik asks. "There's
nobody left to help out."
Rick Perera, a spokesman for CARE International who accompanied
the women to Kabul, outlines the challenge. "Widows are very much
dependent on their in-laws. Particularly the husband's brothers, the
male members of the family, have a lot of say. The widows can lose
their homes, they can even lose their children."
Yet when widows have an education and a way to earn money, those
challenges are less daunting. One woman told the group that she had
been repeatedly beaten by her brothers-in-law, and her daughter was
beaten, because she sent the daughter to school. "That's not an
unusual story," Mr. Perera says. "But now the woman has a source of
income, so she's able to stand up to them and say, 'I'm supporting
my own children, I'm not depending on you, so what business is it of
yours if I'm sending my children to school?' "
Education is what all the mothers want for their children,
especially daughters, Retik says. …