Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Education for Afghan Woman: Girls in Afghanistan VS Afghan Girls in America

For those that have been following this blog, you can see that most of my writing is geared towards marriage and all the great things that accompany it. I am after all, a happy Afghan housewife (something that is rarely stated in the news media). A happy Afghan wife? Is there such a thing?! Well I am proof of one and I have created this blog to express my gratitude, share information about the Afghan culture especially customs that pertain to marriage and simple everyday life. My intention has been to remain positive in information sharing, however, I have to be realistic and give a wholesome picture of our Afghan culture, especially when it comes to marriage and education here in the states and in Afghanistan.

As the title states, lack of education and marrying young go hand in hand for many Afghan girls. I do not want to undermine any of my readers intelligence when it comes to Afghanistan's history, however, for those who may be unaware, Afghanistan was once a fully functioning society, i.e. had top universities where women made up half the student body, European influenced attire for men and women (think pencil cut black skirts and short sleeve blouses for women and 70's style suits and jeans for men. I have a photo of my father when he attended Kabul Medical University in huge shades (sunglasses) and a yellow polyester suit, bell bottoms and all!).

There were women doctors and teachers and literacy was encouraged for women even those living in the provinces which tend to be more traditional in nature than the capital city of Kabul. My own mother had a school uniform of white pants and scarf and a black dress and shoes which she wore everyday until she was taken out of school because she was 'mature' enough. This mentality existed before Afghanistan became a war zone, where a girl who reached a certain age or stage, say, high school, they were heavily influenced to quit school and get married instead. This is similar to American history, where women in the 70's and 80's had few college graduates as most became wives and mothers after finishing high school.

The great thing about America is that change can happen and now in 2011, more women graduate college then men! Whereas in Afghanistan, the access for women's education has taken a back seat. Maybe because they've had to deal with merely surviving first after 30 decades of war than to think of extracurricular activities, such as a higher education? Access to education for girls in Afghanistan is there but quite difficult. First, there is the mentality of the men: Girls need to get married once they reach puberty as 1) they will cause shame to the family (i.e. get involved with someone without marriage or worse yet, become pregnant out of wedlock) 2) They will become too old and will not be desirable after a certain age. 3)The family needs the money they get from the groom (which is not Islamic, rather cultural).

These concerns are legitimate for Afghan men and some women in that the family unit is a cherished unit in the Afghan culture. Every woman should have the security of a marriage and not simply have a boyfriend with no commitment and to produce and raise healthy children in a healthy marriage ( isn't having a solid family foundation a basis for a functioning society?) however, the issue is why do they have to do all the aforementioned at such a young age?

Here is my thoughts on why girls marry young in Afghanistan and sometimes in the US. Lack of Education. Limited access to resources. The heavy influence from the older men and women in the family and most importantly, the inability to support themselves. If a girl in Afghanistan or even in the states, has no formal education or training, family is pressuring her to get married, her own family is unable to provide for her anymore nor can she provide for herself and she is bored out of her mind day in and day out (what does a girl do everyday if she is not married, no kids, doesn't go to school or work?) Wouldn't marriage look desirable? At least, it's something to do.

I remember when I was visiting Afghanistan , I came into contact with a wonderful and very bright young girl, maybe she was 15 at the time. She asked if I would talk to her older brother to letting her continue her studies as she was recently pulled out of school because she was "older" now and the boys were 'looking' at her when she walked to school. The walk to school was about 2 miles, which she walked with the neighborhood girls everyday. Since the other girls were no longer attending school, she would have to make the walk alone to go to school and that was something the men in the family would not allow as there had been gossip of 'men in trucks' picking up girls on the road.

After our conversation, I sat down with her older brother and he explained his side. He asked how would I feel knowing that my sister was in danger every time she left the house by herself to go to school? My simple answer: walk with her. His answer: I need to work to provide for her and her books. My question: Can she have a car come pick her up for school everyday? (yes, this is my US mind speaking) His answer: Will you pay for the car service for her and all the girls in the community for the next ten years and confirm their safety at school? (there had been news of a recent destruction of a nearby school). The infrastructure of Afghanistan has to be rebuilt before we can encourage education for women and wonder why they marry so young instead of going to school. Two years later, that same girl was married. If a young girl in Afghanistan can not be provided the transportation and safety to attend school, how will she be educated?

In the states, we have access to education freely, so why then are there Afghan girls not attending higher education or getting advanced degrees but instead continuing to marry at a very young age? It is the mentality of the older Afghans that has crept into the minds of the younger generation that encourage and influence early marriages. This should not be part of the Afghan culture! Our true culture and faith encourage us to seek knowledge! I remember my father telling me in elementary school, in middle school, high school and all throughout my college and graduate school days, that he will support me as long I was in school and making something great of myself, whatever it was (yeah, what can I say, I changed majors a few times in college). He would always remind me how proud he was of me and how much he supported my educational choices and would continue to do so until I reached an old age, had gray hair and beyond. Granted he would hint at marriage here and there, if he didn't, he wouldn't be an true Afghan parent! This is the kind of encouragement I would like to see from our elders to young Afghan girls, especially those who have access.

