How Wazhma Furmuli is Challenging Conventional Thinking
A millennial who now lives in New York City and maintains deep ties to Afghanistan, Wazhma's story shows how a new generation is bringing fresh perspectives to some of the globe’s most difficult challenges.
Wazhma Furmuli is one of the women profiled in We Are Afghan Women: Voices of Hope, a Bush Institute book that contains an introduction by Laura Bush and that was published in March 2016.
We are excerpting parts of the chapter that tells her journey to highlight the power of education and the effects of globalization on the next generation. The first excerpt, which comes from the introduction to the chapter, puts it well: This young woman already has lived several lifetimes.
From We Are Afghan Women: Voices of Hope:
“I was born in Afghanistan, but my family left the country during the civil war and moved to Pakistan when I I was four years old.”
In a quarter century, Wazhma Furmuli has lived the equivalent of several lifetimes. At age fourteen, she finished high school as a refugee in Pakistan. By age sixteen, she was working in accounting and finance in post-Taliban Kabul. At age eighteen, she was holding down a job, attending night school, and studying English by the light of a gas lamp because her home had no electricity, staying up until four a.m. to review her grammar and vocabulary. She tested well enough to receive a scholarship from the Initiative to Educate Afghan Women and to attend Randolph College in the United States. Today, she works with PricewaterhouseCoopers (PWC). She could be mistaken for any other professional in a conservative office, until she begins telling her story, as she did one afternoon, from a windowless space in New York City.
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What we need is a new whole new generation to change the system in Afghanistan.
During my middle and high school time, I never studied about any religion except Islam. That’s pretty flimsy. How can you think that Islam is the best religion if you don’t know about other religions? What are your other options? And not to expose people to other options is probably not the best way to keep everyone Muslim. Eventually, they are going to find out about other options. You might as well have them be really educated about everything from the beginning. I think that’s where tolerances come from also. I can’t really expect people in Afghanistan to be tolerant toward all the differences in the world if they don’t know anything about those differences.
I can’t really expect people in Afghanistan to be tolerant toward all the differences in the world if they don’t know anything about those differences.
Personally, I think many people would be better Muslims or better Christians if they are the ones who actually choose their own religion. Right now, it’s more a cultural rite to be a Muslim, if you live in a Muslim nation, just like it’s the culture to be a Christian for a lot of people living in other countries. In many places, religion is treated almost the same way as race or anything else you’re born with. You don’t have a choice to change it, or even to understand or to question it.
I really think that not only for Afghanistan, but for all the countries in that region, the only solution is to improve the level and quality of education and offer more opportunities for a liberal arts education. A major reason why we have a lot of issues right now in that part of the world is because we don’t teach our children how to think critically. We don’t teach them to look at other opinions. Even if you teach that everything is black and white, it’s not going to be black and white in the real world. But first, we have to teach our teachers. If teachers don’t know that there’s something called critical thinking, and that they need to teach critical thinking and embrace it in their students, nothing is going to improve.
I really think that not only for Afghanistan, but for all the countries in that region, the only solution is to improve the level and quality of education and offer more opportunities for a liberal arts education. A major reason why we have a lot of issues right now in that part of the world is because we don’t teach our children how to think critically.
I do believe that we can raise the level of education in Afghanistan. The good thing about education is there is always a new group of students coming in. With new students, it’s not like they only know one system and they’re not going to accept a new system. They are new; they don’t have a system.
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One thing that may help these attitudes change is this new generation, as more of them travel abroad and come back more open-minded. I think the American University of Afghanistan also plays a big role, because it has men and women study together, as well as offering a critical-thinking education. All of these people who are exposed to these new ideas and new ways of doing things then go back and have their own families, some of these women choose to work, and I’m sure it has some impact on everybody around them. But it’s going to take a very long time. I think we need more activists. We need more awareness.
But I also see how much my old life and my family’s life – like many of my friends – have changed for the good in the last ten, fifteen years. Even the government, for all its problems, is better. For the first time in our history, we had a peaceful transfer of power. It had never happened before. Even Pakistan doesn’t have peaceful transfers of power, and they haven’t had the years of war that we have. Almost every time in Pakistan, someone stages a coup to take over the government. So changing governments peacefully was a great accomplishment. I think the fact that so much of the Afghan population is so young will also make a huge difference.
Even the government, for all its problems, is better. For the first time in our history, [Afghanistan] had a peaceful transfer of power.
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With my own family, I look at how much they have changed their thinking on the idea of educating girls. It used to be that my mom was the only who really appreciated education. I had a lot of cousins who didn’t make it to school for whatever reason. But after I had different conversations with my uncles and aunts, now I think all my cousins, guys and girls, are in school.
Most of my relatives, even my older sisters, had arranged marriages. There’s still a huge part of the population that follows the custom, especially in the provinces. But I think that’s going to be different in the future. Arranged marriages probably worked at one point, but I don’t think that will be the way I will pursue my life. Choosing a partner that you’re going to be happy with is probably the most important decision of your life. That’s one of the things that having an education, being empowered, knowing who you are, what you are, and what you want in your life frees you to do – make choices.
That’s one of the things that having an education, being empowered, knowing who you are, what you are, and what you want in your life frees you to do – make choices.
Perhaps the most amazing story of choices is one of my older sisters. She was a medical student in Pakistan. Then the school closed, so she couldn’t continue her education. She started working. Then she got married. It was an arranged marriage, and when she got married, my brother-in-law wasn’t in favor of her working outside of the home, so my sister stayed at home for ten years. Before that, she had three different jobs, she was teaching English, teaching high school, she was going to be a doctor, and then, literally, her whole life was taken away from her. She had to stay at home for ten years. Every time she would visit us, I really held back. I didn’t’ talk too much about my life. My two other sisters and I all had jobs and school and everything. And I knew that my older sister really wanted the same thing for herself.
After ten years, after seeing how all of us had gone to school and gotten an education, she finally had the courage to start a different life. She managed to resolve it with her husband to a point that her husband would let her leave the house. I never thought my brother-in-law would do that but he finally let my sister go to school. She went back to university and she’s at school right now. She’s finishing her undergraduate degree and also teaching at the high school. So she’s outside the home all day long. And she has a 4.0 GPA.
I had a conversation with my sister last weekend. We Skype, and she asked if there was any way she could come to get her master’s degree in the U.S. She said can you find a scholarship for us so once I finish my degree here, I can come to the United States. And I said, “What did you just say?” I was very shocked when I heard that from my sister.
I asked her what about your husband? She said, “I think he will manage for a few years.”
That’s very impressive. People are changing.