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We asked Afghan students about Ramadan

Twenty two percent of the world’s population this month aren’t eating or drinking anything- not even water- for an average of 16 hours a day, sunset to sunrise. And it has nothing to do with a lack of food. 1.6 billion Muslims around the world are taking part in the holiest month of Islam- Ramadan.
Unlike Christians, whose religion follows the solar calendar, Muslims go by the lunar calendar, which typically has 354 or 355 days. Ramadan is the ninth month. Because the internationally used Gregorian calendar has 365 days, Ramadan falls about 11 days earlier every year. This year, it began on Monday, June 6th after the sighting of the crescent moon in Saudi Arabia. So what makes Ramadan so special? Well, according to many scholars, the Qur’an was first revealed to the Prophet Mohammed (SAAW) during the month of Ramadan. Therefore, Ramadan is a time to become closer to God by fasting and exercising self-discipline. Fasting during Ramadan is one of the five pillars of Islam and all able Muslims partake. We asked some of our 8th grade students what they think of Ramadan. Here’s what they said.
Latifa, 25 years old, says “Ramadan means fasting with your whole body. Besides avoiding eating and drinking, you avoid your tongue and ears from gossipping and lying and your eyes from things that are haram. I feel great when I am fasting because I can worship more.”
Nazanin, 23 years old, likes Ramadan because “one of the benefits is experiencing the hunger of poor people.”
Shekiba Akbari, 22 years old, also appreciates the emphasis on restraining yourself during Ramadan. “My favorite part of the day is Iftar after evening twilight. I feel much closer to my creator.”
During the average day during Ramadan, Muslims wake before sunrise to eat before the day of fasting begins. At sundown, people gather in groups for parties and feasts for iftar, or breaking fast. Iftar usually begins with eating a few dates, then prayers, then a large meal. Ramadan is set to end on July 5th or 6th this year, culminating in Eid al Fitr celebrations.

Dancing for a Difference

By Kathryn Novelli
The sounds of strings and chirping birds captivates VCU’s ballroom. The screen displays sweeping panoramic views of Afghan mountains as the sun illuminates the clouds, then a town, then the people in it. A little boy runs through an orchard, a woman winds thread into skeins, women weave skeins into rugs. A soldier holds his gun as a tear rolls down his cheek. Another man feeds birds outside a mosque. Everything is bright and colorful following the journey through Kabul and Mazar-e Sharif. The credits roll as giggling children are silhouetted flying a kite as day becomes night. “Afghanistan – touch down in flight” was created by Salome and Lukus Augustin as a tribute to a friend who was shot dead in Kabul. The audience is silently fixated on the film.
On Friday November 6, 2015, Afghan Student Association at VCU held A Night in Afghanistan raising over $2,000 for Aid Afghanistan for Education with a celebration of Afghan culture.
AAE Digital Media Specialist, Miranda Cleland came from Washington D.C. for the event. Cleland explained AAE’s mission to create and maintain quality, accelerated, and state approved educational facilities for people deprived of educational opportunities due to the impacts of war in Afghanistan. Cleland urged community action and cited education as a means of empowering people and alleviating poverty in the nation. Cleland appealed “If any of you believe in Afghanistan as much as we do, consider this your formal invitation to join us.”
ASO’s President Aneil Tawakalzada and Vice President Nadia Abdulghafoor acted as M.C.s, introducing the night’s entertainment. The first event was a fashion show, where ASO members strutted across the stage modeling traditional, colorful Afghan dresses; each model received well-deserved applause. The next act was a boisterous tabla performance by an Arab student and friend of ASO. The audience clapped in time, always keeping up with the skillfully executed tempo changes.  The audience was then served a dinner of nan, sabzi, chickpeas, quabili palau, spicy chatni sauce, and lamb and chicken kababs, dished out by the executive board of ASO. Guests dined at communal tables, bonding over the incredible performances.
After dinner, two Pakistani students performed Bollywood duets after explaining Afghanistan and Pakistan’s shared cultural love of Bollywood films and music. Their harmonies inspired a sense of nostalgia or curiosity for audience members enthused by the performance. Then, an ASO member played guitar while a friend played violin, creating an energetic fusion of eastern and western styles that intrigued and excited the audience who clamored for an encore. ASO’s dance group as performed the grand finale. Tawakalzada explained the importance of dance in Afghan culture. The passionate, exuberant, traditional dances enthralled the audience inspiring massive applause as the dancers graciously bowed to their guests. Tawakalzada thanked the guests for their time and contributions to AAE, adding that “Afghanistan is a beautiful but misunderstood country, lost over three decades of war… With your help, we can make a difference in Afghanistan and the world.”

