Zoya Basharmal is a 48-year old woman with a great amount of wisdom based on her life experiences. She was born in Afghanistan where she lived throughout her childhood. For her education, she went on to study in Czechoslovakia and Germany. After, she moved to the United States. She now settles in Yorba Linda, California with the family she has built consisting of her husband, her 21-year old son, and her 18-year old daughter. She has learned an impressive amount of 7 languages, along with many life lessons that shaped her. Now, she tells her story of how she became the strong and admirable woman she is today.
Early Life – Afghanistan
Zoya was born on December 28, 1972, in Kabul, Afghanistan. This is where she learned her first language: Persian. Although she has a multitude of childhood memories with her family in Afghanistan, it wasn’t always the easiest place to grow up in, especially as a female. As a feminist herself now, Zoya states that then she did not have the privilege of being one. She notes that men were seen as first in command and women as second. Being a woman, she was also not able to wear neat and fitted clothes as she wished.
As she reflects on her childhood and compares it to Afghanistan’s current state, she believes the nation has only gone backward rather than forward in terms of expanding women’s rights. One recent feminist event she recalls that occurred in Afghanistan is the murder of Farkhunda Malikzada. On March 19, 2015, she was lynched and beaten to death by a mob on the streets of Kabul, Afghanistan. This happened because she was falsely accused of burning the Quran. Zoya still hasn’t forgotten the moment she saw this on TV for the first time. She is upset that religion is still, to this day, resulting in this type of violence back in her birth nation. She mentions:
“Stuff like this. It’s really, really sad. But it still exists, you know, it still exists at this time.”Zoya Basharmal
There is a connection to be made with the discrimination and lack of rights for women in Afghanistan with the essay “The Girl Who Wouldn’t Sing”. Here, Kit Yuen Quan talks about her experience of being a woman by saying that “living with this fear leaves me exhausted. I feel backed against a wall self-doubt, pushed into a corner, defeated, unable to stretch or take advantage of opportunities” (Quan 14). This is exactly how Zoya felt growing up as a feminist in Afghanistan. There were no opportunities for her to express her true beliefs about feminism or to be given the power that men had. Through her childhood in Afghanistan, there was a constant battle of reassuring her worth as a woman, but luckily this situation lessened when she moved to other countries, which did not go to the same extreme measures.
Education – Europe
Zoya’s father was a diplomat and moved to Slovakia for a short amount of time. Because of this, she moved to Slovakia with him to study in her earlier education years. For 5 years, she moved back to Afghanistan to finish high school, where she was the valedictorian. Due to her educational success, she was able to study at a university in Czechoslovakia with a scholarship. She studied medicine just like her father did. After finishing her first round of schooling, Zoya chose not to move back to Afghanistan because of the Soviet-Afghan War and problems with the Taliban in which Russians were causing conflicts in Afghanistan. Instead, she moved to Germany in an attempt to continue her medical school path. However, Germany was rather strict and did not give her the same luxuries they gave citizens. Since they didn’t accept her as a citizen, she studied a “lower” academic subject not related to medicine. She went on to study cosmetology as a result. Because she studied at an international school, she was able to learn Russian and Czech. She states:
” if you learn one language, the second and the third is going to be easier and easier. I don’t know why, but it is.”Zoya Basharmal
In the essay “Mother Tongue,” Amy Tan tells her story of navigating through the process of speaking English alongside her mother, a fluent Chinese speaker, and how this affected their life in the United States. Amy had noticed that due to her mother’s lack of ability to speak English fluently, her own perception of her mother was limited and she “believed that her English reflected the quality of what she had to say” (Tan 225). Similarly, others viewed Zoya in this same light when she first started learning Russian, German, and Czech in Europe. However, she quickly changed this negative perception by her success in learning new languages. When Zoya moved to Europe, learning languages was her way of breaking down communication barriers and building a good rapport with people around her in Europe. It was already hard enough being an immigrant who was denied citizenship, so she worked her hardest to adapt to the countries’ languages. Many European immigrants get discouraged when trying to pick up new languages, but Zoya’s success rate with learning new languages was outstanding. Speaking additional languages also helped her with her schooling and jobs. She did not let her shame in not being fluent hold her back from achievement.
