Its easy for us to have preconceptions and prejudgments about people from other countries, telling our stories is the only way to come closer together, says Sveto Ishoq.
As soon as I landed at Beijing airport, it was obvious how far I’d travelled. I was greeted by another scholar on the fellowship programme I’d come to take part in, he offered his hand. I was confused because as a Muslim woman, part of practicing my faith means that I wear a hijab, and don’t shake hands or hug anyone of the opposite gender.
It was at that time I understood that this year was not going to be an easy one. Something that was seemingly really simple for others was something challenging for me since I had to explain to people the reason why I don’t shake hands. I soon came to realise how much of a challenge cultural differences and presumptions could be. The key to overcoming it, sharing our stories with one another.
I started to realise how people perceived my country, the ‘single story’ that they had in their minds about Afghanistan.”
When I came to the college I started to realise how people perceived my country, the ‘single story’ that they had in their minds about Afghanistan. They would ask me about the war, they would ask me about the Taliban, they would tell me that they felt I was oppressed. I knew that these questions were well-intentioned, but they started to affect me because I realised that people really didn’t know much about my country. Only the negatives. I was worried I wouldn’t be met as I am but as someone who needed their pity or sympathy. I don’t blame them, I’m probably the first Afghan they met. It’s probably the only Afghani narrative they’ve heard before. It actually motivated me to educate people about my country and the amazing people that live there.
I started to tell people about my Afghanistan. I talked about how my undergraduate university, the American University of Afghanistan was attacked by the Taliban on August 24th 2016, how I lost classmates and how it was a tragic event and the university was closed for 7 months. But I also told them about the reopening, my brave classmates who came back to the school to continue education. I wanted to go beyond the tragedy and share how incredible and resilient, and brave my classmates were; the passion, positivity and change we are bringing to the country.
As I told my story, and those of other incredible, brave, fearless Afghan women, I started to connect to people and feel at home.”
I showed my classmates the rich history and culture of our Afghanistan National Treasures exhibition in the Tsinghua Art Museum. I told them about the important role Afghanistan has played in connecting the East and West throughout history. As I told my story, and those of other incredible, brave, fearless Afghan women, I started to connect to people and feel at home. It gave me the confidence to be myself.
My experience in China helped me shape my values. By being there, I realised that I really care about my country and I want to change the narrative of Afghanistan for the better.
I received a lot of emails thanking me for the project. I want to expand our activities, to tell more stories, to support more young women and girl’s education in Afghanistan. The more we know about each other the less far apart we feel.
As Afghanistan’s first Schwarzman Scholar, Sveto earned a master’s degree in Global Affairs at Tsinghua University in Beijing. Prior to that, she completed her Business Administration degree at American University of Afghanistan. Sveto writes on the promotion of women’s rights in outlets such as the Afghan Women’s Writing Project, the Anna May Project, and Star Educational Society’s Interstellar Bulletin Newspaper and blogs for UN Women and Kayhan Life. She also volunteers widely with organizations like Everywoman Treaty, where she works on the first-ever International Treaty on Violence against Women. She is passionate about women’s economic empowerment and eliminating the ‘single story’ about her home country, Afghanistan, by representing Afghanistan on national and international platforms and promoting the unheard experiences of Afghan people.
Having lived in China for a year and absorbed negative perspectives that others have about life in Afghanistan inspired Sveto to combine her passion for fashion with national pride and create the first modest clothing brand in Afghanistan- showing the world that Afghanistan is much more than what people see in the media. As a women’s rights activist, she is committed to making Ayat a women-owned and women-led Afghan brand.
In addition to Ayat, Sveto was inspired to contribute to ‘storytelling’ through her new initiative, the Chadari project. She also uses her own stories about her experiences as a woman entrepreneur to create a successful business, to inspire, motivate and encourage young women to believe in themselves. She encourages young people for gender equality through her motivational speeches on various platforms.