Hazel Hall is Professor of Social Informatics at Edinburgh Napier University, where she also holds the position of the University’s Academic Champion for Athena SWAN – the charter for that recognizes work undertaken to address gender equality in higher education and research.

Lorna Norgrove is a crofter in Uig on the Isle of Lewis, and a founder and trustee of the Linda Norgrove Foundation.

Linda Norgrove
Linda in 2008 in Kabul. Image courtesy of the Linda Norgrove Foundation.

Dr Linda Norgrove was an environmental scientist and dedicated Scottish aid worker who spent much of her career working with communities on development projects in South America, Africa and the Middle East. She was kidnapped by the Taliban in Kunar province, Afghanistan on 26th September 2010, and died tragically aged 36 in a rescue attempt thirteen days later on 8th October 2010.

At the time that she was taken hostage Linda was working to promote stability and prosperity in a region of the world that was in the process of rebuilding itself after four decades of war. She was Regional Director for the American aid company DAI based in Jalalabad, east of Kabul. Her work involved initiatives designed to support job creation, and the training of local Afghan leaders in vulnerable areas. In all aspects of her work Linda was a strong advocate for inclusivity. She was particularly keen that women and the disabled had access to development opportunities.

As the only long-term expatriate on DAI’s Jalalabad team, Linda managed and worked with a team of 90 Afghan staff, nearly all of whom were men – and by the second month of her employment her male Pashtoon staff were calling her ‘Sir’. She was responsible for oversight of around a million dollars of weekly expenditure on the community-focused alternative development programme. The majority of businesses supported by the programme were agriculture-based. They included, for example, farming, irrigation, poultry and fishing. The programme was highly regarded as a successful and significant part of the American strategy of winning around the local population, with Linda playing a central role in this.

Typically Linda would start her day with a Dari language lesson at 06.00am in the morning, and work until bedtime. In her spare time she was working towards an MBA by distance learning with Warwick University. She also studied the Koran, and with her staff she fasted from sunrise to sunset during Ramadan.

The kind of work that Linda undertook in Afghanistan would not be considered dangerous in other contexts. Indeed, if you live in a healthy, rich, and safe society in the west it is difficult to imagine the challenges to achieving stability and prosperity in a country such as Afghanistan. However, Linda’s activities challenged ‘traditional’ views of the gender roles in patriarchal Afghan society, where women are often at risk of abuse and exploitation, and practices such as child and forced marriage endure in the rural areas that have been most badly affected by war. Here a career choice that derived from personal attributes of care and compassion transformed Linda Norgrove into a dangerous woman. For some conservative members of Afghan society the appointment of a woman to a high profile job, who served as a role model for many young women, challenged the status quo. (Her work was also in complete opposition to the restrictions imposed by the Taliban during their rule between 1996 and 2001 when women were effectively under house arrest: denied formal education; forbidden to work; only allowed outside the home if dressed in a burqa and accompanied by a male relative.)

It is worth considering whether Linda would have self-identified as a ‘dangerous woman’. For example, would she have said that she was dangerous to herself? It is clear that she recognised the risks associated with her line of work, and considered these with care.  However, it would be incorrect to say that she was reckless. Indeed it took her some considerable time to come to the decision to take up her first post in Afghanistan. This was a role for the United Nations, which she held for three and a half years between 2005 and 2008. Similarly, although she was receptive when first approached by DAI, she appreciated the risks and the personal restrictions that would come with this role. Again she found it difficult to decide whether or not to follow up the approach of her potential employer. Only after several weeks did Linda take up the challenge, persuaded by the chance to be her own boss in a role where she would be able to make a real difference in charge of a big project, as opposed to working in a bureaucracy. Linda’s beliefs and ways of operating may have been considered dangerous to herself. To gain a better understanding of the needs of villagers, she travelled widely to discuss potential projects, putting herself at risk. However, she was not careless and always attuned to the situation around her.

It would therefore be wrong to say that Linda placed herself in danger because she was unconscious of the risks associated with her career choices, or that she was a careless risk-taker. Rather, her life and work were cut short because she was in the wrong place at the wrong time – both when she was captured and during the rescue attempt.

So it was through undertaking dangerous work in a particular context that Linda became a dangerous woman. Perceptions of the level of her ‘dangerousness’ depend largely upon societal perspectives on the role of women and the type of work that they undertake. In some cases this translates to whether or not women work outside the home at all. Regardless of her level of ‘dangerousness’, in Afghanistan Linda was also endangered, as evident in the tragic final days of her life.

The story of Linda Norgrove as a dangerous woman might have ended here. However, the work to improve the lives in women in Afghanistan continues in her name.  Linda’s parents Lorna and John Norgrove set up The Linda Norgrove Foundation (LNF) soon after Linda’s death.

The LNF is a small grant-giving trust that funds education, health and childcare for women and children affected by the war in Afghanistan. Volunteer trustees run the charity, employing one part-time paid Afghan woman in Kabul. The charity specialises in the provision of education and income for women – particularly widows – and the poorest children. It does so by giving small grants to specific projects, and by supporting small or medium sized projects that are often overlooked by larger charities. The focus on women for Foundation funding is important because it is felt that women are best positioned to create positive and lasting change for the country.

To date the Foundation has raised over £1m to support its work. Afghan women have benefited from Foundation funding in numerous ways: to attend university, to learn commercial skills such as tailoring and bee-keeping, to undertake media training, to improve their literacy. The projects that focus on children include support for surgeries at the French Children’s Hospital in Kabul, provision of food and blankets to rural orphanages in the middle of winter, support for abandoned disabled children’s orphanages. In its first five years sixty such projects have been supported. The largest project in which the LNF has been involved to date is a programme of literacy classes and the foundation of small libraries across the country. The $625,000 cost of this has been met by the US Agency for International Aid and its delivery coordinated by Canadian Women for Women in Afghanistan, a partner of the LNF.

Linda Norgrove deserves recognition as a dangerous woman whose work sought to improve the lives of some of the most vulnerable communities in the world. This work continues in the legacy of the charity that bears her name, the Linda Norgrove Foundation.