One of my earliest memories is that of standing in the back of my Dad’s bicycle in Afghanistan, holding on to his shoulders and going all over the city. There were bombed buildings, women sitting on the side of the streets with their toddlers begging and war-amputee men trying to wash cars for a small fee. While looking down always made me sad, looking up at the beautiful blue sky invoked nothing but a sense of freedom. But I was soon to be denied that freedom and many others simply for being a woman. I was to be perceived as less competent, ambitious and even worthy of respect.
Hearing phrases like, “woman are dark-headed (meaning dumb),” or “ women make the majority of those going to hell” and even statements like “you are too smart and ambitious for a woman,” were not uncommon. Shortly after high school, I started working as a translator for an international journalist and later at women’s rights NGO. The work involved going out in public accompanying my male foreign colleagues. Upon seeing an Afghan woman with foreigners local men would pass on very demeaning comments. Despite being upset and hurt by such comments, I did not allow them to shape my path and continued working.
The schools I attended in both Afghanistan and Pakistan operated with a shortage of both resources and personnel. Studying under a tent with school daily duration sometimes as short as three hours was common. But, I like to always say you make the best of what you have, instead of what you should or could have and have tried to follow my own advice.
After getting a year-long scholarship to the U.S, I wanted to attend college here. I remember talking to my high school advisor in the U.S about it. He told me how difficult if not impossible it was to get into a good liberal arts college. I assume part of it was his assumption that I did not have the academic credentials to do well in an American college. Of course, I knew my English was not good enough for college, I could barely write essays and I would have fared pretty poorly in sciences and math too. However, despite my upbringing and people’s lack of faith in me simply because I was a girl, I fortunately had a strong belief in my own ability to work hard and be patient. All I needed was a chance. And I got the chance when I got into Smith College on a full scholarship! The college student body consisted of all different kinds of students, from those who had attended public schools to those who had spent years in private and international schools, all of them with highest academic qualifications. Of course, it took me more hours to finish essays, more visits to professors’ offices and more late-nighters just to complete reading assignments. But, I was finally able to graduate with a double major and on the dean’s list. While, many of my relatives and other Afghans probably considered being a woman a liability, I refused to let them define me by my gender and for it to determine my fate.
I think I pushed through all the judgment and have succeeded so far because I always considered myself just another human with as much of a desire for freedom, respect, love and success as anybody else.