Sarina Faizy LL.M. ’21 is by any and all accounts an extraordinary woman.
A leading international spokesperson and advocate for women’s rights and peace in Afghanistan, Faizy was born after in 1997, three years after the Taliban established its rule in her native Kandahar. For most of her life, her world has been one of intermittent war and restrictions imposed by the Taliban, either of which would be enough to stifle anyone’s ambitions, especially those of a young Afghan woman. Instead, those challenges have motivated her to fight against them.
Listen to an interview with Sarina Faizy LL.M. '21 on Hearsay with Cathy Lewis. Go to about 21 minutes into the program for the interview.
“Afghan culture is really amazing. The food, the traditions, the way we live – are all unique. The only thing that we do not have is security. I would like to show the world the way we are, how everything is right now,” Faizy explains. “Every single day we have a bomb. I cannot sleep at night even though I think of myself as a strong woman and a fighter. It's been more than forty-five years of war. I grew up in the war. My mother grew up and died in the war. It’s just awful, and it just keeps going on and on and on with no end. And the worst thing is that the fight is not an Afghan fight; it’s other countries that are selecting Afghanistan or using Afghanistan as a tool, which is painful for us because those who are dying are the Afghan people.”
Faizy has broken barriers, but she has also braved criticism, survived serious injury from an IED and faced threats on herself and her family. She has experienced personal losses, including that of her mother at an early age, and more recently a powerful mentor and protector, Kandahar police chief Abdul Raziq, who was assassinated by the Taliban while she was in the U.S.
And yet, her story is not one of limitations. Almost all of Faizy’s accomplishments boast the qualifiers “first” or “youngest” or “only woman.” Faizy earned her undergraduate degree in law and international relations from Malali University in Kandahar in 2017. She was both the youngest and the first female Provincial Council Member in the county, representing Kandahar (2014 to 2019). She has practiced law, traveled as a young leader with the State Department, had an internship with a U.S. Agency for International Development’s (USAID) program on Women in the Economy (WIE); and was a leadership fellow at the George W. Bush Presidential Center.
William & Mary Law School has always attracted current and aspiring leaders since its founding as the first law school in the U.S. Although her gender and country of origin may not superficially resemble George Wythe or John Marshall, she is driven by a similar call to public service. Her journey from Kandahar to William & Mary has been both remarkable and courageous. And that journey begins with her family.
An early start
Faizy is one of ten – seven girls and three boys -- all of whom are educated and accomplished in their own right, thanks to the commitment of their parents. Faizy’s father is a retired colonel in the Afghan army, and her mother was a doctor. “I always take advantage of all the opportunities that I have, because most women in Afghanistan have been raised in families not like mine. The majority of women in Afghanistan are raised to stay in the home, without a voice outside in the community.” And not many have a working mother as an early example of what a girl can achieve.
Her mother died of a heart attack when Faizy was only 10 years old, but her impact and inspiration continue. “She was amazing. If people ask if I have seen any angels, I say, ‘I have--my mom.’ But it's not because she's a mom. Most people say, ‘Oh, I love my mom because I spend more time with her’; or ‘I love my mom, because she did this for me and that for me,’ but my mother was truly amazing. I think the confidence and the kindness I see in myself come from her.”
Faizy watched her mother treat patients for free if they were struggling financially or had other problems. “She would tell her patients that they could come back whenever then needed to be treated again.”
Faizy appreciates the challenges her mother faced as a female doctor in Afghanistan, competing in a man’s world while raising a family. “She was under a lot of stress. But whenever she was at the home, it was just fun; she always created positive energy for her family. She was holding everything inside of her and just giving us a happy face, and maybe that's why she had a heart attack -- because she was keeping it inside of her heart. I wish I could see her once more. This will be my last wish, and the first wish that I have, to be able to see her again.”
"Coach Sarina": an early start at testing boundaries and achieving results
Some people can be taught to be leaders, and then there are some who for whom it’s so natural and such a driving force, that you can put them in any situation, and it won’t be long before they’re in charge. In Faizy’s case, not only does she naturally take the lead, but she also makes a point of teaching, coaching and bringing others with her.
