Tag Archives: empowerment

A Girl with a Book: a Powerful Weapon

My two favorite quotes from the article that follows:

Sultana reminds us that the greatest untapped resource around the globe isn’t gold or oil, but the female half of the population.  

and

I wish we understood that sometimes the most effective weapon against terrorists isn’t a drone but a girl with a book.

Sultana picture 2

Meet Sultana, the Taliban’s Worst Fear

Nicholas Kristof, New York Times, JUNE 4, 2016

Sultana pursued an education from inside her home in Afghanistan after the Taliban threatened to douse her with acid if she went back to school. Because of the danger to her and a photographer if she was visited there, her picture was taken via Skype. CreditAndrew Quilty for The New York Times

OF all the students preparing to go to college this fall, perhaps none have faced a more hazardous journey than a young woman named Sultana. One measure of the hazard is that I’m not disclosing her last name or hometown for fear that she might be shot.

Sultana lives in the Taliban heartland of southern Afghanistan, and when she was in the fifth grade a delegation visited her home to warn her father to pull her out of school, or else she would have acid flung in her face. Ever since, she has been largely confined to her high-walled family compound — in which she has secretly, and perilously, educated herself.

“I’m unstoppable,” Sultana laughs, and it’s true: She taught herself English from occasional newspapers or magazines that her brothers brought home, in conjunction with a Pashto-English dictionary that she pretty much inhaled. When her businessman father connected the house to the internet, she was able to vault over her compound walls.

“I surrounded myself with English, all day,” she told me by Skype. Today her English is fluent, as good as that of some Afghan interpreters I’ve used.

Once she had mastered English, Sultana says, she tackled algebra, then geometry and trigonometry, and finally calculus BC. She rises about 5 a.m. and proceeds to devour calculus videos from Khan Academy, work out equations, and even read about string theory.

Sultana, now 20, says she leaves her home only about five times a year — each time, she must wear a burqa and be escorted by a close male relative — but online she has been reading books on physics and taking courses on edX and Coursera. I can’t independently verify everything Sultana says, but her story generally checks out. After reading a book on astrophysics by Lawrence M. Krauss, a theoretical physicist at Arizona State University, she reached him by Skype, and he says he was blown away when this Afghan elementary school dropout began asking him penetrating questions about astrophysics.

“It was a surreal conversation,” Krauss said. “She asked very intelligent questions about dark matter.”

Krauss has become one of Sultana’s advocates, along with Emily Roberts, an undergraduate at the University of Iowa who signed up for a language program called Conversation Exchange and connected with Sultana.

By Skype, Emily and Sultana became fast friends, and soon they were chatting daily. Moved by Sultana’s seemingly unattainable dream of becoming a physics professor, Emily began exploring what it would take for Sultana to study in the United States.

With Emily’s help, Sultana has been accepted by a community college in Iowa, with a commitment by Arizona State University to take her as a transfer student a year later. Emily started a website to raise money for Sultana’s university education.

Sultana reminds us that the greatest untapped resource around the globe isn’t gold or oil, but the female half of the population. Virginia Woolf wrote that if Shakespeare had had an equally talented sister, she never would have been able to flower — and Sultana is Shakespeare’s sister. Yet it’s also clear that internet connections can sometimes be a game changer.

Sultana’s family is wary of her passion for education but surrenders to her determination. “My mom said a lot of mouths will be open, a single girl going to the Christian world,” she said. “But I will die if they stop me.”

Unfortunately, the United States isn’t helping. Last month, the U.S. Embassy in Kabul rejected her application for a student visa. That happens all the time: Brilliant young men and women are accepted by American universities and then denied visas because, under U.S. law, they are seen as immigration risks.

(As a Muslim, Sultana would also be barred by Donald Trump’s proposed ban on Muslims. I asked her what she thought of Trump, and all she would say, with quiet dignity, was: “He thinks all Muslims are bad. It’s painful.”)

