The words of Munira Akhunzada echoed off the football stadium walls, louder than the soft-spoken young Afghan woman has ever spoken.
“The person who goes furthest is generally the one who is willing to do and dare,” she said. “This is the challenge that lies before us.”
Akhunzada delivered the commencement speech at Chapman University last week for her graduating class of LLM (Master of Laws) students.
It was an honor bestowed by her classmates, most of whom are Saudi men, who elected her to give the commencement speech.
“She’s one of the best students in our group,” said classmate Waleed Omari. “She has a message to send to the world.”
Munira Akhunzada and Shasmi Maqsoudi came to Southern California to study American law, as part of a U.S. State Department sponsored program with Afghanistan to send Afghan attorneys to American for more legal education and training.
Akhunzada and Maqsoudi are human rights attorneys who represented Afghan women in abuse cases. They have ambitions of becoming judges in their country. A Master of Laws degree would give them an edge in a male dominated Afghan judicial system.
Akhunzada said she was surprised by the recognition from her classmates. Saudi Arabia, like Afghanistan, is widely known for its restrictions on women. But things are changing incrementally.
This month, the Saudi government announced it would lift a ban on sports at private girl schools. Last month, the justice ministry licensed the first Saudi woman to train as a lawyer.
But there are still many restrictions: women must travel with a male guardian and cannot drive a car.
Akhunzada said the vote by her male classmates has given her faith that they want change for women.
“This is the sign,” she said. “They said they voted for the quality of the speech. It was not because it was me. It could be a man or a woman. They just respected that.”
Many of the students like Dahom Suwaylimi said it was Akhunzada’s message of courage to challenge and change customs, but also be tolerant of people’s choices.
“I get used to many ideas, which I didn’t believe that I (would) even discuss,” he said. “Like gay marriage. I don’t agree with it, but I respect the idea.”
Chapman Law School has participated for a few years in this graduate student exchange program with Saudi Arabia, South Korea and Afghanistan. Their governments and the U.S. State Department sponsor the participants. It’s what you can call “soft power” or diplomacy via influence, said Chapman Law professor Rob Steiner.
“It’s just the relationship between people,” Steiner said. “Friendships first, (then) the exchange of ideas, ultimately, maybe business relationships, who knows.”
“That’s the healthy and mature relationship that we need to have with Afghanistan or Saudi Arabia and elsewhere,” Steiner added.
U.S. combat troops are scheduled to pull out of Afghanistan at the end of next year. But attacks like Monday’s suicide bombing ?by Taliban insurgents that killed a key Afghan provincial leader and a dozen others can shake confidence.
Cultural reforms are harder to introduce and enforce when there’s no stability. What little progress there was for women’s rights in Afghanistan, it was lost under Taliban rule.
It’s only been 10 months since Munira Akhunzada and Shamsi Maqsoudi have been away from Afghanistan. They say they’ll miss the new friends they made in Southern California and from other countries, but they’re eager to get back to work.
Akhunzada has been offered a job at the UN Women organization in Afghanistan to help set up non-profits and resources for women.
She said she hasn’t let go of her hope to join the few, but growing ranks of Afghan female judges. But Akhunzada said most women judges lack true judicial power and their positions are mostly symbolic. She wants to have influence in order to bring change to the government.
“So I will fight for it,” she said. “Maybe other people who (are coming) after, they will see me and they will start fighting and maybe they will get it, so I have to open the door.”
As for Maqsoudi, she has plans to seek a doctorate degree and a professorship, maybe at Kabul University, in the city she is from. Maqsoudi said her American teachers have inspired her and she would like to share what she’s learned with other Afghan law students.
“Maybe my share would be very little," Maqsoudi said. "But if everybody, every Afghan feels like this and every Afghan (does a) little, the day will come that we will feel a big change.”