Engaged at age 6

University student overcomes oppressive social circumstances to become women’s advocate

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At age 6, most children are counting to 30, learning to read or maximizing tag time before dinner. The childhood of third-year College student Gaisu Yari, however, was much different.

Before she reached her seventh birthday, Yari — at that time living in Afghanistan — was engaged to be married.

“I did not know anything about it,” Yari said. “There was a warlord that came to my family and forced [them] to let me marry their son. He is from the area and he is still there. I am always scared to talk about him because he is still in power in Afghanistan.”

Yari said she considers her parents liberal — she described her father as “educated” and said her mother has a third-grade education — and does not believe they would have engaged in such an archaic tradition had regional power dynamics not held such weight.

“Due to the property that we have in Afghanistan … there was pressure that we needed to do that,” Yari said. “They already knew us before the [Soviet war in Afghanistan] started. We had some sort of connection with them — but not as a warlord, not as a person who could just … destroy your life.”

This experience lended Yari the courage to advocate for women’s rights while still living in Afghanistan. In seventh grade, she began volunteering to teach women to read and write. Then, in ninth grade, she became involved with Internews, a news organization with an Afghan sector that provides 110 FM stations throughout the country. In a typically male-dominated profession, Yari was the only woman employed at the station.

“I wrote them a letter,” Yari said. “I was really upset there were no women in the radio station, and I thought it was really important to have women in the radio. Their voices are so important. They talked about me on their show and they read [something I wrote]. A week after that, I went and I visited them… and they asked me if I wanted to work with them.”

Though she initially intended to only complete six months of volunteering, Yari ultimately held her job for three years and was given her own show in the process. Her show, however, generated significant local opposition, culminating in threats by religious leaders and, later, the Taliban.

“As a woman, it was so hard for me,” Yari said. “I noticed people were talking to me and my mom and saying, ‘Oh, your daughter is working with all these men. It is not okay. She is guiding other girls in a bad way. She has convinced my daughters to do all this craziness.’”

Despite rising criticism, Yari’s mom — the primary caretaker for five sons and five daughters — continued to stand behind her.

“One day, I told my mom I wasn’t going to work in the radio anymore,” Yari said. “She turned around and she said, ‘Gaisu, I am washing your clothes every week and I am cooking for you because I want to hear your voice from the radio. If you don’t go, I’m not going to do those things anymore.’ And I said, ‘That’s fine, I will go and work there.’”

Eventually, it was the show which gave Yari her opportunity to go to the United States.

“In 2007, I got this chance,” Yari said. “I was a part of a group of 1,000 people who got together to welcome these two American women to the village community. They recognized me as a woman who was struggling and working as a journalist, and they had a program send me here.”

For Yari, moving to the United States was an escape. With her wedding ceremony scheduled to occur right after graduation, travelling to the U.S. provided Yari a narrow escape from that fate.

“It was so close,” she said. “Every time I think about it, I am so glad that I got out of [it]. I am so glad that I got this chance to go to community college and that I have my own voice right now. My education is so important to me, and I am so thirsty for that every time I go to class.”

Upon arriving in the U.S., Yari set to work completing the relevant paperwork to attend school. Soon, she began taking English as a Second Language classes at Northern Virginia Community College, and in 2009 she enrolled in a two-year program at Piedmont Community College in Charlottesville.

Yari, now 26, transferred to the University this semester after completing her program at Piedmont, though she admits she struggled with both English and math.

“I was so nervous from the beginning, because I thought maybe my English level is not as good to compete with U.Va. students and I would not feel comfortable enough,” Yari said. “When I noticed that everybody is listening to my voice and everybody is thinking that it is such a unique voice and [showed a] different experience, it encouraged me more. I feel much more comfortable in the classes.”

Now that Yari is settled, she plans to focus her energy on reaching her biggest goal: helping women in Afghanistan. To reach this end, Yari plans to double major in Women, Gender and Sexuality and Middle Eastern Studies and then apply to law school.

“I think in order to help women in Afghanistan, it’s important for me to know Sharia law, international law and how to put those two together to have better [tools] to help women in Afghanistan,” she said. “I don’t think I’ll work as a journalist, but one day I hope to have an organization that will go and help women. If I think it’s not possible, then I can go back to the universities and teach.”

Women, Gender and Sexuality Prof. Cori Field, who teaches Yari’s introduction to gender studies course, said she expects she will have a great impact on the University community.

“She brings a multifaceted perspective into the classroom, and she is using her time at U.Va. to equip herself to go out and create change both in the U.S. and Afghanistan,” Field said.

Yari attends class five days a week and works three days a week at Starbucks. Although she has found it difficult to balance a job and school, Yari is constantly inspired by the opportunities she has in the U.S.

“My life is always in Afghanistan,” Yari said. “Sometimes, when I think about the lifestyles, it is like Afghans are living in the ancient world. I feel responsible, because they do not have the same chances that I did, and I have this chance.”

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