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Uprooted and Blooming

Leaving their careers behind, Afghan women found a new role in the U.S.: head of household.

November 14, 2001|NITA LELYVELD | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Before she came to America as a political refugee, Zohra Daoud was the first and only Miss Afghanistan and a star of Afghan radio and television.

Asifa Etemadi was the editor of an Afghan family magazine, with 15 writers under her supervision and her own car and driver.

Kawky Anwar was the vice principal of a prestigious Kabul girls' school named after Malalai, a 19th century Afghan heroine.

When many people think of Afghan women, they visualize only shapes, made formless and featureless by head-to-toe coverings. They think of women under the Taliban--banned from working, banned from learning, in danger if their faces are seen or if their shoes squeak as they walk. They do not picture women like Daoud, who sat reminiscing on a recent morning in her marble-floored Malibu kitchen wearing a stylish short-sleeved knit shirt and designer jeans, looking at 30-year-old photos of herself in lipstick and eye shadow, uncovered on the streets of Herat and Kabul.

The tens of thousands of Afghan refugees who came to America after the Communists took over in the late 1970s and early 1980s included the elite of their homeland, the intelligentsia. The men who came were Afghanistan's ruling class--its cabinet ministers, its experienced civil servants, the heads of its large institutions. The women were often prominent professionals, too.

But though the women seemed to adapt to their altered status--starting over by taking menial jobs, for example, as they studied English in night school--many men simply could not accept the changes. When their once-powerful husbands refused to make the jump from cabinet minister or doctor to cab driver or grocery bagger, the women took on more responsibility in their families. As a result, Afghan American men have often been far less visible in their communities and in public life. And in many an Afghan home here, the traditional balance of power has shifted.

Khalil Rahmany, a Concord clinical psychologist who also left Afghanistan two decades ago in the exodus, wrote his master's thesis and his doctoral dissertation on Afghans' adjustment to America. He sees many Afghan families in his Northern California private practice and in his work at the Portia Bell Hume Behavioral Center in Concord. Afghans call in to his weekly radio show, called "Tabibi Radio," which he translates as "Doctor of the Radio." Over and over, he's heard the same story.

"All of a sudden, there was this role reversal," Rahmany said. "It's men being back in the cave and the women being hunters."

"So many of these highly professional and elite men, they came here with a great deal of knowledge," said Rahmany. "But they become severely depressed. They sit at home. All of a sudden, they find themselves on SSI [Supplemental Security Income], being prescribed Prozac. Basically, it's a great loss."

Certainly, women experienced great losses as well. In the 1950s and 1960s, urban women had made great strides in Afghanistan. In a 1964 constitution, women won equal rights under the law. Wearing a veil was a matter of personal choice, not anyone's edict.

But though they spoke with great pride of their professional accomplishments in Afghanistan, many women didn't let the memories of their former status get in their way in America, said Thomas E. Gouttierre, director of the Center for Afghan Studies at the University of Nebraska at Omaha. "Women, and particularly the younger ones who had been educated in Afghanistan, they were more willing to take a different kind of job, like going to work as a sales clerk or going to work at a supermarket or working at a fast-food place, and they went out and they did that," said Gouttierre. "They weren't so intimidated by what they had been."

Daoud, who exudes elegance and grace and who grew up with a chauffeur and cook and French lessons, landed first in the back of a Virginia bakery, scrubbing floors.

Etemadi, whose Pushtu-language magazine had celebrated Afghan women's progress--each month marking firsts, from the first woman crane operator to the first female cabinet minister--found herself tending the salad bar at a Sizzler.

Anwar, who now lives in Simi Valley, worked in a Canoga Park factory, assembling disk drives. From there, she moved on to receiving, where she unpacked parts, counted them and entered the numbers into a computer.

In some cases, Afghan American women became their family's only breadwinners. Even so, many found the time to look outward, starting organizations to gather other Afghans to celebrate annual festivals such as Eid al-Fitr, the breaking of the fast after Ramadan. They used their skills as mothers and nurturers to bring lonely refugees together. And in recent years, agonized by the suffering of the women and children still in Afghanistan, they also led their communities' fund-raising and humanitarian efforts, arranging for food donations, raising money to dig wells in times of drought.

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