In May 2015, I completed two undergraduate degrees, in Women’s and Middle Eastern Studies, at the University of Virginia. As I contemplate whether to accept an offer to enter the graduate program at Columbia’s Human Rights Institute in August 2016, I am exploring other options in Afghanistan.

Diverse experiences, from being a survivor of child marriage and the Taliban era to having lived in the U.S. between 2007-2015, have shaped my bicultural awareness and broad understanding of the difficulties and possibilities of being an Afghan woman. Equally important is all that I have learned about the complexities of war and democracy building from my many activities and all the people I have met in the government, international community, and on Afghan streets since my return in 2015.

Ethnically I am Hazara, which comprises 9% of the country’s population. Most Afghan Hazara, like myself, are Shite Muslims. Hazaras have been persecuted for years. Over 60% were killed during the Pushtun dominated Afghan government (1980-1905). Some Hazaras collaborated with the Soviet occupation governments (1978-1988) but most were anti-government, including those who were members or supporters of the Maoist communist party. The Hazara was always seen as an enemy of the Sunni Taliban, and when the Taliban overthrew the Soviets in 1996, it engaged in large massacres of Hazara. Now the Taliban and Islamic State, both Sunni, slaughter Hazaras. Many of us have moved to the capital where we reside in a Hazara neighborhood to protect one another, or have fled the country.

I was very lucky that during the Taliban regime I was able to continue to study. This was made possible by progressive Muslim clerics in my Ghazni village who told the Taliban that girls were not studying, in accordance with Taliban orders, while girls pursued their education in secret in homes set up as schools. I was also fortunate to have the opportunity to work as a radio reporter before leaving Afghanistan in 2007. Of course, it was not easy since even less women were involved in the media in those days and my male coworkers struggled with the cultural taboo of working with me, a woman. These two rare experiences – continuing my studies during Taliban rule and working in media – came before and after my forced marriage to a warlord’s son. After my father helped me to escape, he was disappeared, which in Afghanistan is the same as being killed.

Even though they are part of my experience, I am not defined by my ethnicity or religion but rather by two other influences. First is being a woman from a country where traditionally women have almost no rights and have suffered as well because of unrelenting experiences of war. Secondly are life defining experiences of having survived and overcome the restrictions of the Taliban, the horror of child marriage, and among other things, the separation from my beloved family who continue to fear persecution and violence. These things feed my desire to work in human rights, women’s rights, and along with the knowledge and experiences I have acquired in the U.S., they have shaped me into a secular person whose only desire is to contribute to justice and peace in her country, in the Middle East and elsewhere.

Since returning to Afghanistan in August 2015, I have networked with all government offices and most non-government and international organizations supporting women’s rights. I have collaborated with some as a speaker, by providing advice, feedback and facilitating contacts, and accompanying them to events. Relating to the latter, in March I attended the largest United Nation’s Commission on the Status of Women conference (CSW 20016) with the Minister of Women’s Affairs. Among many other activities, I have helped organize and coordinate various mobilizations, including street art, protests, and performances promoting women’s issues and peace. The list goes on and on. But I must admit that one of my favorite pursuits is interviewing people I meet on the streets and learning about how they see Afghanistan now, and what hopes they have for its future.