PEOPLE TOLD HER SHE WAS CRAZY to go to Kandahar in December 2001, while the U.S. bombs were still falling and the hunt for Osama bin Laden was in full force. Her parents were especially worried — they had fled Afghanistan in 1983, less than four years after the Soviet Union invaded the country and left more than a million dead. They had moved to New York so that their children would be safe. Leaving one war zone only to have their daughter go back into another wasn’t what they had imagined.
But Masuda Sultan MPA 2005 needed to find out what had happened to her relatives, the ones who never got to leave. For most of her life, she had known them just vaguely — a letter here, a rare phone call there. But just a few months before September 11, before the bombs started falling, Sultan had reconnected with them on her first trip back to Afghanistan since fleeing the country at the age of five. It was a friendly trip with an aunt and uncle who were going for a short visit. Yes, there was danger. The Taliban was in power and being an American — even one born in Afghanistan — was risky. (They, in fact, left their passports in Pakistan with a cousin, stopped speaking English, and covered in chadooris, or burk’as.)
But this December trip — her second in six months — was more than risky. It was just a few months after the terrorist attack on her adopted city, and at the age of 23, Sultan was going back with a film crew, all Americans, to find answers. It was something, she says, she had to do.
Three years later, sitting in the Kennedy School’s Forum, nursing a cup of Starbucks coffee, Sultan says she has forever been changed by what she saw and heard when she went back, especially the second time. It’s why she is enrolled in the MPA program at the Kennedy School, not the law school she planned on attending. It’s why she has become an outspoken activist for her native country, especially its women.
“My family had gotten information in bits and pieces [after the bombing], so I had a vague notion that something may have happened to my relatives,” she says. “But when I got there, I was so shocked. There were huge craters in the earth, and everything was rubble.”
And worst of all, 19 of her extended family members — none in the military, none connected to the Taliban — were dead. They had been living in Kandahar, near suspected Taliban buildings. When the Americans came, they thought it would be safer to go to the country, to a family farm in Chowkar-Karez, about 50 miles away.
In the documentary she created with veteran filmmaker Jon Alpert, Sultan walks around the charred land at the family farm, pointing to the devastation.
“This is the village that my family came to to escape the city where they thought they would be in danger,” she says to the camera. “Ironically, the target was here. This is one of the craters created by a U.S. bomb. It’s huge. This is my cousin’s brother-in-law’s house, and they say that the only people left here are two little girls. Everyone else was hit.”
Ironically — or perhaps not, considering Sultan has seen firsthand the fear that war instills — she admits she is not a pacifist.
She sighs and thinks carefully before speaking. “This is such a difficult issue for me. When 9/11 happened, everyone knew there would be retaliation in Afghanistan. I was in support of it, but I didn’t know what it would look like. I thought it would be quick and laser precise. I sent a letter to President Bush and Congress warning them about casualties.
“I’m glad the Taliban is gone, don’t get me wrong, but the way in which we did it was careless,” she says. “The way we wage wars, the cluster bombs, that seems incredibly evil. The smart bombs are not actually that smart. I think about how we chose our targets on the ground. If there were terrorists in the United States, say in New York City, we’d treat it with much more care. Why can’t we treat humans the same in all countries, especially after 9/11, when we saw innocent civilians get killed?”
To this day, the only answer the government has given Sultan and her family on why the family farm was bombed is this: they attacked based on sound military intelligence.
The Balancing Act
As “American” as Sultan looks and dresses and sounds, the way she answers questions is telling: she is both outspoken and modest at the same time. Like many first-generation immigrants, she struggles to balance her modern beliefs, especially for women, with her community’s traditional customs. She doesn’t wear headscarves, but will cover up around one conservative uncle. When The New York Times asked her to be interviewed recently for a story about arranged marriages in the Afghan community — Sultan herself was married at 17 to an older man arranged by her parents, then divorced three years later — she talked openly, but then insisted that the reporter, a non-Afghan, not sensationalize the issue.
“Understanding this community is complex,” she says. “Working in it is even more complex.”
