Growing up, I refused to accept I was anything less than my brother or any other man. But there were things I could not do simply because I was a girl. One of these was swimming. Every time I passed a river, realizing that I could not swim disappointed me. But deep down inside, I always knew I would learn how to swim someday. The time came when one of the host mothers in the U.S. asked me to join her in her indoor pool while her husband and sons were out of the house. Being in the water was amazing, but being on top of the water was not very pleasant or easy until last weekend, when my host mother gave me lessons and I finally was able to stay somewhat on top of the water.
I was practicing in the pool when my host mom called, “Meena! Do not try too hard, honey. You will be too tired.”
I replied, while trying to keep the water out of my mouth, “I really want to learn how to swim.”
“I know, but no one learns swimming in a day,” shouted my host mother.
“I know, but it is my second day,” I replied. That is how my second day of swimming ended.
In Afghanistan during our weekend picnics, my brother and second cousins would swim or climb the mountains, but all the women would stay at the picnic spot and cook. I did not. I was busy negotiating deals with my father and uncle so we women could also go for a short walk or climb a mountain. Knowing that swimming was out of question, I never brought it up. I complained to my father about not being able to climb a mountain or go for longer walks like the boys, and how I wanted to change that. My father would always say, “There are bigger wars worth fighting for,” which I realized was true during my visit to the Muslim center and mosque in the city I am visiting.
The men were standing in front of the mosque and we women were standing at the very back corner. Between the women and the men was a movable wall. After prayers ended, the Mullah started to give his speech. We could hear him, but could not see him.
I turned to the woman sitting next to me and said: “Why aren’t we opening the curtain? The prayer is done.”
“This mosque does not allow that,” she whispered back.
I got closer and said, “But how can we be an equal part of the mosque if we are made to sit in the corner and treated like we are invisible?”
She agreed with me, so another woman who was listening asked if we should open the moveable wall. We got up and opened it.
All of a sudden it felt like, yes, we could bring changes, the changes that we need desperately. In a country like Afghanistan where mosques are the center of the villages and of people’s lives, the place where most decisions are made, how can women have a say if they are not even welcome to attend? It is significant when we Afghan women ride a bike, play sports, or swim with appropriate Muslim clothing. But it is of even of greater significance when we have a say in deciding our future and that of our country and our children through being socially and politically active members of society. Fighting for women’s participation in mosques, politics, and most importantly the private sector, is our most important battle.
Eds Note: Meena is currently visiting the U.S. overseeing the medical care of 34 Afghan children. This essay refers in part to her experience here.