Afghan Journalist Mahnaz Rezaie Talks Fighting Discrimination With Art & The Importance Of Being Inquisitive

Moving is a jarring experience, especially as a kid. On the phone with Afghan journalist Mahnaz Rezaie one afternoon, she told me about her own experience moving in first grade. On top of the general unsteadiness that occurs from uprooting herself, Rezaie was moving from Iran to Afghanistan in the midst of a cvil conflict. At the time, the Taliban was staging a hostile takeover against the local government. 

"My parents were both born in Herat (Afghanistan) and during the war, they had to go to Iran," she tells me. "We came back when I was 8, and the Taliban had taken over. I had to miss two years of education because of that." Writing about the experience for the Afghan Women's Writer's Project, she remembers everything in visceral detail: the dust that coated her eyelashes, the potholes on the road, the danger and uncertainty of it all. And then, the Taliban came and even leaving the house to go the doctor became dangerous. "We were living like prisoners," she wrote in her essay. 

Years later, Rezaie is living like the opposite of a prisoner — she's a flourishing filmmaker and creative mind. She worked to help support her family for years in Afghanistan, all while taking summer classes to keep up with her education. In 2009, she moved to America to attend Middlebury College, where she studied anthropology, sociology, and film studies. There, she made her first film, Wearing Scarf, in which she examines the Western cultural misconceptions around wearing a hijab. 

Last May, she completed her master of fine arts in new media and photojournalism at George Washington's Corcoran School For The Arts. Today, she interns at The Washington Post, editing, filming, writing, and telling stories on a national stage. Furthermore, she mentors writers for the Afghan Women's Writing Project, helping women who grew up in this culture hone their voices. 

It's for these reasons and others that we're proud to announce Mahnaz Rezaie as one of Bustle's Upstart Awards Honorees of 2016. I talked to her about making accessible art, confronting people's prejudices, and how to bridge humanity and gender politics across cultures. Here's what she's learned.

Being A Fish Out Of Water Can Lead To Some Great Art

"When I first came to Middlebury, I was the only girl wearing a hijab," she recalls. Coming from Afghanistan to America, college was a bit of a culture shock for her. She got the sense that people were a bit afraid to interact with her. 

"They were probably thinking, 'I want to respect this woman,'” she says, "but I wanted to break the ice and get people to understand me." That's how her first film, Wearing Scarf, was conceived. 

Every Instance Of Ignorance Is An Opportunity To Educate 

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"I thought it was very important for Americans to see how it feels to wear one," she says. Like any great journalist, she took to the streets (or rather, the paths of her campus) and started asking questions. At the beginning, plenty of her interview subjects display the assumed Western ideas about hijab (scarf = cultural oppression). But by the end, when they try on the scarves themselves, you can see minds beginning to change. We see the subjects opening up their minds to garment as a fashion statement rather than a shroud — as it is for many women. (One participant remarks, "I feel so glamorous!")

At her job at The Washington Post, she has a chance to educate people about discrimination and social issues daily. 

"There are different ways to fight against different kinds of discrimination," says Rezaie. "Writing about them, making films about those things — it’s a great way to learn.  

Never Stop Questioning The Status Quo

Afghanistan is known as a country that has very conservative social expectations for women, but Rezaie was always questioning that. 

"When I was very young I would ask my mom, 'Why would men pray in front of women?'" she tells me. "She said, 'Men have higher stars.' And I would say, 'I don’t want them to have higher stars.'”

Even with her teachers, she was always inquisitive: "I always questioned when my teacher talked about women needing to be modest, saying things like, 'don't wear nail polish because that will attract men,'" she says. "I was always questioning them." 

Even from a young age, she was interested in writing, art, and subjects that centered around women's rights. It's tough to say if she saw herself writing, speaking at international conferences, and making films from a young age. But looking at the arc of her life, this early curiosity gives a sense of continuity to where she ended up. 

Do What You Love

When I ask her for to share advice to other young people starting out, her tip is simple and poignant: "Don't get lost in a lot of options — go after your passion." In other words, it's easy to become overwhelmed with all the options, but in the end, it's not money that's going to make you excited to go to work every day. 

"The articles always say, 'Choose this major because it makes more money,'" she continues. "After a few years, they hate their job, and the money doesn’t bring them happiness." 

In the end, whether she's in Afghanistan or covering her beat in DC, Rezaie's combination of curiosity, courage, and passion make her a role model for women around the world. 

Images: Mahnaz Rezaie (5); Design: Caroline Wurtzel / Bustle 

Click here for more information about Bustle's 2016 Upstart Awards!

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