December 4, 2009
Afghan woman bridges cultural divide
TC3 student speaks to Homer students about inequality, desire for change
Joe McIntyre/staff photographer
Homer High School students listen as Tompkins Cortland Community College student Meena Yousufzai, left, talks about the cultural differences between her home country of Afghanistan and the United States.
HOMER — Tompkins Cortland Community College freshman Meena Yousufzai plans to finish her college education in Central New York and then return to her home in Afghanistan to help create jobs and fight for women’s rights.
Yousufzai spoke to Homer High School students Thursday about the challenges of being a girl in Afghanistan and the cultural differences between her country and the United States.
Yousufzai, 18, has been taking classes at TC3 since September. She was born and raised in Afghanistan and has gone to school and spent summers in neighboring Pakistan. She plans to transfer to Cornell University and study industrial labor relations.
Yousufzai said she plans to return to Afghanistan every summer and to move back after she graduates. She wants to work for a government agency in a position in which she can help create private sector jobs to improve the nation’s developing economy.
She is also passionate about helping women gain more rights in Afghanistan. Afghan women go to separate schools and use separate facilities, and married women are especially restricted because they must obey their husbands, she said.
“There are things that were not part of the religion that was established, but they’ve become part of the Muslim culture. But I think now it’s time for Muslims to moderate, to bring change into their religion,” she said. “I believe, according to Islam, men and women have equal rights.”
Yousufzai has expressed her views and experiences as part of the Afghan Women’s Writing Project, a group American novelist Masha Hamilton formed when she visited Afghanistan in 2008. The project is aimed at allowing Afghan women to have a direct voice in the world, not filtered through male relatives or members of the news media.
Several of Yousufzai’s poems and short memoirs are published at awwproject.wordpress.com. In one poem titled “The Burqa” she writes about how the Afghan full-body covering called a burqa can hide women’s faces and take their identities.
Yousufzai wears a scarf over her head, but prefers not to wear a burqa, which covers every area of a woman’s body except the eyes or face.
“The women who want to wear a burqa, it’s OK. But it’s not OK for a man to tell a woman to wear one or do anything,” she told the Homer students.
Yousufzai gave presentations to three classes, including a creative writing class, and then answered questions from students in two other classes Thursday.
“I thought it was the most interesting presentation we’ve ever had at this school,” Katelynn Rawson, a senior, said after the meeting. “I have more open opinions of how they (Afghans) live than I did before.”
Rawson said she went into the class thinking people from Afghanistan were terrorists.
“I’m more open-minded, and I’m not going to judge them all right off the bat,” she added.
The students did not ask Yousufzai questions about the war in Afghanistan, focusing more on cultural issues. Yousufzai shared her thoughts after the question-and-answer session.
Yousufzai said she supports the United States military presence in Afghanistan and the decision to send 30,000 more U.S. troops into the country, which President Barack Obama announced this week.
“I personally believe that if there are not enough American soldiers present, I think the Taliban have a pretty good chance of coming back,” she said.
She said al-Qaida’s goal is to kill more Americans and withdrawing troops could lead to future threats.
“To the Americans, leaving is a small step toward global jihad,” she said.
The term jihad refers to a holy war waged on behalf of Islam.
Yousufzai said the fall of the Taliban in the area where her family lives has affected many aspects of her life. During the Taliban’s rule girls were not allowed to go to school in Afghanistan, so she had to attend a school in Pakistan. After the fall of the Taliban in 2002, she was allowed to go to school in Afghanistan, she said.
“If the Taliban were still in Afghanistan, I would still have to wear a burqa and maybe get married,” she said.
The Taliban still controls parts of southern Afghanistan and areas on the Pakistan border.
To read this article and more, pick up today's Cortland Standard
Click here to subscribe