April 26, 2010

Palwasha Siddiqi talks about the BPeace documentary "Thread"


By Julia Ferrante

LEWISBURG, Pa. — Two years after the fall of the Taliban in 2003, Palwasha Siddiqi and her family moved back to Afghanistan to be part of a revolution.

The family had lived in Pakistan during the most turbulent times of war and hoped to bring about change in their home country through work and education. At the time, however, the schools in Afghanistan were undergoing reconstruction, so Siddiqi, then 17, began working for an American fashion designer.

Later, with the help of the outreach program Business Council for Peace, or Bpeace, Siddiqi traveled to New York City for a month of business training at the Fashion Institute of Technology. One of her mentors encouraged her to further pursue her education and helped her get a full scholarship to Bucknell University.

Four years later, as Siddiqi, a business management major, prepares for graduation in May, she counts her time as Bucknell as some of the most formative years of her life.

"The years at Bucknell have been the best for me," she said. "I have blossomed. Back home, there are so many cultural barriers. When I was there, I felt like I was really open-minded, but when I came here, I was all covered up. It was difficult to get out of my comfort zone. I didn't know everything I thought I knew about the world."

Ending a 'dark era'
After graduation, Siddiqi plans to work for a few years to support her family, pursue a master's degree and then return home to open an orphanage with a commitment to education.

"I believe education is the one way to help Afghanistan get out of this dark era," Siddiqi said. "This orphanage would be different because not only would it provide food and shelter but also would give the children something that will help them for the rest of their lives."

During her time at Bucknell, Siddiqi has served on the boards of two student organizations and worked part-time in the admissions office, sending a portion of her pay home to help cover the salary she earned in the fashion industry and shared with her family. She has been an international student orientation assistant and spent a semester in London. Siddiqi also has worked to help women in her home country pursue education and launch careers and has been involved with the organization Kochah, which pays families to allow children to go to school rather than sell gum or polish shoes in the streets to support their families.

The 'face' of Afghanistan
More recently, Siddiqi has helped to promote a Bpeace documentary, "Thread," about five women who support their families through sewing, crocheting and embroidery.

"People here don't normally see the everyday life in Afghanistan," she said. "They only see the bombings, women with burkas and men with turbans. The documentary is a great way to show the actual face of the people. Women back home, they are considered for the house. It is thought that they should be taking care of the house and the kids and obeying their husband. Some women have to get permission from their brothers (to do anything else). After they are married, it's her husband then her brother-in-law and father-in-law, then her sons. Even if women are sick and dying, they have to get permission from a man to go to the doctor."

Siddiqi considers herself fortunate to come from a family that is not typical in Afghanistan. Her mother, Monesa Pupal, is a clerk for the ministry of education. Her father, Ghulam Siddiq Siddiqi, is a driver for a foreign nongovernmental organization that builds schools and roads. And the couple's five children all have attended school.

"I thank God for having the parents I have," Siddiqi said. "It is because of them that I am here. But I want to share what I have seen and what my family has seen and to show how education has helped us. I think it is going to bring a change to Afghanistan."

Freedoms disappeared
In some parts of Afghanistan, such as the capital city, Kabul, there are women entrepreneurs, women in Parliament and women like Siddiqi's mom, who has worked 23 years. But for those who want to break those barriers, it is difficult, Siddiqi said.

"Normally countries progress and get better, but it has been the opposite for Afghanistan," she said. "In my presentation for the documentary, I show pictures from the 1970s of women with miniskirts and women with burkas on the same street. Now, it is completely different."

Siddiqi's mother, who experienced the freedom to dress as she wished, understands well her daughter's life in the United States because she experienced such freedoms, Siddiqi said. But during the reign of the Taliban, women again were forced to cover themselves. Safety also is more of a concern.

"In terms of security, it is worse and worse," Siddiqi said. "When my mom sends my siblings to school, she doesn't know if they will come home. During the last two years, when I have gone home, my dad has taken off all the holidays and driven me everywhere I went, even if it is to a café to meet friends. At night, one of my parents stays up at night all of the time to guard when I go home.

"Before, at least we knew who the Taliban was because of their beards. Now, your neighbor could be one but you don't know."

Family targeted
Because of their determination to pursue work and education, Siddiqi and her family have been targeted. While working in Afghanistan, Siddiqi was followed by a man who wanted to marry her. Then, one day in 2006, two months before Siddiqi came to the United States, her sister Mursal was kidnapped on her way to school. Siddiqi's father was praying that morning, and Mursal was running late. He normally walked her to the bus stop on dark mornings, but it was light that day, so she went alone.  

Mursal, now 22, remained missing for more than three years until late March, when her mother was approached by an official, who handed her a disposable cell phone. She turned on the phone and five minutes later it rang. She heard her daughter's voice, then nothing. Several days later, Mursal was returned to the family, and slowly they are learning what happened during her captivity.

Siddiqi's extended family does not support her decision to study in the United States or her parents' decision to encourage her other sister, Muzhgan, 14, and brothers Omid, 17, and Edris, 11, to go to school. Omid has applied to spend his last year of high school at a private school in Connecticut and hopes to come to Bucknell the following year.

"My parents could have stopped my siblings from going to school, but my mom and dad wouldn't give up," Siddiqi said.

Siddiqi's mother and brother Omid plan to come to the United States for her graduation, although with Mursal's recent return, it is uncertain if that will happen.

"All of this is because of what my mother gave up," Siddiqi said. "Everything she gave up and went through was for this."

Contact: Division of Communications

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