A Voice for Afghan Women

Yalda Afif, case manager (left), inconversation with Naheed Bahram (right), WAW’s program director (Photo by Ramaa Raghavan for Voices of NY)

Yalda Afif, case manager (left), in conversation with Naheed Bahram (right), WAW’s program director (Photo by Ramaa Reddy Raghavan for Voices of NY)

Last year while Lina was cooking for Nowruz, the Afghan New Year, she was accosted both verbally and physically in the kitchen by her stepson. The attack left her with bad neck and chest bruises. Soon after, Lina, 24, an Afghan immigrant, shared this experience at a women’s circle meeting at Women for Afghan Women (WAW), a grass-roots organization that advocates for women, in Fresh Meadows, Queens.

Lina, who would reveal only her middle name for fear of being recognized, arrived in this country a few months prior to the incident, speaking only Dari. Married to a man 20 years her senior, she was kept prisoner in her own home by his 20-year-old son.

Upon hearing her story, WAW taught her some rudimentary steps to take in an emergency. A while later, when the physical abuse recurred, Lina ran to the closest bathroom, dialed 911 and yelled, “help me, help me.” The police arrived and she was later issued an order of protection. The stepson was asked to vacate the house for a month.

Lina (Photo by Ramaa Raghavan for Voices of NY)

Lina (Photo by Ramaa Reddy Raghavan for Voices of NY)

Begun as a community outreach effort a few months before 9/11, WAW now serves Afghan women in New York through its community center in Queens. It also offers family counseling and women’s shelters in Afghanistan and conducts advocacy work in Washington D.C.

For many women, the Fresh Meadows site is a haven where they can take English and other classes and receive support. In Afghan societies, situations like the one Lina endured are common, says Yalda Afif, WAW’s case manager and translator. Lina’s husband, who worked long hours in a restaurant, delegated his son to supervise his wife, a not-uncommon circumstance in Afghan households which cling to age-old customs from back home that are largely tribal, conservative and patriarchal.

“Basically they are keeping her inside a cage,” said Afif. “They don’t want her to make friends and create a support group.”

Throughout this ordeal, Lina’s in-laws sided with the husband and even encouraged him to file for divorce.

Lina, who now has a 5-month-old boy, says her case is in family court.

“They got a notice from court that if the abuse does not stop they will take the baby from her and they will have to live separate lives,” said Afif.

Even though she was threatened by family, Lina refused to withdraw her case. Her stepson has so far remained silent.

Naheed Bahram, WAW’s program director, says many women of Lina’s age get married with promises of a better life in America than the one to which they are accustomed in Afghanistan. But upon arrival, these women, many of whom are illiterate, experience isolation as they are estranged from their own families, are clueless about their rights, and under the control of an authoritative man.

“It is very normal in Afghanistan to beat a women, even your sister. And women believe, like in Afghanistan, ‘If I leave my husband here my kids go directly to the husband’.”

Afghan women attending WAW's ESL class (Photo by Ramaa Raghavan for Voices of NY)

Afghan women attending WAW’s ESL class (Photo by Ramaa Reddy Raghavan for Voices of NY)

Bahram, an Afghan immigrant, moved here in 2006 after getting married to an Afghan American. Wanting to connect with her community she started volunteering with WAW. She was shocked with what she saw.

“I started taking women to appointments and found women could not speak English, did not know their address or telephone number, and they had been here for 10 years!”

Initially she says nobody would mention domestic violence even though she sensed its presence. To get the women to open up she presented the material indirectly.

“We started a workshop about how to get help in an abusive situation without involving the police,” said Bahram. “After the workshop of five women, two walked into my office and said they were victims – one for 18 years and the other for 21 years and they had kids who were 16 and 17.”

Last year, Bahram says WAW reported 53 cases of domestic violence, some to the police and some to NYC’s Family Justice Center in Queens.

