PANTHER PORTRAIT: Hopefully Hakima



Hakima Afzaly is a student from Afghanistan earning her masters in women and gender studies.


Afghanistan native adjust to life at UNI while receiving her masters

Hakima Afzaly is a UNI graduate student studying Women’s and Gender Studies from halfway across the world. Her pursuit of knowledge has taken her many places from refugee schools in Pakistan to a women’s college in Bangladesh and now the University of Northern Iowa. 

Hakima Afzaly was born in the capital city, Kabul, Afghanistan, but in her culture she is actually from the province, Parwan. “Wherever your father was born, it is also where you’re from,” Afzaly explained. She lived in Afghanistan until the age of two, then her family migrated to Pakistan for refuge to avoid the violence of the civil war. 

Pakistan is where she spent most of her childhood and teenage years as a refugee from one of the most war-torn countries in the modern world. Since they weren’t Pakistani citizens, she spent her primary and secondary years learning at an Afghan refugee school. 

After she graduated high school in 2008, she knew that there were only two things she could do as an Afghan refugee – get married and have kids or stay and be a teacher.    “I didn’t want to get married because I knew that I could do a lot more. I could pursue my education, secure a good job, and become financially independent. And I didn’t want to be financially dependent on anyone at the time. And I didn’t want to teach because teaching is good as long as it’s a choice you make, not when you have to or it’s your only option.” 

Afzaly took a risk and decided that “no matter how hard the circumstances, as long as there was a university for her to go and study, she would go.” Afzaly learned about Afghanistan through the media. Like everyone else in the world, she was shown that Afghanistan was “a very bad country, a very wartorn country. And under the Taliban, it was like this: women were publicly beaten, not allowed to get an education, not allowed to go out without a male escort, and if they were suspected of adultery, they’d be stoned to death. And all of this was true.” 

Afalzy explained that as an Afghan living outside of Afghanistan, this portrayal of Afghanistan became her internalized perception of her home country. She wasn’t looking forward to returning; in fact, she did not want to go back because she was reminded of the potential horrors that awaited her, but she was surprised to discover that not everything in the media was true.

Upon her return to Afghanistan, she was relieved to see that life was improving after the Taliban lost power and the United States had occupied the country. 

Though Afzaly fell in love with her country, “I wish that I hadn’t relied solely on the media” and though she doesn’t deny that what the media was portraying was true, she realized that “10% of a country as a whole doesn’t represent the whole country.” She says that there were a lot of improvements for women: “many girls were going to school, they were graduating from universities, and there were more good job opportunities for women.” 

Before starting university in 2009, Afzaly lived with her sister’s family and worked as an English tutor (her side hustle) to students of all different ages and backgrounds. Afzaly said, “I would see doctors, nurses, regular adults, and even kids as young as five.” When she wasn’t tutoring, she also spent her time preparing for the Kabul University entrance exam. Kabul University is the top university in Afghanistan, and the entrance exam goes over 12 years of education that’s received in primary and secondary schools, ranging over various topics. She spent a year preparing by studying and reviewing what she had learned in Pakistan. In 2009, she was admitted into Kabul University and spent a year living on campus; the next year she got a scholarship to an all-women’s university in Bangladesh. She spent five years studying: one year of language studies then four years of undergraduate, majoring in Asian Studies. Though the campus was all female students, she was taught by various professors of different races, ethnicities, and gender, and found that the Bangladesh liberal arts educational system was very similar to the model here in the United States. 

She was in Bangladesh from 2010-2015, returning to Afghanistan once again in that same year, to work in different government organizations. The scholarship required that upon completion of her studies, she used the skills she learned and entered the workforce. Afzaly worked in 3 different government organizations until 2019: the ministry of counternarcotics, forensic science organization, and an admissions officer for the American University of Afghanistan. Her first job with the ministry of counternarcotics was “not my favorite job”, as she found that the government wasn’t doing enough when it came to gender-specific policies. She later explains that this job sowed the seeds of her passion for women and gender studies since she saw what goes into implementing and enforcing policies.

The Forensic Science organization was her second and favorite job. She was the organization’s program and development director. She advocated for the banning of virginity testing: the practice of medical examination that inspects a woman’s hymen to see if it’s still intact. Afzaly believes that “it is a very stupid practice, with no scientific evidence, that is practiced in many countries because it is a part of their culture.” She continues, “We were trying to make people understand that virginity is a myth. Scientifically speaking, it’s not a real concept. There’s no ‘one type of hymen, once broken, which means a woman had pre-marital sex.” She was able to work with different organizations and raise public awareness about the topic by emphasizing the need to stop torturing female members and to stop believing in the concept of virginity testing. Her final job was as an admissions officer for the American University of Afghanistan.

