Use Your Powers Good

By Vy Nguyen

Nahida M. ’18 is a senior at OES. That sentence might have been simple to say, however, her journey has been so much more than that.

She got accepted into OES in 2013, however, because of visa problems, she couldn’t attend OES until 2014. Since then, she has proved to be one of the most striking women to ever study at OES, speaking at the United Nations conferences twice, being one of the leaders of Gender Lens and having her article posted on the Afghan Women’s Writing Project. I had the fortune of talking to Nahida today, and hearing her explain further into how feminism influences her life and her world view as a feminist.

I actually got to talk to Nahida when it was pretty late during the day, and I was worried that my presence might cause inconvenience to her, but she invited me in with a warm smile and welcomed me to her room. To be honest, my visit to Nahida’s to me was more like a conversation between two sisters or friends, not an interviewer and an interviewee.

I started the interview with the question. “What is your favorite word?”

Nahida laughed. “I don’t know, really. Maybe curiosity, motivation slash inspire? No, make it curiosity, motivation and inspire. These are the three words that just like, connect with me.

“I feel like curiosity is important, because if you don’t have curiosity, you won’t have a chance to improve or bring changes. Curiosity makes us ask questions, and when we do, we question things that have been practiced our whole lives, and that makes us grow as people.

“And motivation, too. You know, I love athletics, and there are other sports that I suck at, but there some sports that I find myself really good at. Motivation not only applies on my life and my athletic life but also on my artistic life, my academic life, my social life and things that push me to do things.

“Inspire? You know, I just like how it sounds. Inspire. In-spire. You get what I mean, right? People that inspire me, they are really, really cool.”

“Who has inspired you?”

Nahida paused for a moment, her eyes truly thoughtful. After a while, she answered. “I have a lot of role models. As a feminist, there are specifically people that I think are great woman. One of the people who I admire is Eleanor Roosevelt, because she went out of the way in a time period that no one normally thought about the issues that she did, and she was revolutionary. She fought for women’s rights, human rights and those stuffs kind of inspire me, and inform me to push my way and my limits out and to get things done.

“In my personal life, my mom inspires me a lot. I know it sounds cliche but this, this extraordinary woman who during the war in Afghanistan, she couldn’t get a chance to go to schools, and she grew up illiterate. Because of that, she’s always wanted to become a doctor, and that didn’t turn out because we have decades of civil war that was happening, and it was really hard for girls to get education. But when my sisters and I were born in our family, one of the most important things for us was that my mom let us do and let us have the freedom about whatever we wanted to do and make decisions in our life, just because she couldn’t have done that in the earlier years of her life. So she let us go to school of our own choice, she let us wear the types of clothes that we wanted to wear, she let us become activists in our lives. That inspired me to just go out there and fight for other people’s rights, the people who don’t get opportunities that I do, the opportunities that my parents gave me.

“There are thousands of girls in the world who do not have access to education or any kinds of things like freedom or human rights, basic human rights or the right to get education. My mom has helped me grow through all that things. My parents are extraordinary for Afghan parents because of their beliefs and their trusts in me and my sisters. Growing up, I struggled through my life because I did not look like most Afghan, I did not have the darker features that they had. So my parents were there, helping me out in hard situations. My dad also inspired me, but he had had a lot more opportunities and privileges as a male. Being a male in Afghanistan, he could go to school, it was no problem because he was a man. He did face ethnic discrimination, but that didn’t stop him.

“There are other people who have influenced me. For example, the other day, in Gender Lens, I saw these freshmen coming in and saying that they were feminists. You know, that makes me proud of just being a part of that. There are times where girls our age, they were afraid to use the word feminism. These freshmen, the future women, they inspire me and I just, appreciate that.”

“How do you define feminism?”

“Oh, that’s a good question. Feminism for me means the belief in equality, whether that is in sexuality or race or political views or economy. I mean, I would fight as much for our boys’ right as much as I would for girls’ rights.

“But, let’s face it. Historically, women have been oppressed for so long, and for me to say that I’m a feminist and I want to fight for women’s rights, I just feel responsible as a woman to do so because for years, for centuries, we have been oppressed by the other gender. I like the other gender as much as I do to my gender because there are amazing men and boys who are great people, and things are changing, so feminism doesn’t necessarily mean I hate the other gender. I just want to make that clear because I do like boys [laugh]

“Last year, I took a class in modern India and China, and in my class, I learnt that many female celebrities in India are fear of the word feminism so they don’t call themselves feminists. They just don’t understand what feminism means, it’s disappointing that they think so because there are men who are feminists.”