Faizy’s face lights up when she talks about basketball. She established a girls’ basketball team at her high school. Girls’ team sports were discouraged in Kandahar, but that did not discourage her. Nor did the fact that no one in her high school had a basketball or knew how to play. “I never had a trainer, and my team never had a trainer; we learned everything from YouTube©. At first we didn’t even have a basketball. We had a volleyball,” she laughs. “Then slowly people paid attention. I contacted someone in Kabul and I said, ‘We have a team here, and we are excited to take part in the national games.’ They agreed. We did not have any idea what to do or how to do it, but we went there. We got the training from some of the American players, and then they chose me as a trainer.” From player to trainer in six months. “I was a trainer for all the team, had forty-one students, and I was the lead for the team from 2010 until 2014.” The result? She led the team to a national championship.
Beginning of a Career
Faizy was only 14 in 2011, when the Kandahar Media Center (KMIC,) operated by NATO’s International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), hired her as a media relations officer. Even she was a little surprised that she was hired. “I was really, really young… I was the youngest person to apply,” she explains, “But they hired me, because there was no [other] female whose family would allow her to work with Americans there at that time.”
Why did she apply? “I decided to work there, because it was what I needed to do. I am a person with the kind of personality that, whenever I have a chance, I never say no to anything. Some people may wonder, ‘Is it too low level or high level for me?,’ but I see it as something that I am going to learn in this field, so why not just do it?”
Faizy was a natural working in media and coordinating diverse groups. She enjoyed it and used the opportunity to learn about politics, people and communication. “I coordinated all the meetings and informed the media about what was happening in our offices, encouraging them to cover our work,” she remembers. As with the basketball team, it wasn’t long before she was in a leadership role: “I had two people working for me.”
Building on success
“There’s a saying that when you get a taste of delicious food, you want it eat more and share it; and then you want to learn the recipe; and then you want to cook it for your family. And I think success is also like that,” Sarina explains. “When I started working as a basketball coach and trainer, my motivation was to motivate other girls, and then I worked for almost three years with Americans and I gained confidence and training at the same time, but this was not enough. I felt I could not do anything because I was not a person who had the power to change things or make a decision. So I decided that I needed to get to the position where I could change things.”
Faizy became a member of the Youth Council in Kandahar. And again, not surprisingly, it was not long before her fellow Youth Council members wanted her to run for chair. She initially demurred, noting there was an age requirement and she was too young, but her ability to speak five languages, including excellent English, made her the person they wanted to run. “They told me, ‘Just apply for it. It's better to have someone than have an empty chair, someone who's uneducated, or someone who's not from the state.’” So she ran. “I competed with men, and I didn’t think people would work for me, but people really did volunteer for me. People invested in me. I didn’t waste one penny. I won.”
Elected in 2014, she was the youngest and the first female Provincial Council Member in Kandahar. But winning the seat was just the beginning of the battle. She still faced multiple frustrations and obstacles. She had to work slowly and incrementally. “I took advantage of any small opportunity I had, because whenever I tried to talk, [the men on the council] would try to keep me from talking. They criticized me for working for Americans, or for going to embassies, because I was able to speak in English.”
She was also criticized for being straightforward and open-minded. “I don't hide anything. When something is wrong, it's wrong. For me it doesn't matter if it's your father, or you, or if it's your family member. Wrong is wrong.”
Faizy endured and persisted despite the attacks and threats. “That [criticism] was really, really tough, not just for me, but for other colleagues, too, even men. For the entire younger generation. It was especially difficult for females, because we were told we were supposed to be only a symbol – sit, look, listen. Don’t open your mouth. But I did. That's why I was always in trouble and in newspapers nationally and internationally. But people paid attention.”
People did pay attention. They noticed she had energy and ideas, and she became a role model for other young women and men. She is proud to be seen as an example of what they can achieve, but worries they may not always see the price she has paid - and still pays - for her persistence and outspokenness. “They just know what you are right now; they don't have any idea what you have been through, the situations, and how you suffer, and how you made these opportunities possible. It's really easy to talk about what you did as a story, but when you were in a really difficult situation, you don't have any idea how you will come through.”