After working in the admissions office, she received her Fullbright scholarship, a process she began in 2018, landing her here in Cedar Falls in 2020. Fullbright is a scholarship program that allows foreign students a chance to study here in the United States, as well as a study abroad opportunity for US citizens as well. Having traveled to not only Bangladesh but other European countries as well, Afzaly was excited to continue this chapter of her life. Arriving here in Iowa, Afzaly felt a bit of a culture shock, saying that “Iowa is very quiet.” But she was able to adjust with help from her Fullbright program coordinator, Stacy, who provided her with resources and help to finish her studies here. She likes that UNI has very helpful people; “if I don’t know something, I can always ask a student or professor and they’ll always help me.” She appreciates the library and additional resources available to students, and how understanding professors are when she’s having difficulties with a class. 

As for her studies, the Fulbright program chose UNI for Afzaly because of her interest in women and gender studies. However, Afzaly also has her reasons for choosing this major. The first reason is that learning about women and gender helped her make sense of the world and society. “It’s like studying everyday life, making sense of patriarchy, women’s rights, and men’s rights.” She enjoys the class discussions and how most agree that since “there is no simple answer for anything, we don’t have to just blindly accept what we’ve seen or have been told by society.” She believes, “you have to learn the complications because the world is complicated.” In her major, she tries to understand: how society functions, what are [the] society’s problems, and how has it affected both men and women? “Whenever we talk about women’s rights, we can’t always blame men. We need to also consider how men are in the system, and certain expectations of them can make them victims of it as well.”

Afghanistan has a gap in the expertise of gender studies, and Afzaly wants to fill it. She believed that after she got her degree, she could go back and make gender departments within the Ministry of Women’s affairs as well as improvements to previous jobs she had, but now that the Taliban things will be drastically different. 

Afzaly was featured on the Iowa Public Radio show, which published its podcast episode, “The Human Impact of Geopolitical Politics” on September 15th. On the radio, she talks about how she feels watching the conflict in her country from so far away. She felt as though there was more she could’ve said, but she had some things to say here. Her first concern is for all women’s and feminist organizations concerning the way women are being used and treated by the Taliban in the media: “Have you seen those black things covering women? It’s an insult to Muslims who wear their hijabs by choice. God knows where it comes from or what culture. That full cover not only covers the body but the face. You don’t see a face, you don’t see an identity. Our face is everything. Covering it is like erasing one’s existence. The Taliban are imposing that women cover their faces, imposing that they don’t exist. “ Afzaly also believes that many feminists today, who have spoken so loudly against oppression in the past, are very silent right now, and their silence is an embarrassment to their positions against misogyny and pro-women’s rights. Afzaly said, “You have all these slogans about gender equality and women’s rights, but where are you now? If there was ever a time to talk, it’d be right now because Afghan women are the victims of the Taliban’s misogynist views. “ Her next message is for those in power: “What’s the use of privilege if you don’t know when to use it to help others? What’s the point of power if you don’t want to use it to help others? Do you truly deserve it? “  

Before coming to Iowa Afzaly told her parents, “You just watch me! I’ll make you proud of the work I’ll be doing in this country [Afghanistan].”  Once she graduated from UNI, she was going back to Parwan. “I was excited that I could use my experience here [UNI], and bring it home. I want to build a library in Parwan. It’s a small province, but it needs lots of schools and libraries.” But that dream is threatened by the Taliban’s power and ideals.  “I don’t even know what the future holds for me. I don’t even know if I have a country to go back to. I don’t recognize the Taliban as my country. And as long as they’re in power, I have no country.” 

In all honesty, she wasn’t prepared mentally for the Taliban’s abrupt takeover, and the worry and fear for her fellow Afghan people continue to affect her life here in the states. 

As of right now, everything that Hakima had hoped for is being threatened by the Taliban, and since there’s no telling when they will leave, she has felt rather hopeless, not just for her future, but for her country’s as well.  “Honestly, I’m not ok. My family is safe, but we can’t even begin to imagine what’s happening to the rest of our family in Afghanistan. I just feel so numb and overwhelmed. I can’t believe this is happening in the 21st century. The lack of empathy and action from other countries has made me rethink the state of humanity. For everyone, it has become a normal thing to see Afghanistan suffer. And it’s not to say that Afghanistan is the only country in crisis; but how do we, as a society, get to the point where we not only ignore the suffering, but party and just not give a damn about humanity? All these ‘superpower’ countries can’t fight this small group?” Afzaly continues to say that, “I have this headache that I feel is connected to all the news I’ve been hearing, and sometimes I don’t know how I’m feeling. Sometimes, all I want to do is sit and cry, but I need to go about my life, and I have to build myself up again every morning.  All I know is that the Taliban will be setting Afghanistan years back, and Afghans have worked too hard for all our progress to be wasted so quickly. And the media shows too many small, minor things concerning celebrities that have been distracting us from the real world.” 

Afzaly’s final message is for everyone else in the world. “We can’t let a terrorist group decide the future of Afghanistan. How can we give power to the same group that destroyed Afghanistan 20 years ago? We can’t let history repeat itself. We can’t let the 20 years of women’s achievements in Afghanistan go to waste. Why is that 20 years ago, everyone was so loud about fighting the Taliban, and now nobody cares? Is there really nothing that we can do?”