Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Modern Afghan Living: The Cost of Pursuing Education..Alone

Most Afghan females and males really don't have the opportunity to live on their own. Alone. This lifestyle was not an option even a few years ago for young Afghan males and females residing in the states. In Afghanistan, it has never been an option, especially for a female. The process was simple and is still practiced in Afghan communities in the US: live with the parents, get married, and live with the husband/wife. Sure, one could still pursue academic and career interests as long as they were within commuting distance from home.

However, with more access to resources, communication and opportunities to pursue education outside of our hometowns in the US, an increasing amount of young educated Afghans are moving away from home for the first time and experiencing living alone. It is still quite uncommon for Afghans to continue living alone after the completion of their education. Usually, upon graduation, we are encouraged to come back home and live with our parents until we are married and move in together with our future spouse. To my American acquaintances, this concept seems fairly common and the practice for many of them, however, as young Afghans, we are still trying to escape the negative stigma that is associated with moving away from home to pursue an education.

When I first got the opportunity to study out of state, I had to 'hide' the fact that I was living alone and pursuing graduate school as my reputation and possible future suitors would be diminished in the Afghan community, something all Afghan parents carefully honor and protect.

I remember when I had to move across the US to attend graduate school and my 'move' was associated with many of my parents Afghan friends telling them not to let their youngest daughter ( I was 22) out of their sight as so many things could happen: I could disappear and get hurt without them by my side, I could move and never comeback, my future marriage prospects would decline because after all, who wants a girl who is educated, well traveled and independent? The older Afghans also stressed that I would bring shame upon the family for doing such a thing, etc. ( I come from a pretty tight Afghan knit  traditional community, where I was one of the first girls to pursue graduate school in general, so moving across the states alone was an even bigger issue as most girls were married with a kid or two!)

My parents put aside everything they heard and encouraged me to continue my educational pursuits even if it meant I had to move and live away from them until graduation. We made a pact that I would study hard and come home every chance possible ( I did fly back home once a month sometimes twice a month on the weekends, until my father asked me not to since it was costing them too much!). While away and studying, my parents never really publicly announced that I was studying out of state (how does one even announce that? The local masjid?). With time, people noticed that I was away and wanted to know what school I went to, Why I went there, what I was studying, Why I was studying that and of course, what I did everyday and of course when I was coming back, etc. The gossip extended to everyone in the Afghan community in a short time about my departure . Some simply said that “ I left home” which in the Afghan culture is something very harsh and disrespectful when it comes to talking about a young, unmarried girl. They didn’t chose to believe the real fact: I moved to attend graduate school and would come back when finished.

During that time, I didn't hear any of this as I was busy with school, yet my parents had to experience it. What I learned during my time away from home is something I will forever have with me and has made me a better person today. I learned to be independent and understand daily life and providing for oneself (bills, cooking, cleaning, hosting, safety). And of course getting a graduate degree!

I, like most Afghan females growing up in the US, had everything provided for and all I had to do was go to school . I never really understood the daily work of my parents inside or outside of the house and truly to this day, feel grateful for what they have done for me. Sure, I probably didn't need to move out of state to realize that, however, I was given an excellent opportunity to study and meet people from around the world, which has helped me in my professional and personal life.
So, why is it so bad for Afghan women to pursue educational options that take them away from home?

With scholarships opportunities around the country and access to prestigious institutions, why are Afghans still hesitant to agree to send their adult children to pursue opportunities and continue to hold on to cultural beliefs about not living alone. As my readers know, I try to present a balanced view of our culture, so I have to be fair and state why these beliefs came into play.

First reason, is the question and concern for safety, especially for females living alone. I have educated friends who currently live alone (by choice) and one of the main reasons, they would prefer to live with a male/husband/parents, is to feel safe and not experience life alone, to be able to share their daily experiences and come home to someone. Afghan parents are aware of this human need as they themselves come from intergenerational homes and never really had the opportunity to live alone, they can't quite understand how it can be beneficial.

Another reason is the expense that is associated with living alone. Given that our culture thrives on community and sharing resources, Afghan parents sometimes simply cannot afford to pay rent for their child who wants to live alone in a safe neighborhood, pay for their transportation, insurance, school, books, phone, personal needs, etc. The costs of living alone can be quite expensive and our parents do not see the usefulness in that, especially in today's economy. So, not only does living alone have a cultural stigma associated with it, it may not seem logical to some, given the expenses. However, even if all expenses are taken of and provided for by a scholarship or other means, Afghans still continue to look down upon the simple act of moving away from home (without marriage) and living alone (i.e. on campus or an apartment) for the duration of their studies.

Slowly, this cultural negativity will change as more young Afghans embrace education and the opportunities given to them. I am still an advocate for living with one's parents until marriage takes place (why pay unnecessary bills?), however, if given an educational opportunity to study elsewhere that is of more value to your future and career, then, living away from home is just another experience in what we call life! Now in Afghanistan, this same issue is a current topic when it comes to education for women. Now that universities, such as Kabul Universities have dorms to house female students, parents are very weary of letting their daughters continue their education because they do not accept the fact that females will be living alone before marriage.

Yes, it may be a question of safety, however, with my interactions with Afghan students there, it is more of a cultural issue first and the stigma associated with 'those girls' who study and live alone ( it’s pretty safe in the US and yet still the same view exists towards it). We can change this cultural view if we ourselves, who have studied away from home, come back home and be successful in our personal and professional lives because of this experience. I think what this negativity comes from is the thought process of our elders and not having the experience themselves and only having the media and other people’s negative experience shadow their minds about what campus life and living alone really means.

We have to show them that we didn’t lose our values or morals because of our relocation, instead we learned from it and have a greater appreciation for the family members and friends we had to leave behind to pursue our goals away from home, to show them that we came out with something in the end, an advanced degree and career to better our lives and theirs and a mind frame to pursue and do good in this world regardless of what people say about your choices and to accept who you are, where you are from and thank our parents for rising above their cultural stigmas to support our life choices, no matter how it is viewed by the Afghan community