Afghan Women Graduate U.S. College Program

The Associated Press
Monday, May 15, 2006; 11:34 PM

BRISTOL, R.I. -- When she was a child growing up in Afghanistan, Nadima Sahar loved to draw. But after the Taliban came to power in the 1990s, her love for art became a secret.

The strict Islamic movement banned art and secular music, so only Sahar's family knew about her drawings.

"I couldn't share them with my neighbors," Sahar said.

Today, after four years as a college student in Rhode Island, Sahar has showcased her mostly abstract, black-and-white drawings at four art competitions and won prizes in all of them.

Sahar is one of three women graduating from Roger Williams University on Saturday who came to the United States as part of a scholarship program started after the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan following Sept. 11.

The program, called the Initiative to Educate Afghan Women, provides a free college education for Afghan women, who under the Taliban were not allowed to go to school after age 8.

Sahar, 20, a political science major, Arezo Kohistani, 24, a business management major, and Mahbooba Babrakzai, 21, a major in finance, are among the first women to graduate from the program, which requires them to return to Afghanistan after their studies.

"Coming here was a great experience," Babrakzai said. "It just, I think, changed the future of all the girls in this program and will make a change in Afghanistan as well as we go back and work there and bring our experiences from here to Afghanistan."

Babrakzai wants to become the country's finance minister, and Kohistani hopes to become an ambassador. Sahar aspires to become Afghanistan's first female president.

Years of civil unrest and Taliban rule forced the women's families exile into neighboring Pakistan for most of their teenage years.

Growing up, all three women were accustomed to learning by rote memorization; in the United States, they say, the education demanded independent thinking. Although the women remain devout Muslims and pray five times a day, they do not wear the traditional head scarf, for fear of anti-Muslim sentiment in the U.S. after Sept. 11.

Paula Nirschel, the wife of Roger Williams University President Roy Nirschel, founded the program in 2002. She said when the three young women first came to campus, they appeared shy and frightened and averted their eyes from men, a form of respect in their culture. Today, she describes them as independent and confident young women who lead and participate in many organizations on campus.

"It's the wings that they've gotten by this experience," Nirschel said.

Three other women in the program also graduate this year from the University of Montana, Kennesaw State University in Georgia and Montclair State University in New Jersey. By this fall, the program will sponsor about 30 students at 14 institutions, including Duke University and Mount Holyoke and Middlebury colleges.

All three women at Roger Williams University have been accepted into a two-year master's program in public policy at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst.

"The more education that one has, the more one can help the country," Sahar said. "By educating a woman, you are educating a family. By educating 20 women, you are educating 20 families."

© 2006 The Associated Press