Nahida smiled and concluded. “Feminists just means to believe in equality, whether economic, political, or whatever kind of quality people need to be.”

“I heard that just a six months ago, you were sitting inside a UN conference, voicing your thoughts to hundreds of people and changing the views that need to be. How does it feel to be there, especially when you were only eighteen?”

Nahida laughed out loud. “How do you know that?”

“You are all over the Internet. I even found your speech at the UN!” I simply said. Nahida might not know how awed I was when I found about her presence at UN, and that just made me respect this amazing girl even more.

“I actually attended twice, one, in my freshman year before I came to OES, and two, yes, just a few months ago.

“Do you know the He for She campaign? The United Nations was launching that women’s campaign, and I was there, I was actually at the UN. I was a part of the launching program. I spoke about how men can affect this woman movement. Men had so much power and privileges in this world, and they can use that to come and defend women’s rights because we, women, are still in disadvantage points. Women are this class of citizens that have been, for so long, taught to be second-class citizens and that’s just unfair because we’re just as human as anyone else, and it’s crazy that people think that. When I went for a speech at the UN, it was about my dad coming in defense of my mom when she gave birth to three daughters back to back.  It was almost like a sin for a woman to do so. I was the third one, and it felt so bad to feel unwanted by your own family, especially my grandpa, that’s the guy who wanted my dad to marry again because my mom gave birth to another woman. But I turned out to be his favorite grandchild because I was just cool [laugh]. His views changed, but it was my dad who came, defended my mom and changed everyone else’s views because my mom didn’t have the power then. So as much as she fought, they still pushed her down and like “Shut up, you’re a woman and don’t do this”, but when a man came in defense of her, they were like “OK, this man’s voice has a lot more weight”, and they were like “okay, we accept that”. And so in cases like that, it makes such a huge difference for me to step in and defend women’s rights. So I came and talked about that, and I was really nervous because I was fifteen, only fifteen, and for me to speak in front of a big audience like that at the UN, a global platform it was just like, I was red, and when I turned red my eyes turned green, and I just turned into this red cookie and I was just like AAH.

“One thing I recognized over the years of being here is that I do well speaking with people you don’t know in the audience, so in the next time, when I spoke about economic empowerment of women, I felt good, and I felt empowered to go and represent my country. But still, I was on a panel, and other people were professionals who were like: there was a famous photographer from Bangladesh, he went around the world and traveled and his job was that, and there was this graduate from Columbia University whose work was to focus on gender equality in history. And me, a high school student, sitting next to all these professionals and talking.”

“That surely must have been an extraordinary experience. So after a long time of living in the US, seeing how woman movements are very focused and females have a strong voice in the society, what would you do now to change the situations in Afghanistan?”

“Back when I was in Afghanistan, when men bothered me on the street, I was violent towards them. I just punched them in the face. I didn’t wear headscarves, I didn’t do many things that other women do. It was kind of radical, but they need to see that change.

“I try to be the change I want to see in the world. You know that quote by Mohatma Gandhi, right? But I’ve come to conclusions that for you to make a change, you need to be proximate to the problem. When I was in Afghanistan, I was a lot more passionate about my role as a woman to fight these problems and challenges that women face in our society. But like the past years that I’ve been away from that problem, OES has given me such a safeguard and a place to not worry about what people think about me. I mean, I still do think about that, it’s just that I don’t have to worry about people judging my race, my femininity, the way I dress and stuff like that, it just helps me so much but at the same time, I want to experience what the other women experience in the world, because I want to be there in solidarity with them.

“So I have kind of drifted away from the cause that I have been fighting for my whole life,but I still try to remember things that affected my life when I was at a younger age, things like.. Malala. You know, she got shot in the face because she wanted to fight for women’s education. Malala is like my sister because her story is not just her story, it’s my older sister’s story. During the Taliban, she had to go to an underground school, a secret school because it was illegal for women to go to school. Or when I heard about 283 women and girls kidnapped in Nigeria in 2012. I was thirteen then, and it was a shock to me. I couldn’t sleep, I couldn’t do anything because I just constantly heard about that, and I wondered how the world was supposed to deal with this, because it was just horrible.

“I’ve become less attentive to my goals, but I still like to try to do things. The amount of change that I want to make, I haven’t been able to make, but I try, and I don’t know. That’s how things are going to turn out.”

“It has been very pleasant talking to you, Nahida. Do you have any advice for any reader who is reading this?”

“Only this: always, always, use your powers good.”


“Thank you, Nahida.”


Interesting links:
Nahida’s writing to the Afghan Women’s Writing Project

Nahida’s speech at United Nations conference in 2017 (32:49 to 39:10)

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