Every day, more than 100 women of Afghan ancestry meet at a home in New York City.
The women learn together in rooms that are crowded with chairs and small tables.
They come to learn about the necessities of life in the United States, such as getting a permit to drive a car, or reading and writing in English. They also can get help with something as complex as dealing with an abusive husband.
The program is a project of a women’s support group called Women for Afghan Women (WAW).
The attendees are a mixture of single, married and divorced women. Some are new arrivals to the U.S., while others have been here for several years. Their advisors and teachers are mostly Afghan-Americans who are naturalized U.S. citizens.
WAW was formed in the Queens area of New York before the September 11, 2001 attacks. Its aim is to help Afghan women learn to read and stop violence in their families.
The group receives money from the federal and state governments. WAW expanded its program after the U.S.-led invasion of Afghanistan. It launched efforts to educate the women and discuss community fears.
An estimated 20,000 Afghan families live in and around New York City. That number comes from Afghan consulate officials and local Islamic centers.
Traditionally, the Afghan community has been a patriarchal society, leaving women with less control. That can lead to physical abuse, fewer chances for an education, and other issues because of a lack of rights.
WAW participants learn the basics of life in America, such as getting a driver's license or reading and writing English. But they also receive help with more difficult issues, such as how to deal with an abusive spouse. (Credit: WAW)
Manizha Naderi, WAW's director, said, "We're trying to make sure Afghan women are safe. Our goal is for women to have access to education, justice, so they can be normal citizens."
The group also wants to change old customs. Naderi explained that it has not been easy to stop years of gender inequality.
"We work with the communities — not just women, but with the families — because Afghanistan is a patriarchal society, and women don't want to leave their families. They just want to be safe within their families," Naderi said.
Sitara Momand ended her marriage and came to New York in 2013 with a young daughter.
"I was married to a very violent husband," Momand told VOA.
In Afghanistan, she and her husband lived with her husband’s parents. She experienced violence from both her husband and his parents.
“I left Afghanistan and went to Pakistan to escape the violence. Then I came to America," she said.
Hired by group
Sitara Momand heard about WAW after arriving in New York. She reached out to the group for help. She needed money. WAW gave her a job cleaning their space. Later, Momand found her own place to live.
Skills also are taught to younger Afghan-Americans in WAW's Young Leadership Program. Participants, some as young as 15, are taught about women's rights and empowerment. (Credit: WAW)
"WAW helped me get public benefits, helped getting my child in school, and helped me learn to read and write in English," said Momand.
She continues to work at WAW and has a second job in a restaurant. She said she was very happy to be living in America.
Yalda Afif, a program planner at WAW, deals with many women who have been abused by their husbands and their husbands’ parents.
"I have seen terrible abuse, sexual abuse by their partners," Afif told VOA. But these women never told anyone about the abuse.
Then, after being in Queens for a while, the women began to trust WAW. Afif said she “learned more about what was really going on, the root of the problems.”
She added, "We try to make the family understand that they cannot control everything; they have to share with their wives.” If a woman is empowered, and gets a job, for example, she is helping to remove some of the pressure from the man, Afif explained.
Important basic skills
In addition to helping women get jobs and places to live, WAW places great attention on education.
The group assisted Faozia Noory, a naturalized U.S. citizen who has been in the United States for eight years. It helped her prepare for her citizenship exam and helped her get a driving permit.
Noory is happily married with four children. "This is home, sweet home, for me,” she said. “I like the feeling of being safe."
WAW also offers the Young Leadership Program where it teaches skills to younger Afghan-Americans. The program is mostly young women, some as young as 15-years-old.
"Some had been forced into marriages they didn't want," said Naderi.
"We teach them empowerment, how to ask for their rights, what their rights are, what the rights of women in Islam are, and what the rights of the family are. And, you know, education is the key to it, to everything,” Naderi said.
She noted that, since the girls’ leadership program began in 2005, not one girl in the community has been forced to marry.
What about Afghanistan?
WAW has expanded its programs to Afghanistan. It has child support centers in 13 Afghan provinces and provides legal support to abused women through its center in Kabul.
Because it tries to promote acceptance of women in the labor force, the organization has struck a nerve in the male-dominated society.
"We've been targeted by the Taliban," Naderi said. "In 2014, two of the WAW staff were kidnapped by the Taliban.” She said the Taliban released the women in 2015 because of help from local Afghan communities. “Change can be very difficult," she said.
I’m Jill Robbins. And I’m Alice Bryant.
Bernard Shusman wrote this story for VOANews.com. Alice Bryant adapted it for Learning English. George Grow was the editor.
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Words in This Story
spouse - n. someone who is married : a husband or wife
divorced - adj. a word describing someone whose marriage has legally ended
consulate - n. the building where a consul lives and works
patriarchal - adj. cultures or societies that are controlled by men
province - n. any one of the large parts that some countries are divided into
access - v. a way of being able to use or get something
benefit - n. a good or helpful result or effect
strike a nerve - expression. to offend or anger someone by discussing a certain subject