Marzia works with the Feminist Majority Foundation on the Afghan Women and Girls Initiative. Marzia was born in Herat, Afghanistan. She is a graduate of Meredith College in Raleigh, North Carolina where she earned a degree in International Studies and a minor in Political Science. In college, Marzia was a UN team member, staff writer for a Meredith College publication, Meredith Intl. Association, and participated in the Public Leadership Education Network. She volunteered her time at the Department of Labor (Women’s Bureau), Afghan Women Lawyer Foundation, Youth for Understanding, and WomenNC. Marzia shares her experiences via the Afghan Women Writing Project. Her goal is to bring awareness to marginalized women of their rights and lead them to options to reach their full potential.
Sydney McAuliffe (SM): Where did you grow up? What were your early years like?
Marzia: I was born and raised in Herat, Afghanistan. It is in the western part of Afghanistan. It is one of the biggest cities in Afghanistan. I was very young when the Mujahadeen took power. I can’t even remember when the Mujahadeen was in power because I was so young. Then the Taliban took power. I could not go to school for six years because the Taliban was in power and closed all the schools. But compared to millions of other girls in Afghanistan, I was really lucky because my father was a physics teacher and taught me and my other four sisters at home. I learned how to read and write in Farsi. My mother also sent me to a madrasa for girls where the teacher taught us how to read in Arabic. We were supposed to read the Quran in Arabic. Learning Arabic helped me a lot with reading and writing Farsi as well.
When I was 10 years old, I started to realize that women faced a lot of problems in Afghanistan because they were dependent on men. At that time, there was no school for girls and I was worried about my future. My mother was also worried about my future. One day I was playing with our neighbor’s daughter and I saw her father beat her mother. He beat her quite regularly and always threatened to divorce her. She was begging him “please don’t divorce me because then I wouldn’t be able to support our children or myself.” I then went to my mother and said I want to learn skills so if my husband divorces me I can take care of myself. So, my mom enrolled me in a tailor class that took place at someone’s home. The tailor shop and class was at a home because women could only buy clothing from other women so most the time women only made clothing for other women. I went to the house to learn how to make dresses and the teacher welcomed me into her home and treated me like one of her own daughters. Spending time at that house really helped me with my social life. Many girls during those six years under the Taliban, were not allowed to go anywhere so they spent most of their time at home. Many girls forgot how to socialize because they were alone at home. But, going over to the tailor’s house really helped me socialize because other women from the community would come over and everyone would talk about their problems. That really opened up eyes to what was happening in other women’s lives. A year and a half later, I started to make dresses for our neighbors and our neighbor’s daughters I was finally making some money. I then even had my own sewing machine for the first time. I felt so independent.
Then 9-ll happened and the US came to Afghanistan. I can’t explain how happy I was when the schools opened. It was like a dream come true. Like a huge dream come true. I remember under the Taliban, we didn’t have many fun things to do so we would go to Iran because it is only 3 hours from our hometown. When there, I saw Iranian girls going to school and I used to get so jealous and wonder why can’t I go to school too? So when the schools opened, I focused all my attention on my studies. The government said all Afghan girls can take an entrance exam and based on the results of the exam they can enroll in classes that fit them. I took the exam and I passed for the sixth grade. I started my education in the sixth grade and at first it was hard for me to study. I grew up in a big family and at the time my brother’s wife and his family were also living with us. I finally found a quiet place to study on the roof. I used to go to the roof and study, although the birds pooped on my notebooks all the time. I started to focus on my studies. I had a few marriage proposals at the time and I had to convince my parents that I don’t want to get married- I wanted to become an independent woman and help other women who didn’t have the chances I had growing up in a big city.
I was in 9th grade when I started to learn English; it was very difficult. No matter how much I studied- I always made mistakes. I decided to take an English class outside of school to practice my English. In 2006 when I was in 11th grade, an organization came to my school asking us all to take a language test. The girls who passed the test were invited to attend a study abroad exchange program in the US. I took the exam and passed. When I told my parents that I wanted to study in America they said “no.” In our culture, people say bad things about families who let their daughters travel by themselves. But, I knew I wanted to go to America because I knew it would be a good opportunity. Over time, I kept talking to my parents and my parents eventually agreed to let me go to America to study. I came to the US in 2006. I could not speak English. I could only speak a few words. I remember going to school and bringing two dictionaries- one Farsi to English and one English to Farsi. I spent more than 4 hours on homework that should have taken 10 minutes because I would look up every single word. But with hard work, my English improved and I started to feel more comfortable in America. I even started to take off my scarf. No one forced me to keep it on once I was in America, but I was just so used to wearing it all my life. I remember when I first got to America I would wear my scarf even to bed and my host mom would say, “Why are you wearing your scarf to bed?” and I would say, “My hair gets cold.” But I was mostly just saying that because I was so used to wearing my scarf.
When I went back to Afghanistan all my relatives wanted to see me to see how I had changed but when they saw I was the same person, even better and more outspoken they were convinced to send their daughters to America too. My neighbors even decided to send their daughter to America to receive an education too. So, this is how positive change is possible. It has to start somewhere.
SM: What is your educational background?
