On an exceptionally warm Monday morning this past January, Mahnaz and I traipsed from McCullough Student Center across the Middlebury lawn below the chapel to Munroe, her backpack drooping with the weight of packages addressed to professors in the religion, political science, and sociology/anthropology departments. She works part-time in the campus mailroom, in the bowels of McCullough, and outings like this, which take her into the fresh Vermont air, are the highlight of the job. When we arrived in the Munroe basement, she and I sorted the brown interoffice envelopes and bundles of missives from farther afield into the appropriate boxes. She didn’t really need my help; I had tagged along because I wanted to learn more about her.
Mahnaz and I had begun e-mailing each other several months earlier, and in the past few weeks, our messages had become more frequent. I was now assigned to be her writing mentor, and we were working together on a new article for the AWWP site. As we walked through the melting snow, 45-degree air rustling the fringes of the bright yellow hijab covering her hair and framing her face, we couldn’t ignore the topic of the weather. She told me that Kabul, where she went to high school and where most of her family still lives, has four seasons, including a snowy winter. She described the city’s ancient shrines and hideaway gardens—it’s a place I should visit one day, she assured me. One thing Kabul is missing, however, is a colorful autumn. “I always wanted to live in a place with bright foliage,” she said.
Mahnaz knew very little about Middlebury when she applied for admission, and she didn’t have a clue about the Vermont climate. “I didn’t even know where Vermont was,” she recalled. When she arrived in the fall of 2009, she was thrilled by the bright fall colors, calling them “a dream come true.” This inadvertent wish fulfillment came on the heels of her many years of hard work and perseverance in the face of incredible obstacles—not the least of which was the Taliban. “I remember the night they came. There was lots of gunfire,” she told me. “Some people were happy. They said the Taliban would have a really good government. But then after six months, they started torturing people, especially Shias.”
In the Herat neighborhood where her family lived, the men developed the habit of sleeping on the roofs of their houses to stave off the Taliban, who would raid and steal after the sun went down. One night, a neighbor’s house was broken into anyway. “They had guns,” Mahnaz remembered. “They stole everything, and they threatened the family. They said, ‘We will come for your girl.’” This last threat sent that family, members of the Shia minority, like Mahnaz’s family, packing for Iran. Girls kidnapped by the Taliban were being raped and tortured, and in Afghan culture, if a daughter is violated, a family loses its honor. Mahnaz’s family migrated to Iran soon after. But first, Mahnaz’s father decided her oldest sister, who was 15 at the time, should get married. It would be safer, he reasoned, and the decision was in keeping with Afghan culture. Mahnaz’s own mother and many women in the family had married at around 14 or 15. (This tradition is one reason why only 4 percent of Afghan girls attend high school.)
A huge weight lifted when the Rezaies arrived in Iran. “We were free,” Mahnaz said. The threats to their lives were gone, and Mahnaz enjoyed far more equality as a schoolgirl in Iran. But after a time, the cultural discrimination became intolerable. Her father was paid less for his civil engineering work because he was Afghan, and ultimately, he realized there was no future for his children there—Afghans weren’t allowed to attend college in Iran. So after the fall of the Taliban, in 2001, they returned to Afghanistan. By this time, her oldest brother, who had stayed behind in Herat during the family’s emigration, had secured a well-paying job at an American nongovernmental organization (NGO). Since her father couldn’t find work, this brother, now the family breadwinner, wielded considerable power in the family. To Mahnaz’s despair, he was more conservative than her father, whose years in Iran had exposed him to more liberal ideas regarding gender roles. According to Elisabeth Lehr of AWWP, this is a common family dynamic. “Brothers often seem to be the stumbling block,” she said. “My guess is it’s because they come from a generation that’s been faced almost exclusively with war.”
This imperious brother insisted all of the Rezaie women wear the burqa in public. A teenager now, Mahnaz flat out refused to put on the blue, full-body religious cloak, igniting a months-long family argument. “The question of wearing a burqa was becoming a nightmare,” Mahnaz recalled in an AWWP post in July 2010. “I imagined it as a blue ghost that wanted to hold me in a hole where I was set apart from real world, where I needed to hide my beauty. I would have no identity because no one could really see my face.” Formulating her arguments and standing up to her brother strengthened Mahnaz’s independence and stoked her defiance. She didn’t agree that women shouldn’t be seen out in the world, that the streets of Herat were too dangerous for her kind, or that if she just gave the burqa a try, she would love it.
It was during this time that her belief in equal rights for Afghan women blossomed. “I argued confidently, ‘I have decided to go to work. How can I work while I am wearing a burqa or niqab? I wish to learn driving soon. How should I see and find my way while I am covering my face? Don’t you notice that Islam gave me the right not to cover my face and you are insisting against it?’” Eventually, she won; it was a victory that had a ripple effect on her life. “I had made up my mind to stand against any decision that limited me,” she wrote. “By refusing to wear the burqa, I began to realize a most important lesson. We are the ones who empower ourselves. If we consider ourselves weak, others will consider us weaker.”