VAW in Afghanistan: Holding Girls Back

by Miranda Cleland

Freshtah is not a typical sixth grade student. She is a 27 year old Afghan woman, once a child bride who lost an eye to an abusive husband who later abandoned her. Freshtah’s story is rare, not because of her difficult past, but because she is now going to school. Nearly every woman in Afghanistan has experienced violence in some way or another — physical, psychological, or sexual — in her lifetime. More often than not, gender-based violence keeps women out of sight and out of school.
Violence against women is not random. Areas with low education levels and high instances of poverty and political instability tend to have higher rates of violence. Studies have also shown that violence against women is cyclical: perpetrators abuse women because they have seen it elsewhere, whether it be growing up at home, in public, or during a war. Ultra-patriarchal societies and attitudes have also been shown to catalyze high rates of violence against women, especially when the legal system fails to persecute abusive men. In Afghanistan, every single one of these factors is working simultaneously to conspire against half its population.
If threatened by violent husbands, many Afghan women are unlikely to speak up out of fear for their lives. As a result, women suffer from isolation, mental and physical health problems, and lack of socioeconomic opportunity. Battered women rarely make it back to the school they had to leave as a child bride — often, their husbands forbid it and few schools will take them. At Aid Afghanistan for Education, these women are welcomed back to school at any age.
Education is one of the largest factors that helps prevent and reduce instances of violence against women. UNICEF statistics show educated women are more likely to stand up to an abusive husband, and they will typically marry at an older age, bypassing the violence that goes hand in hand with child marriage. These opportunities also have a tangible impact amongst men. Educated men, especially those who have been taught about gender equality and women’s rights, are far less likely to commit acts of violence. In fact, many are beginning to use their position as a man to advocate for women, as can be seen with the HeForShe movement.
So what now? You know that millions of women across the world, including in Afghanistan, are subjected to violence on a daily basis. What you can do?
Women need you to speak up if you see someone being subjected to violence, treat the women in your life with kindness and respect, and educate your community about gender-based violence.Supporting survivors, both at home and around the world, is also key. Violence against women will not end overnight, but meaningful change happens one person at a time. Just ask Freshtah.

4 Reasons to Celebrate International Literacy Day

by Miranda Cleland
Do you remember learning how to read? You were probably about 5 years old, right? In the developed world, nearly everyone can read, even children, but literacy is atypical in Afghanistan—the World Bank estimates only 38% of Afghans can read and write, and the number is even lower for women, at 24%.  So, discouraging facts like this beg the question: how can we begin to celebrate International Literacy Day when there is still so much work to be done?
Although the literacy situation seems dire today, it is important to recognize the stunning progress of the past. We can celebrate because 3 million Afghan girls are attending school today. Just 15 years ago, the only girls in school were the ones willing to risk their lives to defy the ban on female education imposed by the Taliban regime. We can celebrate because the average age Afghan girls get married is constantly increasing. This means girls are staying in school longer and fighting for their right to learn harder than ever. We can celebrate because child labor rates are falling. More children are going to school instead of work than ever before in Afghanistan. Families are braving economic hardships in order to keep their children in school as long as possible, so celebrating literacy not only honors children in school, but their families as well.
We can celebrate because Afghan women are among the bravest and most hopeful in the world. Every Afghan woman in school is there because she made a choice to pursue an education she knew would change her life. Take Farahnaz: now she’s a 7th grade student in Kabul, but for years she was abused and forbidden from school. She fled her violent home to a safe-house, where she learned of AAE schools and began attending.  Many of our students share stories like Farahnaz, so she is not alone. Even in times of severe desperation, girls are putting their education above all else—and that is worth celebrating.

We’ve already reached education equality, right? Wrong.

by Dana Kappel
It’s 2015: more girls are in school than ever before, and yet we’re still talking about the importance of education. Doesn’t everyone understand why it’s so vital by now? Unfortunately, the answer is no. So, just in case you’re wondering if all the world’s focus on educating girls is worth the hype, we have some indisputable evidence to convince you it is.

Education is a key strategy in improving the overall well-being of the individual while also improving communities’ economic and social development. Secretary-General of the United Nations, Ban Ki Moon, says it best:  “Education sends a message – a message of confidence and hope.  It tells that child: you have a future, what you think matters.” Universal primary education is one of the United Nations’ Millennium Development Goals and is considered a right to every human being, but this is not the reality for many women and girls throughout the world.  According to UNESCO, there are an estimated 39 million girls of lower secondary school age across the world not enrolled in either primary or  secondary school. Two-thirds of the world’s 796 million illiterate adults are women, and only about a third of countries have achieved gender equality  in secondary school enrollment.  Services for girls, which often need to be different than the same services for boys, are rarely prioritized when investing in education and other social services. Despite the unequal and unfair treatment of women and girls in education, the individual and societies reap huge benefits from ensuring that they have access to quality schooling.
The World Bank’s top researchers argue that “ high economic benefits of education” are “indisputable, universal, and global.” This holds true particularly for women with one extra year of schooling, which increase their wages by 10-20%.  An ent