Why I Serve

Posted by Monique Quesada
June 26, 2011
Monique Quesada Attends International Women's Day Event in Herat, Afghanistan

I was drawn to service in Herat, Afghanistan, because I wanted to know what it was really like for women here now. I wanted to do something constructive for them, if I could. Over the past nine months, I have been able to channel grants into projects that will teach women English and computer skills, or give them the chance to start their own businesses. Maria Bashir, Afghanistan's only women prosecutor general and my nominee for the International Women of Courage Award, was honored by Secretary Clinton earlier this year. But my biggest satisfaction turned out not to be about the grants or the awards. It was about the privilege of being included in the private lives of these women, of getting a glimpse of what their lives have been like and what hopes they cherish for the future.

The only thing I was able to give to the young women in my intermediate English class at the Lincoln Center was my time. In return, they told me about themselves, and we opened some windows on each other's mindsets. I learned that most married Herati women know about birth control and use it. I learned that many are terrified that the Taliban will return once the foreign troops go. We had a heated debate about wearing veils. I lost, but they were intrigued about looking at the issue from my point of view -- a foreigner who was tired of trying to figure out how to keep the thing on her head. And it never occurred to them that some Western women might find it annoying to be obliged to wear a head covering. When I passed the class on to other colleagues, I began to get affectionate pleas from the students: "Teacher, when are you coming back to class? I miss you!"

Perhaps the women, girls really, who have touched me most deeply are a group of very talented young women groping for a way to openly express themselves in the arts despite public or even family disapproval. They are actors, secret dancers, budding film directors, painters of women's sorrows. Of course, they appreciated the grant money and training I found for them, but what they really loved was when I spent time with them, watched their plays and their films, talked with them about their art and their dreams. One day a group of cinematography students told me, "You can come here whenever you like if you feel lonely. We are your family here."

Afghan women have invited me into their homes, taught me how to cook, introduced me to their families and children, taken me on picnics in the women's park, danced with me in their living rooms, lent me clothing to wear to their weddings, sent me poetry in text messages, and, yes, sometimes asked me for help getting a job. There are, of course, always opportunists among the people we meet, but most of the time these women made me feel like a sister or an aunt, and showered me with genuine affection. They gave me back so much more than I can ever give them.

This is why I serve.



Romona W.
June 26, 2011

Romona W. in Canada writes:

I envy the fact that you had a firsthand opportunity to talk and visit with these young women.

As I was reading this, I thought I would love to have been the woman doing this.

Thank you for sharing.

Romona W., Publisher

Lee-Alison S.
District Of Columbia, USA
June 27, 2011

Lee-Alison S. in Washington, D.C. writes:

When I said "good-bye" to Monique Quesada, before she left for Afghanistan, I asked her why she felt she had to go. She told me it was "her time and her duty" to serve there. And so she has served, and she has left her imprint, positively, and it is good for all Americans that she has. Coincidentally, my husband left for his year in Iraq right after Monique left for Afghanistan and he had said the same thing about his reason for serving -- and so he has too! We should be so proud of our foreign service officers who put their lives on the line to benefit humanity. We always hear about the brave military, but our FSOs are just as brave and just as necessary.

Joseph M.
Oregon, USA
June 28, 2011

Joseph in Oregon writes:

Monique Quesada,

Complimenti, indeed a pleasure reading about your experiences with Afghan women and their culture. You are truly the ideal candidate for the International Woman of Courage award. I recently finished my masters thesis, my topic "The Cultural Barriers to Integration of Second Generation Muslims in Northern Italy" discusses the cultural differences under the context of Europe. In my first chapter I present a in-depth analysis of the historical context, where I write on the historical background of Islam and its interaction in the Western Mediterranean region. Islam's interaction with the West and Christianity was not always met by conflict, especially when we look during the several hundred years of the Caliphate and Ottoman periods, which were longstanding periods of peaceful coexistence.

Today, the convergence of international affairs with religion calls for a "new lens of interaction". Your experience with the Afghan women, sharing their personal lives is such a invaluable experience that most people would not even be able to fathom. I found it interesting that you actually entered a heated debate with the women on "veiling", such a hot button issue today, particularly within Western society. I'm glad that you conceded.

Thank you for sharing today your absolutely fascinating experience and story. Wishing you all of the best.

Tom W.
June 28, 2011

DipNote Blogger Tom Weinz writes:

Monique: I saw your picture and remembered our time in Tunis. I read your moving article and remembered my time before Foreign Service, as a Peace Corps volunteer in Iran. A group of women came to our house twice a week to study English. They came in chadors (full-length veils), but tossed them in a corner once inside, and were dressed in the latest Western fashion. Then they turned into happy, giggly students of English. And when I left Iran, I traveled east overland--to Herat! Keep up the good work; by the way, your veil is crooked...

Tom Weinz on the USS Cleveland (with Pacific Partnership, USS CLEVELAND, South Pacific)

June 28, 2011

Christina in Germany writes:

Some weeks ago I had a wonderful experience on a parc bench in Munich. Two women, mother and daughter, were sitting and chatting on the same bench with me. It was interesting listening to a language I never heard before. Suddenly the women openend a bag full of food and invited me to their picnic. I was so surprised, because it never happend to me to be invited by strangers to share their food. Talking to them, I found out the women were from Afghanistan and this is part of their culture, to share everything they have, even with total strangers.

It was so loveley to meet them and have this amazing experience I will never forget.

Florida, USA
June 29, 2011

Cathy in Florida writes:

Monique, Martin and I are so proud of you and honored to call you our friend. Please be safe!

Coco L.
United States
June 29, 2011

Coco Lee L. in the U.S.A. writes:


Wonderful post!

I volunteer my time and skills in public relations and cultural diplomacy to promote the CCAA (Centre for Contemporary Art Afghanistan) and it's mission provide equal support and education to both female and male artists.

Your post has provided further insight into the need for avenues of artistic expression and the hidden talents, that if exposed, could translate into national heritage and pride for the Afghan people.

Afghanistan's rich cultural heritage can only be fully expressed via contemporary pathways that are open to all of its citizens.

I envy you and your position!

If there are any artistic or cultural programs that need promoting in the U.S., please let me know. Would love to help more artistic and cultural groups, projects and programs on a volunteer basis. (developculture.com)

Thank you for your service.

Coco Lee L.

Jamil A.
June 30, 2011

Jamil in Pakistan writes:

Really you are doing a great job. It is great help of the humainity to teach them to give them the knowledge about the world and especially in the society of Afghanistan.
Keep it up and enjoy


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