Many claim that Afghanistan is the worst place for women. However, Afghan women continue to fight their way out and turn Afghanistan into a friendly place for them. They do so with a lot of courage and self-motivation. Usually these women are supported by their fathers—an important fact often ignored by many people in the west. I got thinking about issues while talking with my friend, Mahnaz, over tea. We are both studying in Middlebury College.
Mahnaz Rezaie is an example of a woman fighting for equality and freedom.
Mahnaz, now a rising sophomore from Afghanistan at Middlebury College, was born and raised in Iran. Her family had to flee the civil war and the Taliban regime. Two years after the fall of the Taliban regime, Mahnaz returned to her native Herat, a province in western Afghanistan bordering Iran. Though she was born in Iran, Mahnaz considers herself an Afghan from Herat because of her lineage. As junior in high school in Herat Province, she realized that she could become the first female English teacher. This would allow girls the opportunity to learn English in her neighborhood. “I wanted to help my brothers in providing for the family,” she said. But her brothers were opposed to the idea. “My father said that the neighborhood is not good; they will gossip about us. There are people who will kidnap you,” Mahnaz said. She was not allowed to teach.
Not only did her family not allow her to work but also they demanded that she wear a burqa when she went outside. Mahnaz resisted. “It is like being in a prison. I am not doing that [wearing a burqa],” she continued. “The religion [Islam] does not require me to cover my face so I shouldn’t accept it. When you go outside, you cannot see people because you are wearing a burqa and you feel like people cannot see you. It feels like you are less than men because you shouldn’t show yourself and men can show themselves. My face is beautiful and I don’t want to hide it. I want people to see it.” However, this time Mahnaz won the argument. Her father, after hearing her argument as well as her brothers’, decided to support her. “He told my brothers that Mahnaz is my daughter and I make decisions for her. If you want, you can force your daughters to wear burqa,” she said with a big smile in her face. She went outside without having to wear a burqa.
The issues concerning the burqa, the hijab and modesty are very complex in Afghan society. People’s interpretation of modesty in Islam varies from person to person; thus, it is better to avoid any generalization based on one person’s opinion. Even though Mahnaz chose not to wear a burqa, she has other cultural values that she holds dear to her heart. “I grew up in a culture where we don’t shake hands with men,” she said. “And I don’t want to try it because once I tried it and I did not like it.”
In 2004, Mahnaz and her family moved to Kabul. She described it as a “miracle” because she knew that she could accomplish much more in Kabul. “Behind my success is my father and the people who discouraged me,” she added. Even though she had her father’s promise to help her find a job in Kabul, she knew that she had to convince her brothers at some point.
“I had to prove myself to my brothers first,” Mahnaz remembers.
For a month her brothers were unaware of Mahnaz’s first job as an English teacher in a private institution in Kabul. Her mother and sister-in-law played a big role in keeping the secret—they were supportive of her decision. Her mother told her, “When I go to the streets, I cannot read the signs. I can’t find the way, but you learn how to read all those things because there are a lot of things in the world that you need to learn.” When her brothers found out, they were fine with it. Mahnaz remembers the moment with a grin on her face, “It was late, so they couldn’t do anything.”
After she proved herself to her brothers, it was her brothers who helped her find a job with International Medical Corp as an administrative assistant, which led her to work with an American company, the Louis Berger Group Inc., and International Relief Development.
In 2008, when Professor Hector Vila of the Writing Program at Middlebury College started an online tutoring program for Afghan girls in Kabul, Mahnaz was introduced to him through one of the Afghan students at Middlebury College. “I always sent him a lot of essays with a lot of problems and grammatical mistakes,” Mahnaz added, “He was always supporting me. Even from a long distance when I wasn’t seeing his face, I was thinking that he is like my father. He want[ed] me to continue with my education.” Like many other Afghan girls, Professor Vila helped Mahnaz apply to colleges in the U.S. She was admitted to Middlebury College last fall.
“The biggest challenge that I have right now,” she says, “is “[that] I have lots of choices at Middlebury and I don’t know what to choose as my major.” Initially, she wanted to follow a path to engineering but she found math to be very challenging and hard to follow. Now, she is thinking about majoring in Film and Media Culture. She added with a laughter, “Hopefully, if I don’t change my mind in a few days.” Mahnaz is very passionate about the future of Afghanistan. She wants to improve women’s life. She said, “Every time I think about a major, I think about how I can help my people and contribute to Afghan society. I want to make films and movies and give voice for those women who are not heard. I want to tell the world that Afghan women are strong as well.”
Women in Afghanistan face a lot of obstacles in life, one of which is proving themselves to their families. While this battle for participation in public life has played in favor of Mahnaz and has given her the result she hoped for, many women in Afghanistan face ultimate humiliation and are cornered into domestic life. While a father’s support is important, it takes strong and courageous women like Mahnaz to hope for a better future. Middlebury College graduated its first Afghan woman scholar and man scholar in 2009; this year, in 2010, another Afghan woman, along with two Afghan men, graduated. In 2011, yet another Afghan woman will take the stage at graduation. And next fall, two young Afghan women will enter the college as members of the 2014 class.
Shabana Basij-Rasikh is double majoring in International Studies and
Women and Gender Studies and is the president of HELA Inc., a
non-profit committed to helping Afghan women. She was recently featured in Glamour Magazine.
- Shabana Basij-Rasikh and Zohra Safi: Don't Abandon Women's Role in Afghanistan
- Eva Maria Krockow: The Burqa Ban - Motivations, Justifications and Liquely Consequences