In the NGO Women for Afghan Women’s Center, located in Fresh Meadows, New York, immigrant women from Afghanistan can learn English, prepare for driving and citizenship tests, hear about their rights and discuss issues like hate crimes or domestic violence.
WAW’s clients usually immigrated to the United States to follow or join Afghan spouses after an arranged marriage, Naheed Bahram, the program director explained. Bahram was born in Kabul immigrated to the U.S. in 2006 to study and move in with her husband.
WAW’s clients’ lives often resemble Afghanistan’s patriarchal brand of domestic life, as they spend most of their time at home, the young Afghan immigrant woman said. Some Afghan women did not know their home address or speak English after years in the United States. Between 85 to 95 percent of WAW’s clients have never been to school, and few knew how to vote. But on November 8th, about ten women voted for the first time. Half of the group did so at the Edith K. Bergtraum Elementary School located in Flushing.
A few days after the elections, the center remained as busy as ever. Around a dozen children played in a room full of toys and child-sized furniture. Focused but smiling, women sat quietly in the classrooms.
In the basement, the students worked in smaller groups with volunteers, studying around manuals meant to prepare them for the citizenship test. Near the door, a young woman with bleached hair sat beside an Afghan woman, in front of a textbook opened to a section titled “Declaration of Independence.”
“It will not change,” the volunteer said. “This is the country of free speech.” They spoke about President-elect Donald Trump’s administration. “It’s only four years, maybe eight.” Sitting in her office, Bahram looked composed as always but said that all the women who voted, including her, were very disappointed by the election results. Because Hillary Clinton did not win despite having won the popular vote, some of them felt their vote did not count.
The WAW community also worried about a backlash on Muslim after the women heard about the surge in hates crimes on television. “They are terrified because most of them wear hijab and walk outside with it,” Bahram said. She added that one of the women asked a neighbor to bring her son to the doctor because she was afraid of leaving her home. Another client stopped coming to class because her husband does not allow her to go outside anymore. Bahram found out during a phone call that he worried that something would happen to his wife.
Bahram also noted that a woman asked her if she should change the way she dresses up and stop wearing her hijab. “That was the first time in my life I saw her with jeans,” Bahram said.
Long before the elections, the women who visit the center had had their hijab pulled off and had been called names, Bahram said. “They are too scared to report it,” she added, her melodic Afghan accent adding power to her words. Last September, after the FBI identified an Afghan as a suspect in the bombings in New York and New Jersey, 20 to 25 women were expected for classes at the center, but only seven came. “They were scared to go out of the house,” Bahram said.
Bahram had not heard of any hate crimes against WAW clients since the elections. “It’s just the fear so far, and hopefully nothing will happen,” she said. “But that’s the thing: you don’t want to live in fear. People run away from that, from Afghanistan.”
Sitting in the office next door to Bahram’s, Shgoofa Rahmani, one of the caseworkers, This Election Day, she said she felt confident her candidate would succeed. “I never thought America would vote for something like that, for a person with that kind of behavior,” she said, referring to Donald Trump.
“I was disappointed by the fact that there is a lot of people that do like or maybe favor what [Donald Trump] said,” Rahmani added. She was born in Bagram, grew up in Kabul and came to the U.S. at 20, after an arranged marriage.
Regardless of the outcome, Rahmani said Election Day mattered because the women accomplished something significant. “They were so happy and hopeful, and they felt important because they were a big part of that process,” she added.
A lot of women feel helpless when they first come to the center and have forgotten strong they are, Rahmani said. Most have lived through the Taliban regime and the U.S. war in Afghanistan. Some of them also endured the Afghan-Soviet war and 1990s civil war.
“Leaving your home, being in a new environment, you somehow lose this strength,” Rahmani added. “We are here to help them regain it and be on their own.” To continue fighting for their rights, dozens of WAW clients and their children followed Bahram and Rahmani to Washington on January 21 to participate in the Women’s march.
“Going to the march was a wonderful experience for me,” Rahmani said. “From growing up in the midst of war, I’m not very comfortable within a big crowd, because bombing and rockets usually happened in places with a lot of people. We were always told to stay away from crowded places and especially rallies and protests.” After living in the United States for more than 20 years, Rahmani still fears big crowds. But the march was different.
“It was the first time that I had the opportunity to take part in something so big and meaningful,” she said. “I was nervous going, but once I got there, everything changed, despite the million of people I felt an incredible peace and calmness. I was so proud to stand for something that meant a great deal for my daughters and me.”