Afghan man brings activism for women to Norwich University
By Stefan Hard
Staff Writer | July 30,2013
Ali Shahidy studies recently at his home in Kabul, Afghanistan. The 24-year-old women's rights activist is attending Norwich University in Northfield this fall on scholarships and with help from a host family and a fund established to help him in his first year in college.
Ali Shahidy is coming to America, and to Norwich University.
Shahidy, an Afghan native and 24-year-old women’s rights activist living in Kabul, said he has been dreaming of coming to the U.S. to attend college so he can return to Afghanistan and be a more effective advocate for women’s rights in a country where women remain second-class citizens.
It has, at times, seemed like an impossible dream for Shahidy, who outlined his background and plans during a phone interview from Kabul in mid-July. For the past 10 years, he said, he has been the primary breadwinner for his family of seven siblings and his parents; his father became disabled as an adult, and a younger brother has been disabled from birth. His family, with whom he lives in a modest apartment, includes a younger sister he said he helped rescue from an abusive arranged marriage that she was thrust into at age 17.
Despite his challenges, Shahidy earned good grades in school while weaving rugs at home in a family business, then landed a series of jobs that have broadened his skills, including interpreting for English-speaking Portuguese forces in Afghanistan under the International Security Assistance Forces mandate, helping Afghan companies review project proposals and developing mobile apps and marketing tools as a social media specialist.
Shahidy is active online with social media, where he discusses human rights problems and possible solutions, particularly in the area of women’s rights, as an independent activist. He recently was awarded a grant to train and oversee a small staff of mentors who will work on Internet chat spaces and the streets of Kabul. They will offer education and support with a goal of reducing bullying, most of which he said involves Muslim religious zealots harassing women who dare to try to go about their daily business in public with some degree of freedom.
Shahidy said he will continue to oversee the three-month anti-bullying project in Kabul even while studying in Vermont. He has secured two Norwich University scholarships that will fund most of his tuition expenses for four years of study. Other academic and living expenses will be provided initially through a private fund established for his education and by a host family in Northfield that has stepped forward for his first year. Shahidy hopes to earn a bachelor’s degree in psychology.
I spoke to Shahidy by phone on the day he got his plane ticket to America. Despite a poor connection, it was clear he was excited and beginning to believe his dream was coming true.
“I think getting an academic degree in the U.S. will help a lot,” Shahidy said. “I think it will help me to find more effective ways to go back and fight for women’s rights in my country. I personally witness a lot of youth (in Afghanistan) engaged a lot of the time in trying to exercise their rights, and I want to help them also be more effective.”
Shahidy said his experience helping his younger sister in her abusive marriage solidified his determination to help women enjoy more equal status with men in Afghan society. Shahidy and his family were eventually successful in helping his sister divorce, and she now lives again with her siblings and is starting her adult life over again, he said.
Learning from his sister’s experience, Shahidy has become increasingly competent in social media. Shahidy started and manages a Facebook page in Afghanistan, Daughters of Afghanistan, which he describes as “a platform to celebrate the strength and accomplishments of the daughters of Afghanistan — ordinary women doing extraordinary things.”
Kara Lozier, of Pownal, a facilitator for international students hoping to study in the U.S., helped establish and manage a private fund on Indiegogo.com called Support Ali’s Education. Lozier worked for a Department of State scholarship program established after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, but she said she found Shahidy by chance online after reading a paper on street harassment that he had submitted to a human rights forum Lozier had offered to assist.
“He was only a handful of men from Afghanistan writing, and I was determined to meet him,” said Lozier.
Lozier contacted Shahidy about his paper on bullying and learned that for two years, Shahidy had been applying unsuccessfully for scholarships to study in the U.S. “He’d run into a lot of rejections and obstacles,” she said.
Lozier agreed to become his college counselor, search out remaining scholarship possibilities, and start a fundraising effort for him. She discovered Norwich grants that had later application deadlines and helped him successfully apply.
Shahidy also already has a Northfield connection. Jonathan Hoffman, founder of Direct Aid International in Northfield, has met Shahidy twice in Kabul, where Hoffman travels annually in the summer to begin school-building and well-digging projects in the Afghan countryside.
“Shahidy should make quite an impression on the Norwich campus,” said Hoffman on Monday, having just returned Friday from Kabul and having just met with Shahidy. “He’s bright, calm, patient, well-educated and I.T.-savvy. He won’t be defensive about his country. He’s what I meet a lot in Afghanistan — I don’t meet a lot of angry young men sympathetic to the Taliban. He’ll change perceptions here of what a young Afghan man can be.”
Hoffman said his nonprofit organization will also establish a fund to support Shahidy long term in Northfield.