I am proud to say that the Afghan- American girls I personally know and interact with on a daily basis are the best of the best. Smart, educated, classy and still remain true to what they are and where they come from. These Afghan girls are the true example of what a 'real' Afghan woman is and what we would of had of our country was not destroyed. These young Afghan women have learned the language and culture of America, have exceeded in school and became today's engineers, doctors, teachers, journalists, lawyers and housewives who have an educated mind for positive interaction with family members and to teach their children and create strong solid family units with love, care and unconditional support.

I just pray and hope that younger Afghan girls will follow that same route and continue their studies instead of getting married so early, especially when they live in the US and have unlimited access to education and resources to be successful professionally. Marriage is an amazing place to be in, in your life, however, it feels even better when you have completed your education and can freely be successful in your personal and professional life and have real life skills( even if it's a housewife role you desire then be it! Building and maintaining a home with love and care takes more work than an outside career sometimes, as you will need skills of negotiating, time management, communication skills, creativity, literacy, etc). This energy will make your marriage strong, your family functional and society productive. You will attract a mate that will appreciate all your hard work and work with you in life so both of you are successful, healthy and happy and raise wholesome children through educated guidance and support.

If Afghan-Americans can use their resources rightfully and educate themselves while they are here in the US, they can turn Afghanistan around in less than 20 years aboard and create a more positive image of Afghans to the international community.So that in time, the Afghan girl in Afghanistan who wanted to continue going to school, can do so without a threat to her life. Afghans need to focus and educate each other to be successful, now wouldn't that make our Afghan forefathers proud who use to live in such a country?

Afghan Weddings: Whats the Cost? Whats the Purpose?

Should I cry or smile? I know that at my wedding, I couldn’t stop smiling. It was one of the happiest days of my life. Brides in the Afghan culture are told many things: look shy for the cameras, don’t laugh too loud, let your husband sit first and stay standing (shows the audience whose boss), make sure groom provides a lot of gold jewelry , etc. The list goes on. These days in the states, weddings are still momentous events and glamorous but also a competition between families and friends. I guess this phenomenon is the same in every culture (just look at Hollywood weddings!)

The thing that is truly getting out of hand is the expense ( some men can't afford to even get married, given current demands for an Afghan wedding. It's even more rigorous in Afghanistan when a dowry is placed on the girl, which is not an islamic practice, rather a cultural one, as Islam only has 'Mahr- a gift in any form given only to the bride by the groom) and the lack of focus on the main significance: a joining of two souls and hearts, of two people and their families to live a healthy, happy and prosperous life. If one has the desire to spend thousands and even millions on their wedding (hey it’s a once in a lifetime event! Although nowadays with separations and divorce, maybe it’s a two time event for some) and they can afford it without taking loans, then have the dream wedding!

I know my wedding was very glamorous and expensive (thank God no loans!) (my husband still refuses to tell me how much it cost). The problem with expensive weddings is when one has to ‘borrow’ or loan money to have the event, which is way beyond their means and they spend years back trying to pay it off. After the wedding, is when life truly starts and the expenses rack up. Whether it’s buying a home (one will need a down payment), a car (yes, your wife will need reliable transportation), going out for dinners and general entertainment (this is the time to get to know each other and have the freedom to travel without responsibilities, i.e. kids), buying gifts, furniture for your new place, health insurance, and If you add babies to the mix, well then you can do the math!

All I am saying, is that expenses don’t stop after the wedding, if anything they increase dramatically (hint: men get a stable career and save!). The purpose of this post is not to scare men or women away from weddings and marriage, if anything, I want everyone to have a great marriage (it’s probably the best thing in this world- a happy marriage). The purpose is to be realistic and be aware. Most arguments that happen with newlyweds is about management of money ( i.e. whose the spender and whose the saver?) , so be prepared to not disappointment yourself or your spouse.

In the Afghan culture, it is usually the groom who pays for everything, starting with the engagment party. These events are practiced by Afghans residing in the states and in Afghanistan. I just had a family member get married in Afghanistan and the cost was about the same to have a 300 guests wedding in the states or maybe slightly more, as one has to consider airfare for international travel for each member.