This probably explains why she downplays the many major accomplishments that a young woman from a working-class immigrant family with no connections has achieved in the
past few years. In addition to creating the documentary, which aired on PBS in 2002, she’s been interviewed by many of the top media players, including Bill Moyers, Phil Donahue, CNN, and The Washington Post. She’s had a chance to meet with Afghan President Hamid Karzai not once, but three times. In 2003, she joined a group of women in Kandahar to create Afghanistan’s first Women’s Bill of Rights. In March, at a Harvard Business School Social Enterprise Conference, she won an award for a business plan she’s working on.
As she tells her story of life growing up first in Brooklyn (where she hardly saw Afghans), then in Flushing (a densely populated Afghan enclave just north of Queens College, where Sultan got her BA summa cum laude in economics), she is also extremely careful not to disrespect her community or her family, including her father, a former Afghan chemist who, in America, drove taxis, worked at a supermarket, and was part owner in a fried chicken restaurant.
Her parents were strict, she says. No jeans, no going to the movies, and no overnights with friends. She came right home after school and learned how to cook. She was allowed, eventually, to wear jeans, but the dresses always had to be long.
But instead of rebelling, she remained a “good girl.” She even understood when they suggested the arranged marriage when she was still in high school.
“I wanted to make them happy,” she says.
“My parents were so afraid of us forgetting our roots that they went overboard.”
Still, deep down, this “good girl” also knew there could be more, not only for herself, but also for other Afghan girls, both in America and abroad.
“I grew up thinking, why can’t a woman do this or that? In college, I looked up the word ‘feminist’ and was shocked to learn that it meant equal,” she says.
Walking the Walk
Today it’s this kind of thinking that drives Sultan’s time at the Kennedy School, which she honestly thought she would never get into. What’s become particularly clear, she says, is that equality for women goes hand in hand with being able to earn money.
“I wasn’t allowed by my parents or my husband to work,” she says. “Working would have given me financial independence and that, they believed, would have unleashed me. That was
dangerous to them.” (According to the 2000 Census, only 26 percent of Afghan women in New York were employed, well below the 58 percent rate for all New York women.)
“Being at the Kennedy School, I realize how connected human rights and economic empowerment are,” she says. “Economic freedom and opportunities for Afghan women are going to be the key to everything. People are still trying to hold women back.”
Sultan is doing more than just studying these issues. In addition to making them known in the media by talking to reporters and writing op-eds, she also started an organization for young Afghan Americans that eventually merged with another nongovernmental organization, Women for Afghan Women (WAW). Today, as program director of WAW, she is overseeing several projects from her student apartment in Cambridge, including one that will bring a dozen Afghan businesswomen to the United States in May to learn additional business skills and to help them market their products.
“It’s a way to help them grow,” she says. “It will also help them so they can employ other women, which is critical.”
She is also partnering with a women’s group in Herat, in the northwestern part of Afghanistan, to figure out why the city is having an epidemic of young girls setting themselves on fire, despite the fall of the Taliban and the opening of schools.
“They douse themselves with fuel and try to kill themselves. It’s a slow, painful death, for those who do die,” she says. “We’ve raised money to help with medical supplies, but the bigger problem also needs to be addressed: girls still have no options available to them to deal with their problems. We’re about to do a campaign around this issue.”
She’s also working, somewhat reluctantly, on a book that is slated to come out in January 2006.
“After a story about me came out in New York magazine, a literary agent called. I didn’t respond. My friends thought I was crazy, but all I wanted to do was help Afghan women, not write about it,” she says.
Eventually they met. The agent suggested a memoir, but Sultan, at 23, felt she was too young to tell her story. She agreed to a sort-of-memoir-issues-oriented book, as long as she could do it at her own pace.
“I didn’t want to take a long time away from life,” she says.
After she graduates in a few months, Sultan isn’t certain what she will do — moving to Afghanistan is a possibility — but it’s clear that working for women’s rights in her birthland will be part of her future.
And does she one day think Afghan women will find equality?
“I’d love to say yes, but not in my lifetime, I don’t think so. Equality — I haven’t seen it anywhere else, so it’s hard to imagine what it would be like in Afghanistan,” she says. “Having said that, there’s room for massive improvement. I don’t think any of us doing this work sees a perfect world, but we do see a world where things can be better. I’m a bit of a cynic, but I do think I can help make things better.”