Zoya lived in Germany for a total of 6 years, where she continuously worked at jobs while simultaneously studying. Although she did not have to pay for her education, she still needed to work to support herself. The German government helped, but their assistance could only go so far. She notes:
“Germany has a very good system. You don’t have to pay for your education which is bigger, and I didn’t pay anything and nobody was supporting me. I was working for myself…I had money to support myself. The government helped because of housing, like my apartment rental, but sometimes I felt it was not enough. They helped us, we were students. But otherwise, nobody helped us.”Zoya Basharmal
By working to earn money for herself to live in a brand new country, Zoya learned the importance of responsibility and being in control of her fate. Even with limited help from others, she was still able to support herself during this time. Zoya would not be the strong-willed person she is today without her life in Europe. However, this stage of her life would eventually come to an end.
Current Life – United States
Although Zoya enjoyed her time in Germany, she was unfortunately unable to finish her schooling. However, she did meet her husband along the way. Originally, his sister was Zoya’s good friend, which led them to meet. After building their bond, they married in Munich, Germany, when Zoya was 25 years old. When she was 26 years old, they moved to the United States together. They first moved to Dayton, Ohio, and then to Yorba Linda, California where they still live to this day. Zoya had two kids: a 21-year old son named Asheel and an 18-year old daughter named Alhees. Along with their dog Twinkie, they currently live a happy life together. Zoya states that the people in the United States are even nicer than those in Germany. She explains:
“I’m so happy to live in Yorba Linda, I love Yorba Linda. People are so nice and down to earth. They are into education. They are not like other places, they don’t show off. They have a lot of money, but you never know because they are down to earth. And I’m so grateful. And I love it. I love America. I always say “Thank God, I live here.” And people are so nice.”Zoya Basharmal
She also finds social media pages, such as the Yorba Linda Buzz Facebook page, very convenient. From this, she can find whatever she needs, whether it be restaurant recommendations or medical advice. Resources like this were not available when she grew up in Afghanistan, so she enjoys taking advantage of these opportunities. Even with common tasks such as shopping, Zoya notices a clear difference between the United States and the other countries she has lived in. She recognizes how things as simple as returning items after shopping is a privilege and is not an option in other countries.
In her free time, Zoya enjoys volunteering for animal shelters, the homeless, and schools. She loves giving back to a community that gave her so much. She is also happy to give her daughter, Alhees, a childhood that she didn’t have as a woman in Afghanistan. She is content knowing that her daughter won’t face the same setbacks she did while growing up. As a feminist herself, Zoya has felt more comfortable in the United States more so than in any other place she has lived. She elaborates:
“As I told you in Afghanistan, it was really bad and I’m so grateful to live here because you have the same privilege as a man, almost. Like, there are still some places they are not giving you enough, like, the same money as as a man. But still, it’s much, much better than other places, even in Europe, really. Because over there, like, they see you differently because they say “Oh, no, man, it’s first a man and then a woman.” But here, I’m so happy you can do whatever you want. Whatever a man can do, a woman can do. It’s nothing in between. And as a feminist, I’m very grateful to live here.”Zoya Basharmal
From her words, it can be observed how thankful Zoya is to live in the United States, especially as a feminist. She is now able to celebrate herself and other women, which she has wanted to do her whole life. She was stripped of this ability in Afghanistan, so it means a lot for Zoya to finally have a proper feeling of self-worth as a woman. The reality, however, is that this journey was not easy for her. As Zoya reflects on her life struggles and past experiences, she recognizes what she has learned along the way and how she wants to communicate her wisdom to women in similar situations.