Faizy continued her work on the council despite threats on her and her family. She promoted the issues that mattered to her, such as wage parity between men and women, and rights and education for women and children. “I spoke up, but it was causing problems for my family and me, so I went to India for almost three months until the situation was a little calmer, and then I could return.”
Building confidence and a network of supporters
Despite the negative aspects of her activism, Faizy’s work first at the Media Center and now in politics were building her confidence. “I was also always taking chances; thinking ‘this will take me somewhere,’ and I really see the results now.”
The communication skills were essential. “You need to know how to take your thoughts and present them, really like lay them the right way on the table, so you can get people’s attention to where they see this is something important that we need to do,” Faizy explains. “Talking about these [issues] is really unfamiliar for most people in Afghanistan who come from a family that is traditional, or maybe a little strict.”
She had found her mission: to educate as well as advocate for the people of Afghanistan. “We needed to start from somewhere. So I thought, ‘Why not me?’ If not me, then who better than me?”
Faizy also was growing her network of friends and colleagues to help in her professional and personal mission. “Once I make a contact for me, they're my family members. It’s the Afghan or Asian culture: ‘I'm not your blood, but the blood color is the same, so let's make it happen.’” She credits many mentors, family and friends in her life who have helped her. “I think it's really important to hold the hand of the right person, because we say that we can do it by ourselves, but we still need a hand, to hold it with full trust, to walk with the same fate. And when we dream, we need someone to listen to the dream and reassure us that yes, it's going to happen. Believe in it. And it's possible we may find it difficult, but if we are with the right person we can achieve our dream.”
Traveling abroad – seeing a new world of opportunities
Sarina’s first trip out of Afghanistan was to the U.S. in 2016, through the U.S. State Department’s International Visitor Leadership Program (IVLP) for current and emerging foreign leaders. She traveled to Washington, D.C., New York, Arizona, Minnesota, Boston and Texas. She loved the interaction with other young leaders from around the world. “You get to speak and share your experiences, and at the same time show and exchange your traditions and your thoughts. And you get a new dream to take back to your home country.”
When her term on council ended, Faizy’s next journeyed on her own to Dallas, where she had earned a fellowship in Women’s Leadership and Economics at the George W. Bush Presidential Center. The WE Lead program advances the role of women leaders who are increasing economic opportunity in their countries. WE Lead is designed to enhance the leadership skills of women around the world with an initial focus on women in the Middle East and North Africa. Women from seven countries are invited to apply to the very competitive program: Afghanistan, Egypt, Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon, Morocco, and Tunisia. WE Lead empowers and equips women to become effective leaders. Fellows develop leadership skills, exchange expertise, learn to advocate for social stability, and build civil society. Faizy’s skills and network grew and flourished during her fellowship.
In May 2019, having finished her fellowship, she was in the Washington, D.C. area. She continued her activism, including speaking about women's rights and education at a conference sponsored by the U.S. State Department but she needed to consider her next step. Some friends suggested she join them on a trip to Williamsburg, where they told her they would give her a tour of a college. She jumped at the chance and found herself walking on the campus of William & Mary. “It's so beautiful! Such beautiful buildings! I just wanted to walk and walk.” She felt a connection immediately.
She also discovered something else. “As I walked on campus, I learned about a William & Mary student [Army 1st Lt. Todd W. Weaver, 08’] who was a soldier in the Army and died [in 2010 at age 26] in Kandahar, in my hometown. I saw his name on a [memorial plaque] near the Wren Building. I took a picture. There were his shoes. I sat there, and I cried so hard. I think that is also why I am so connected with this university: he died in my country, and now I have to pay him back.”
And now she knew what her next step would be.
“I never thought that I would continue my studies in America,” Sarina says. “I had a thought that I may move somewhere but never ever had a thought to start my master's degree, much less in one of America’s best universities, but I was so lucky. This university is amazing. I'm very excited.””
She applied to William & Mary's LL.M. Program.