Marzia: After I finished high school, I worked for an Italian organization. In Afghanistan we have moral crimes. Moral crimes are imposed on girls and women who want to have boyfriends or run away from home and are then put in jail. Most of the girls and women that are in jail are in there because of moral crimes. So, I helped the Italian organization which was a Juvenile Rehabilitation Center. When working at the Juvenile Rehabilitation Center, I met so many girls — some who had been raped and it wasn’t safe for them to return home. Unfortunately, we have honor killings in Afghanistan so that was also a motivating factor influencing these girls to run away.
I then got a full scholarship to return to the US. I went to college in North Carolina. I went to Meredeth College in Raleigh, NC. I went to college for four years and then after I finished, I returned to Virginia. The same host family that hosted me when I came to America to study in high school offered to let me live with them again. I then did different internships and joined the Feminist Majority Foundation. I also decided that I wanted to get my masters degree. I am currently getting my masters degree from George Mason.
Sometimes we get calls at Feminist Majority from Afghan women who are facing domestic violence and they want to get a divorce and are seeking our help. I know of one family lawyer in Maryland who is a man who we often refer women to. But, it has helped me realize that I want to be a lawyer. I would like to practice family law and open a center to represent immigrant and refugee women.
SM: What does your work at Feminist Majority entail? What does your day to day look like?
Marzia: At the Feminist Majority, I work on the Afghan Women and Girls Initiative. The Feminist Majority was one of the first organizations to pay attention to women’s rights in Afghanistan. The Feminist Majority has held many campaigns targeted against the Taliban and has a scholarship fund for Afghan girls. I work on all aspects of the Afghan initiative and my day to day varies a lot. I also brief Eleanor Smeal, the president of the Feminist Majority, on Afghan current events and give her updates on women’s issues. My job is mostly advocating and I go to a lot of events and represent Afghanistan and Feminist Majority and our work. We also host some Afghan events of our own and when we do I spend a lot of time teaching others how feminism differs in America and Afghanistan. While our goals are the same, there are some important differences worth understanding. I also used to travel a lot to give presentations to schools and Universities on behalf of our Girls Learn International program and explain my upbringing in Afghanistan and how education and women’s rights are different in Afghanistan.
SM: What are the most rewarding and challenging parts of your current work?
Marzia: While at the Feminist Majority, it has been very rewarding connecting with so many other organizations both governmental and non-governmental through our advocacy and campaigns. Many organizations that focus on Afghanistan know about Feminist Majority and know that we are one of the most committed organizations working on women’s issues in Afghanistan. As someone who had little experience before DC, working with other organizations has really opened up my eyes.
This is my first “professional job” and my first year working here it was very hard for me. When you start a new job you are so excited and want to have your own way of working, your own activities and projects but that doesn’t always work out because your way may not match the way of an organization. Also, organizations may not have the money to fund your projects and that can be disappointing at times.
SM: What skills have helped you the most to succeed in advocating for women’s rights?
Marzia: Communication, I believe. When I first came to Feminist Majority, I was very shy. When we would go to big events with a lot of people I was not confident enough to talk with anyone. But once I overcame my shyness, I started to meet and learn that everyone is very friendly. I have found that women who have started organizations or are in leadership positions really want to help other women. So I think communication and overcoming that fear that you are young and not experienced and therefore shouldn’t talk with people have been critical skills for me. Also, I have learned that ultimately how much education you have won’t necessarily determine how successful you are. What is more important is learning how to best represent yourself. You need to be able to speak up for yourself and tell people how much you care and what you want to do.
SM: Who or what organizations do you look to as leaders in the women’s rights field?
Marzia: There are many of them. While some are not as well known, I still look up to them. One of the organizations I look to as a leader in the women’s rights field is Women for Afghan Women. I have been to New York and have seen first hand how much they are helping immigrant and refugee women. I also respect the work of the United States Institute of Peace. While the organization is not solely focused on women’s issues, they still do a lot of conflict resolution work in conflict zones and help bring women to peace tables and hear their problems. Women experience so many more problems than men in conflict zones so I really value USIP’s commitment to including women’s perspectives. I also go to Women in NC’s events because the organization helped me a lot when I was a student living in Raleigh.
SM: What do you see as the biggest opportunities in women’s rights the biggest contributions still needed?
Marzia: In Afghanistan, the biggest opportunity in women’s rights is education. Once girls are educated, they become aware of their rights and become independent. Currently, illiteracy is the biggest challenge facing Afghanistan. Also, I would say sisterhood is very important. I think that when women from all backgrounds, races and countries come together- we can make a huge difference. Unfortunately, I have seen that sometimes women from Asia get together and build their own organizations and projects and women from Europe build their own organizations etc. While I like that women are banding together, I think we can be more effective when we all work together to share our experiences, and voices and stand up for each other.
SM: What kind of future do you see women’s rights moving toward? Or What do you think the future of the women’s rights fields will look like?
Marzia: It was a very tough year for women especially after Hillary lost. Because we as women have been fighting for our rights for a long time, it would have been great to have Hillary as a leader. But, she made every single person— man and woman— think about gender in an important way. She helped pave the way for another woman who will become president in the future. So I believe we are going in the right direction, but we are still behind.