Michelle Obama has pushed an impressive campaign called Let Girls Learn, yet her husband’s administration has never seemed as enthusiastic, and America routinely denies visas that would actually let girls learn. The United States spends billions of dollars fighting terrorism by blowing things up; I wish we understood that sometimes the most effective weapon against terrorists isn’t a drone but a girl with a book.

The Taliban understand this: That’s why their fighters shot Malala Yousafzai in the head. If only we were as cleareyed as the Taliban about the power of girls’ education to transform societies.

Sultana now spends her days working on calculus equations, listening to Bon Jovi and doing household chores while listening to the BBC or self-help audiobooks. It also turns out that she is a longtime Times reader and gets my email newsletter. She’s now working her way through more serious reading: Kant’s “Critique of Pure Reason.”

Sultana has set up another appointment for a visa, for June 13. It won’t be Sultana who is tested but American policy itself. I’ll let you know what happens.

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Survivor’s Poem

This is a powerful visual presentation of a poem written and performed by a survivor of domestic sex trafficking. Not for the faint of heart.

And I would add: not only are America’s daughters at risk, but our sons as well.

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I feel little, broken, invisible, lost…

I found myself saying those words this morning, over and over—in truth, sobbing them. hiding child BWAnd at the very time I need to be the opposite of those things, or so I tell myself. I wanted to hurry past the feelings, push them away, like I have been doing for weeks. I know better. I spent years in therapy trying to expose the buried emotions that kept me from functioning at my fullest. I also spent years as a counselor encouraging clients to “embrace their brokenness” rather than push it away or bury it. And yet, here I am.

As the release of my first book approaches, the turmoil has increased. Rationally, it is not surprising. As a survivor of severe abuse, one of my strongest defenses has been to be invisible, blend into the woodwork, never draw attention, and now I am asking myself to do the opposite: be visible, expose myself, my thoughts, my very heart. And the broken part of me says that is dangerous, deadly. I can argue with the thoughts, but changing the feelings is near impossible. My counselor self says, don’t change the feelings, embrace them.

So I allow myself to feel what I have been pushing away. It’s ugly, painful, terrifying. This world seems huge, unfriendly, just looking for a way to crush me. I am not wanted here.

Oh, I hit a core belief. I am not wanted. Who I am is a mistake. My thoughts are not wanted, my feelings are not wanted. I should never have been born. Ouch. My heart twists with the pain. It is so deep, so fathomless.

I want to rush to counter the belief. I am loved by many people. I am wanted now. I have gifts, thoughts, skills that are valuable and needed. But to rush to that argument diminishes the value of that broken part of me and confirms her beliefs: nobody wants to hear that negative talk, nobody likes a loser—just ask Donald Trump. The world wants to see confidence, power, strength, not ugly, self-pitying weakness.

I have learned over the years, however, that I make truer, deeper connections with others in and through my brokenness. A huge percentage (don’t ask me for numbers; I have no idea) of this world’s population is more familiar with brokenness than power and “success.” Exposing my broken places, being honest about who I am and what I feel, has built more bridges to others than my façade of confidence ever has or will.

My entire novel series, in fact all I’ve ever written, has come out of my brokenness, not my learned skills or my inner power.

The reason I am a modern day abolitionist, the reason I fight for the rights and dignity of all people comes out of my brokenness. moderndayslaveryWhat I’m feeling today—little, broken, invisible, lost—those trapped in slavery, those being trafficked, those being abused, feel every day. I don’t want to shove away my feelings because they keep me connected to 27-30 million slaves around the world and  uncalculated numbers of survivors of abuse.

And so, I embrace my brokenness, and I embrace our broken world. If you are one of the  broken, I hope you feel my heart reaching toward you. And if you should choose to reach back,  my heart is open.

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Filed under Human Trafficking, Writing

Inspired Courage

I think of those who are still enslaved… and surviving–even though many times they may want to succumb, to give up, they do not. They are my heroes–innumerable, faceless heroes. They are my definition of courage. I think of them, and I’m inspired to work harder, to live better. It requires little courage to live a privileged life, a safe life. Though if one has ever been enslaved, even living in freedom–and relative safety–requires daily courage: to not forget, to not disconnect, to not be tempted to eradicate the scars, to not get lost in the tenebrious labyrinth of regret. Today, I am brave too. 

