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 widowhood.
"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 emotional support.
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 water.
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. "If they're not educated, there isn't going to be any change."
For Sahera and Sadiqa, both mothers of large families, hope and self-sufficiency are coming through a poultry-rearing program sponsored by CARE and partly funded by grants from Beyond the 11th. Women receive chickens, an incubator, and a three-month supply of feed. "When a woman has an egg, she can either eat it, which supplies protein, or sell it," Retik says.
That program is on hold because of a minor outbreak of avian flu in Kabul. A separate CARE program gives women a cow with a calf, or a pregnant cow. "The women would do anything for a cow," Retik says. "A cow is very easy to take care of, and they can sell the milk." Other widows are learning to weave rugs under the auspices of Arzu Rugs, another recipient of funds from Beyond the 11th. Still others are doing tailoring and making leather goods. Another program will provide silkworms and teach the women how to spin silk.
Beyond poverty, cultural barriers also loom large. Women are not free to walk to a market and sell their goods. "If she had a husband, he could go to the market to sell them for her," Retik says.
Because women do not ride bicycles, they must walk miles. Buses cost money, and the nearest stop is often far away.
Then there is the burqa, the blue head-to-toe covering that makes women almost invisible. When women pull it aside, says Quigley of Wellesley, Mass., "There's a whole beautiful person expressing herself."
Some of the widows' challenges are universal. "Dealing with the kids alone, dealing with the extended family alone, finding a way to support the family - no matter where you are in the world, you understand exactly the feeling, the frustration that comes with dealing with things alone," says Quigley.
A widow's inability to earn a living can deeply affect her children. When sons must work at an early age to support their families, they miss out on education. "We met widows whose sons, 12 or 14 years old, had to do things like pushing a pushcart," Perera says. "People would pay them a few cents to push goods from one place to another on a cart."
Another woman sent her sons, ages 13 and 15, to work in Pakistan as stonemasons because they needed the income, he adds. "Their mother and grandmother just cried when they thought about that - working long hours in the sun and not able to go to school."
Afghanistan is hardly the only country where widows are marginalized. "In many developing societies, and certainly poor societies, where women may lack access to education and jobs and resources, their livelihood depends on their husband," says Patricia Morris, program director of Women for Women International, a third recipient of Beyond the 11th funds. "When they lose him, their livelihood is completely gone."
Yet progress is evident. As her group helps Afghan widows start businesses, Dr. Morris says, "It's amazing the transformation you see in women's lives when they are able to provide for themselves."
The challenge ahead, Retik adds, involves not only getting men to value women more, but getting women to value themselves more. "Because they've never experienced true freedom or equality, they don't think they're worth as much as a man."
A documentary about the two women and their work, called "Beyond the 11th," will première in New York and Boston on Sept. 11, the fifth anniversary of the terrorist attacks. "Very few people are thinking about these widows in Afghanistan," Retik says. "If we can shed some light on that, it's worth its weight in gold."