“I interviewed her for our program in spring 2020,” recalls Jennifer Stevenson, Associate Dean for Graduate Programs and director of the American Legal System Graduate Program at William & Mary Law School. “She was highly recommended and had an unusual background, so I wanted to meet her immediately. Even through an online meeting, her fierce passions for women’s rights and justice were apparent. This young woman has a larger plan for her life.”
But to return to an academic setting is a major decision for someone who has been out of school and worked professionally.
Stevenson wanted to make sure the program would be right for her. “She had already had a lot of experience and connections—internationally and in the United States. She’d been a lawmaker in Afghanistan and worked in a war zone with the U.S. military. I was intrigued that she wanted to take on this academically rigorous program — to become a student again. Not everyone wants to go back to school and continuing learning from others.”
Faizy and her friends were asking the same thing: “Are you sure you want to go back to college?”
But as always, she made her decision not only for herself, but for her fellow Afghans. “This could be a good example for people who believe that it would not be possible—a woman alone, leaving a career, moving to a different country.”
She has approached her studies with the same determination and energy she has with all of her ventures, making an impact on everyone around her.
In addition to Stevenson, Sarina has worked closely with Christie Warren, Professor of the Practice of International and Comparative Law and Director of the Center for Comparative Legal Studies and Post-Conflict Peacebuilding. Sarina signed up for two of Warren’s fall semester classes, Comparative Law and Post-Conflict Justice and the Rule of Law. She is currently taking Warren’s spring semester class in Comparative Constitutional Law.
“Usually our LL.M. students take a while to warm up to the way law school is taught in the U.S.,” Warren explains. “Not Sarina—she immediately became one of the most active and popular students in all three of my courses. Her in-class contributions have added a great deal to the learning environment.”
Stevenson concurs. “Sarina is not afraid to ask questions or be ‘wrong.’ She is genuinely interested in knowing the answers and growing academically. It’s refreshing to meet someone who realizes how precious educational opportunities can be—especially for women.”
An international education and collaboration
Faizy has made the most of every opportunity to educate other students at the university, including speaking to undergraduate students in Associate Professor Rani Mullen’s government classes.
She also has been eager to connect with her fellow students in Warren’s classes. “Sarina has been one of the most interactive students I have had during my time at W&M. She immediately engaged with all the course material and volunteered to give extra presentations to both classes on her experiences in Afghanistan. Her in-class contributions have been fascinating to me and to our other students,” Warren says.
Faizy is enthusiastic about the international nature of the law school and the university in general and intends to continue her connection and expand awareness back home. She also would like to see all the international students do the same. “At W&M we have students who are from so many different countries. We should help them to connect back with their countries and invite other students to follow their path to William & Mary. Or we could give them projects to pursue in their home country that they can apply there. Most of the people in Afghanistan have no idea that this kind of scholarship exists and the kinds of opportunities available.”
“Sarina is an example of exactly why it is so important and beneficial to have international students as part of our student body,” Warren says. “There may be a tendency to think that international students are here to learn about the U.S. legal system, and while that is undoubtedly true, just as much learning is done by U.S. law students from our international students. The opportunity for all of us to learn from experiences shared by Sarina and our other international students is invaluable.”
Faizy will graduate in May, and her LL.M. Degree is more than a personal achievement. “This degree is going to be really meaningful to my family, to my people who believed in me and to the people who believe that women are just for the house and cooking and having babies. We should not lose just because we are Afghan women, just because we have war, or just because we need to be married at a young age. We cannot lose our dreams.”
Faizy is looking for a job in Washington, hopefully working for an NGO or other international organization or perhaps a U.S. agency to continue her work for women’s and children’s rights and education. “I'm looking for an opportunity where I can help more people and at the same time learn more skills, because the more I learn, the better I can give the skills back to somebody else or help other people in a better way.”
She also leaves William & Mary with her characteristic optimism and determination. “I'm so happy. I'm really blessed. I think when you dream about something, it may take time. It may put you in really complex and difficult situations. It is going to test how serious you are about your dream. But once you have made up your mind, you have to be confident that you are going to achieve your dream. It may be later than you think, but you are going to achieve it.”
About William & Mary Law School
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