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Developing a Voice

What does it mean to have a voice, other than in strictly physiological terms? In counseling, we use this phrase, or a near cousin, quite often in abuse recovery work. We speak of finding your voice, using your voice.

In writing, we talk about voice in the sense of having a unique tone or style that distinguishes it from other writers or one project from another. If everyone had to write in a flippant, smart-alecky voice or a somber, morose tone then soon all books would merge into one indistinguishable blob, and the art of the writing would be lost. It would be like every painter being forced to use only shades of blue.

I’ve pondered this idea of voice a great deal since I started thinking about constructing a blog. Developing a voice, and a unique one at that, is about learning to express yourself, finding what it is you want to/need to say, and speaking it as authentically as you can. Part of the process is getting over the fear of speaking and/or writing.

So what is the fear—or more accurately, what is MY fear? (Or fears…mine are numerous.) The biggest fear is that there is nothing inside me worth saying or that others would find worth listening to. I think for those of us raised in abusive homes or who have been tormented or tortured, we come to believe this is the truth because we are told it is so—if not in direct terms then in indirect ways. Our words, our objections, our cries are ignored as if we weren’t even speaking. Or we are told we are stupid or worthless. If I am stupid or worthless, then my thoughts are stupid or worthless, so what would be the point of speaking them except to prove it?

Another fear is making a mistake or lots of them. There is a Jewish proverb that says, “In a multitude of words, transgression is unavoidable.” So if I write, it’s going to happen, but making mistakes is a frightening thing to those raised in abuse. A wrong word, a wrong look can bring punishment, swift and painful. So why risk it? Because it is one way of taking back control of our lives, something we lose in abuse. For me, a way of safely flipping off my abusers. I can make mistakes now, and it won’t end me. In fact, every mistake I make is one more piece of evidence that I have my life back. I can screw up and survive. I can say stupid things and correct them later or apologize. I can learn from mistakes and grow.

The third fear is breaking the rule of “Don’t tell.” Or else. I’m still a little shaky on this one. This is the “irrational” fear I mentioned a few blogs ago. It seems to me almost all abuse carries this edict. If the threats are not explicit, they are there in the body language, the brute force, the hiding behind closed doors, “this is our secret”. Abuse thrives in such secrecy, “telling” exposes it. I’m taking the risk and standing up to this fear, partly to prove to myself that the oppression has ended. I am free. As free as I will allow myself to be.

The last fear I’ll mention is the vulnerability of using my voice. It’s vulnerable because it exposes my inner self, and what if I lay my true self out there and I get rejected? Having a persona rejected is not nearly so painful because, well, it’s not really me. Ironically, I’m writing under a pseudonym, which is kind of like hiding behind a false self, but the truth is, I’m more honest here than in most of my life where people can see my face.

In writing novels or stories, vulnerability is essential. I’ve had to push myself in my novels not to use the “safe” terms or edge around an issue. If I’m going to write, I want to write honestly, authentically. I don’t expose everything, that would be unwise, but I push myself as close to the edge as I can. This is another part of taking my life back.

One last thing. Part of using my voice is speaking for those who do not yet have one or who are not in a safe place to use it. When I wrote my Azora’s Castle novella, it really connected with some people in Egypt. The story is about a little girl’s isolation. I had no idea when I wrote it that it would speak to a culture where many live in fear and isolation due to an oppressive social structure. In exposing my feelings through this character, it exposed the feelings in others, and then offered hope as Azora overcame her fears and learned to connect. My writing is not only life-giving and cathartic for me, it can be for others as well. At least, that is my hope.

So I’m testing my voice here, strengthening those vocal chords. And I invite you, if it is safe for you to do so, to join me. If it is not yet safe, I pray I may speak words on your behalf that bring life to your soul.

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