“I seem pretty American to you, and I am,” says Masuda Sultan, “but there’s a struggle in my mind between two worlds. The older generation – not just men – are absolutists, they like to simplify things, to say we’re one thing or another. To me, it’s more complex. I’m a New Yorker.”
Sultan, 23, was raised in a conservative Afghan family that immigrated here in 1983, four years after the Soviets invaded. In her household, religion was paramount, drinking proscribed, and dating taboo. When she was 17, her parents arranged for her to be wed to an Afghan-American doctor in Karachi. The marriage lasted three years. “I’m not against the notion of an arranged marriage, if both parties agree,” Sultan is quick to clarify. “It worked for my parents; it’s worked for friends my age.” She is the first woman in her family to receive a formal education at any level. In 2000, Sultan earned an economics degree from Queens College, and now works for concacaf, a multinational soccer federation. When she walks into a midtown restaurant dressed for a black-tie benefit, only her cranberry juice distinguishes her from the droves of twentysomething analysts and editorial assistants.
While Sultan has respect for her parents’ ways, she also has a considerable amount of perspective. “Let’s just say the interpretation of the Qu’ran is convenient for the people in charge of interpreting it.”
Sultan, who is Pashtun, the ethnic group that makes up most of the Taliban, is one of the few Afghan Americans of her generation to visit Afghanistan. “It’s like living in a black hole,” she says of life in Kandahar. “The kids have no stimulation, no idea of what exists outside the village. And there was something eerie about the atmosphere – as if people expect someone in their family to die at any moment.”
Sultan had gone to Kandahar in late July to understand where she’d come from. “I wanted to see if I could live there,” she says. “Part of being here and enjoying all these luxuries and rights – there’s a responsibility that comes with that. I would be doing an injustice to myself if I continued to live the good life and forgot about those who can’t live it.”
When she returned to New York in August, she co-founded the Young Afghan World Alliance, with the goal of rallying her generation to help rebuild Afghanistan and change the image of her people in America. September 11 made her task much more urgent.
Soon, Sultan might finally close the circle of exile her parents opened in 1983. Momentum has been building for the king’s return, and Afghans around the world are allowing themselves to imagine what might be. “There’s no question that we have to rely on Afghans in exile,” says Prince Mostapha Zaher, the 37-year-old grandson and spokesman of the exiled king. “They not only have skills but an understanding of the West, of how to marry freedom with Islam.”
Sultan is hopeful that women will regain the status they once had in Kabul. “I would beg the king to have women in his coalition,” she says. “If you’re going to represent every tribe, then please represent the other 50 percent of the population.” Sultan knows, however, that it won’t be easy. “It makes men in my own society here uncomfortable when I express my opinions. I’m looked at strangely.”
For many in her generation, the World Trade Center attacks underscored the contradictions in their lives. How can I be a Muslim woman and a feminist? What am I first – a Muslim, an Afghan, an American? “The challenge,” says Sultan, “is to build a bridge between the two countries. Part of me says wash your hands clean of that country and move forward. But I can’t do that.”