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

Monday, August 1, 2011

The Big Afghan Move: Who Relocates after the Afghan wedding?

With most marriages in the Afghan culture, both in the US and in Afghanistan, it is common for the woman to relocate to her husband's place of residence. This relocation can be of several forms. With marriages that take place in Afghanistan, the girl will most likely move in with her new husband and in laws into their home to start her new life. Usually, a separate space of the house in designated especially for the bride and her husband. Sometimes, depending on social status and income, a separate home is constructed for the new couple that is on the same piece of land (remember homes in Afghanistan are built differently than in the US. They tend to be more spacious and open, separate bedrooms and a shared courtyard). Sometimes, several families are housed in the same home and each family has their own bedroom (s) and share the remaining of the home. It is quite uncommon, for a new wife and husband to live away and separate from the husband's family, especially in Afghanistan. In the US, some Afghans continue to practice this form of lifestyle, however, with jobs in different locations, accessibility and affordinbility, young Afghans that are newly married, will live on their own, away from both sets of parents. Although, even in the US, one can easily find a newly married couple living with the husband's parents, this may because of cultural upbringing, financial ability or mere separation anxiety!

An Individual who relocates to the US from Afghanistan, to be with their spouse, will most likely live with their in laws, until further notice. In my opinion, this is a great way, to immerse into the US society, while still being around an Afghan household (i.e. speaking Pushtu or Farsi, eating familiar dishes, dress, mannerisms, etc). as most likely they came from a home with several siblings,parents, grandparents, etc. For those coming from Afghanistan a couple living alone right away is rare and can be extremely difficult as they are not accustom to the US culture or lifestyle, language and will most likely not be able to work right away. To be able to leave a country and your family and everything familiar and live alone with your spouse in a different country where one is unfamiliar, can be extremely daunting, especially as their US raised spouse will be at work for most of the day.

Afghan couples raised in the US, will most likely live in their own apartment or a house after the wedding (remember Afghans don't live together before marriage!). This concept is still fairly new in the Afghan community and is usually practiced by Afghan couples who are use to the American way of life and embrace individuality, privacy and their own work needs. I know that my new husband and I moved into our first apartment together upon our arrival from our honeymoon. I walked into a newly furnished and beautifully decorated apartment that night after our arrival. I honestly didn't know what to expect about our living situation as I was raised in a pretty conservative community of Afghans in the US, where it was common for females to relocate to her husband's place of residence. Nowadays, given different communities of Afghans in the US, men also move to accommodate their wives choice of residence depending on career or school or simple affinity for a certain location. This way of thinking and living life (i.e.compromising and assessing personal needs of both husband and wife without blindly following cultural traditions) makes me a proud member of our evoling Afghan community.

To be unbiased here, I have to add that in certain Afghan communities in the US (think small Afghan locations in the Midwest or extremely traditional Afghans regardless of where they live) will continue to encourage intergenerational households, where the men bring in their wives to live with his parents and girls move away into their husband's family homes, regardless of the couple's or parents needs). This is fine, if all parties involved agrees it is the best choice. My more American self, will side with the needs and wants of not only the new couple but also the parents. For instance, if the parents of either side, need looking after, then of course living together would be the right thing to do. Or if financially it is not feasible at the time, then save on rent and live together or if the parents need financial assistance. If both parents are healthy, stable and enjoying life, and the couple is able to afford a place of their own, then why not give the parents their home back and build your own so they can happily come visit whenever they want and always have another home to go to!

Not only does weddings and everything before a marriage take place have certain cultural ideas attached of how to go about in the Afghan community, life after the marriage has many cultural traits as well. These traits have to be considered in the Afghan community so that the elders are happy, the young understand why certain things are done and the middle ones (us!) do what is right given their residence in the states, Afghan culture and the needs and wants of both generations. After all, we ourselves, will have children that will learn our way of life and what would we want them to do in this situation, given our culture background and American lifestyle. Culture does evolve with time with the needs and wants of time, however, the reasoning behind each culture trait is for the best, which is to keep everyone together as one and love and support each other no matter where you live.