Zoya’s Advice & Reflections
When I asked Zoya for what advice she would give women growing up in the shoes she was in, a woman in Afghanistan, her answer was rather insightful. She said that they must be able to stand up for themselves in relationships and not stay in them due to pressure. She adds that women in Afghanistan often stay in relationships with men because they are afraid of how everyone would judge them if they broke up or divorced. She encourages these women to live their own happiness. She says:
“Your happiness is the most important. Don’t stick with unhappiness because of people’s talks, like, people say whatever, be happy. Don’t think about other people and what they say.”Zoya Basharmal
In the article “Why Do People Stay In Abusive Relationships?”, we observe that one of the main factors as to why people stay in relationships they don’t enjoy is due to cultural context. Sometimes traditional customs can perpetuate a stigma against breaking up or divorcing, and this is exactly the case with women in Afghanistan. Although it may seem hard to do so, Zoya recommends not staying in a relationship if it is what’s best for your happiness. In the same article, we also realize that lack of resources, shame, and fear are other reasons why people stay in unhealthy relationships. From Zoya’s experience, she implies that getting over shame and fear is the key to happiness. Zoya explained how challenging it was to find resources in Afghanistan that could help someone get out of a relationship comfortably. If needed, she encourages younger women living in Afghanistan to the best of their ability to find resources that will put them on the quest for happiness and out of the cycle of being in an unhealthy relationship.
As for herself, Zoya is using what she has learned from her previous life experiences and is applying it to her own current life. Being the risk-taking and opportunity-seizing individual she has always been, she is being sure to live her life in the present moment and takes advantage of what life gives her. This has especially been a prevalent way of thinking for her while living through the COVID-19 pandemic. She states:
“So, um, before the pandemic, I was like, “Oh, it’s okay.” I took everything for granted. But now I’m like, living every day like I’m so happy to be alive. That’s why I wanted to live my life the fullest, like, whenever, you can do it and you have opportunity, don’t put it in the next day. Do it. Whatever it is. Do it as soon as possible. If you have an opportunity, don’t delay it, because you never know what’s going on.”Zoya Basharmal
This mindset is more prevalent now than ever during the COVID-19 pandemic. In these challenging times, many people are looking for ways to live their best lives and continue fulfilling their dreams. As a woman who has been through many life switches and obstacles, Zoya approaches this time by seizing every opportunity in front of her. I believe there is something we can all learn from this, as it pertains to the current state of the world. As someone who has many hopes and aspirations but has trouble executing them, this gave me a new perspective.
After interviewing Zoya, I gained a tremendous amount of respect for her ability to be so adaptable to new changes that life threw at her. Her story is truly inspiring and reminds me that I must be flexible in hard situations like she was. As I compare my intersectionality to her, being a white male who has lived in America my entire life, I can only imagine how she made use of her situation. As a woman who grew up in Afghanistan, lived in various European countries, moved to America, and learned 7 different languages along the way, she is a true display of courage. Seeing her happy that she now lives in America after all her struggles in other countries was very rewarding. It makes me feel lucky to grow up and live here in the United States. I haven’t had life changes nearly as drastic as Zoya’s, yet I admire her courage when adjusting to new ways of life.
I believe there is something we can all learn from Zoya Basharmal. She has taught me the values of adaptability and fearlessness. In my life, I have always been someone who has trouble with change and gets discouraged because of it. Zoya navigated life changes such as moving to several different countries which requires her to change her entire lifestyle, such as learning new languages and interacting with entirely new people. She had also been living in Europe while she was attending university. As a current college student who has yet to physically move on campus, I look at Zoya’s situation and relate it to my perspective. If she was able to move to a new country that spoke a different language to attend university, there is no reason why I cannot attend a college an hour away from my house that speaks English. There is no excuse for me not to adapt to the situation, knowing that others such as Zoya had a more drastic change. Zoya also embodies fearlessness, given along with her living in Europe, she also moved to the United States without hesitation to start a new life. In my life, I often find that changes come with intimidation. As I look at Zoya’s situation, I am reminded that fear is not worthwhile and will only get in the way of achieving my goals. Instead of thinking about what can go wrong, I am better off thinking about what will go right and how my goals being reached. I am so glad I got the opportunity to interview Zoya Basharmal as it showed me a true example of a courageous and admirable woman.
Quan, K. Y. (1990). “The Girl Who Wouldn’t Sing”. In Gloria Anzaldúa (Editor), Making face, making soul = Haciendo caras: Creative and critical perspectives by feminists of color (pp. 13-21). San Francisco: Aunt Lute Books.
Tan, Amy. “Mother Tongue.” The World is a Text: Writing, Reading, and Thinking about Culture and Its Contexts (2003).
“Why Do People Stay In Abusive Relationships?” (2020, September 28). Retrieved April 30, 2021, from https://www.thehotline.org/support-others/why-people-stay/