Here are some of the cultural events that go hand in hand with a wedding:

This event is almost as big as the wedding will be. Some couples will hold it at the girl’s residence, with both sides contributing to the cost or in a more traditional setting, the male pays for everything, starting with the engagement party. Some engagements are held in a hall or hotel ballroom. I had an engagement in a hotel ballroom with about 300 guests, so it all depends on ability and what is desirable ( we had guests coming in from out of state and my husband has a big family so it was beneficial to celebrate in a nice big formal setting). There is the dress, cake, flowers, invitations, really all the things that are needed in a wedding. Although with the engagement, the girl gets beautiful jewels too! I was presented with an engagement ring (we were getting engaged after all!). The bride is presented with beautiful jewels from members in the family and close family friends. Some couples have a nikkah (Islamic marriage ceremony performed at the engagement party) and some couples perform the nikkah ceremony the day of the wedding reception. The reasoning behind the choice is usually a personal one, however, it most likely so that the couple can “freely” interact with each other if it is done during the engagement period. This becomes a bit of a religious argument, as the nikkah ceremony makes you wife and husband before God, so if the engagement is broken off, one would have to get a legal/ religious divorce, however the process changes if the couple has not consummated the marriage. I would think it is best to perform the nikkah when the wedding takes place as then you live together and your duties as husband and wife can be performed as one wishes without restrictions. The period between engagement and actual wedding can be short as a week or long as it needs to be for the groom to afford a wedding. Sometimes, both sides designate a timeframe depending on school / work schedules or when their parents feel it is the right time.

Henna Night:
This is almost equivalent to the a bachelorette’s party. The Henna night is usually hosted the night before in a hotel ballroom or the bride’s parents home if it is large enough to host all the ladies that will be coming to the wedding. The Henna night can also be done on the night of the wedding as more modern couples practice. The Henna is brought in by the groom’s family (usually his aunts, sisters, cousins, anyone on the groom side). The night is filled with music, dancing and great food and desserts, which is catered often. The Afghan meal usually is buffet style which include main dishes like kabuli-palo, lamb and chicken kababs, salad, vegetables dishes, etc.

Usually done before the wedding reception. The nikkah takes place with the bride, groom, both sets of parents and close family members and also a religious Muslim authority , such as Mullah to perform the the islamic marriage ceremony. Both sides decide on the amount of ‘Mahr’ which is a bridal gift given to the bride from the groom (usually in the form of money). Consent is asked and given by the bride and groom three times in the presence of witnesses. Sometimes, the bride’s father can act as a guardian if the bride gives him that authority. After the ceremony, attending guests receive a beautiful wrapped gift box filled with sweets, usually frosted almonds.

This event, depending on the number of family and guest attending the ceremony requires a different space then the wedding hall. I had mine in a hotel ballroom that was especially designed for the nikkah ceremony. In the Afghan culture the bride wears a beautiful and modest green gown with a green shawl. The Quran is recited and a special prayer is performed for the new couple. Afterwards, everyone congratulates the couple and their families and the bride goes to change into her white wedding gown to go to the reception where hundreds of people have come to celebrate.

The Afghan bride wears a white wedding gown, given their family background, most gowns tend to be more modest then American style gowns. It usually has sleeves and the back is covered ( I had my mom add sleeves and a back to my strapless, mermaid cut gown) although there are some brides who dress in all traditional Afghan Kuchi Dress or in all American gowns with arms and back showing. The events I am explaining are what moderate Afghans do, who tend to have a more traditional background. The bride is given more jewelry and both couples read the Quran together under a shawl. Some modern Afghan couples do a bride and groom dance ( not like ballroom dancing!) to upbeat Afghan music where they don’t really touch each other. It is important to say that in Afghanistan, the bride does not dance on her wedding day (remember she is leaving her dad's home for the first time and going to her husband's home, so she is to be sad! I might have disappointed a couple of people when I couldn't stop dancing at my wedding! Some cultural traits change over time, especially if they don't hold true always. I mean come on, who is suppose to be sad on their wedding day?! I guess if it's forced upon you, then maybe.....Which brings me to a very important point, marriage can not ever be valid Islamically, if the bride and groom do not consent to it.

As aforementioned, the bride is asked three differet times if she agrees to the marriage and if she says no, then a nikkah can not take place. We hear about forced marriages in Afghanistan all the time and in reality, if the girl has not agreed, then it is not a valid marriage islamically. I love the Afghan culture, however, we are muslims first and must practice what is in our faith before personal customs, as it is the religion who should influence culture.

So back to the wedding: The wedding usually has some famous / well known Afghan band or solo artist and plays throughout the night. The bride and groom are first to get food in a buffet style dinner ( think lamb and chicken kababs, different types of rice, salad, veggies dishes, mantoo- afghan dumplings and much more) while the cameras and family look on. After dinner, the bride can change into a more traditional afghan dress (kuchi dress) and the henna is brought out by the groom’s family all wearing kuchi dresses. Of course, there is the cake cutting and final goodbye to everyone. Gifts are usually in the form of checks or cash (it used to be boxed gifts, but more and more people understand the expense of things and starting a new life, so money is greatly appreciated instead of, say, a toaster! Then, it’s off to a honeymoon! I know we had a beautiful honeymoon in a different country, however, not all families and couples do. Most couples spend the next few days visiting people and attending more parties to celebrate their union! If you have any afghan friend who is married, trust me, they will be more than happy to show you their beloved wedding video to you of all the aforementioned in action!

Advice on weddings: Be aware of costs, stay true to the purpose (beautiful union of you and your spouse) and incorporate Afghan culture in the festivities!

Here is an article from NPR about Afghan weddings:


Article written by Afghan Wife
Email: Afghan.wife@gmail.com