Tahmina, 53, dressed in all black, has a similar story. She immigrated to this country five years ago with her husband, a physically abusive man, to live with her daughters who were the breadwinners. Wanting to remarry, her husband said the word ‘divorce’ three times during their Eid festivities. He left for Afghanistan, returned single and expected to re-enter the house so he could live rent-free, insisting that he had not really intended to divorce his wife. But according to Sharia law, his words amounted to a divorce.

Afif, WAW’s case manager, solicited advice from the imam who concurred that Tahmina is now divorced, but the husband and his family still refuse to accept the decision. He currently lives next door with a relative. Meanwhile, Afif is looking to legalize Tahmina’s divorce through the New York legal system so she can call herself a divorced woman.

WAW's Community Center in Fresh Meadows, Queens (Photo by Ramaa Raghavan for Voices of NY)

WAW’s Community Center in Fresh Meadows, Queens (Photo by Ramaa Reddy Raghavan for Voices of NY)

“The family Tahmina married into is Pashtun and when it comes to the woman’s life, they forget the rules of Islam and say ‘Let him come into the house’,” said Afif.

Bahram has over the years developed a close relationship with three Afghan imams in her neighborhood as they are the first recourse in any mediation. In Afghanistan, family disputes are traditionally resolved by an ad-hoc counsel of elders, which can include imams, known as a jirga.

In 2013, the imams in Flushing, Queens, received training in domestic violence prevention so that the issue could become a regular part of their conversation with men. Through an interfaith group, Bahram organized an American imam from Manhattan to lecture the imams for three hours daily, over four days.

“The training helps the imams approach the subject in a safe way so as to not ostracize men,” said Bahram.

Mohammad Sherzad, imam of the Dar Al Taqwa Islamic Center in Flushing, Queens, says that men who abuse women are not interpreting the scriptures correctly and that the Koran teaches men to be respectful toward women. Sherzad says he talks about domestic violence in general terms during gatherings and shared part of his sermon.

“Allah is everywhere and what you do he sees,” said Sherzad. “There are many women who do not talk but seek help and suffer but the man should understand that God is there, he is present everywhere and he sees what men do with women.”

Naheed Bahram and Mohammad Sherzad, imam of the Dar Al Taqwa Islamic Center in Flushing, Queens (Photo by Ramaa Raghavan)

Naheed Bahram and Mohammad Sherzad, imam of the Dar Al Taqwa Islamic Center in Flushing, Queens (Photo by Ramaa Reddy Raghavan)

The initial training sessions were organized with the help of Connect, an organization that fights domestic violence. Bahram would like this to continue, but the issue is funding. She also needs more resources to expand her skeletal staff, who she says are overworked. What’s more, since 2014, she says there has been an increase in Afghans arriving on special immigrant visas given to those who served with the U.S. military.

WAW’s funding comes from private donations, but support for education programs like girls leadership and tutoring comes from the city, which is tied to census data.

The 2010 census estimates the Afghan population in NYC to be about 6,000. But Bahram believes it is closer to 20,000, based on consular data. She says many Afghans, including herself, do not participate in the census as the form recognizes them as Asian.

WAW operates out of a house that provides the necessary support and helps women connect with the community. All rooms have been refurbished into classrooms or offices.

“For years these women have been at home and when they come here it is like heaven,” said Bahram. “The women’s circle ends at 1 p.m. but they stay till 2:30 p.m., till the last moment to pick up their children – they feel safe coming here and talking to each other.”

WAW offers ESL, citizenship, driver’s license, girls leadership, translation and Koran classes taught by volunteers. Jessica Wright, WAW’s education coordinator, is an American who has been with the organization since 2010. She found WAW through New York Cares. Last year she said WAW had about 700 women attendees, with most coming to learn English.

“They are not going to go to a library and sign up for a class as it may be taught by a man,” said Wright. “That’s not an environment that they or their family are comfortable in.”

Wright says WAW’s services are critical, without which these women would be at home without a voice. She recalled Sabera, who after completing the citizenship class, called her brother to recite the “Pledge of Allegiance,” written in her notebook.

“The pride in her voice as she described his pride for her was incredibly moving,” said Wright.

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