Miss Afghanistan to political refugee

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Malibu resident Zora Daoud, was the first and only Miss Afghanistan.

A Malibu resident tells the tale of going from being the first, and only, Miss Afghanistan to a political refugee, than a highly requested speaker on Afghani issues.

By Linda Harris/Special to The Malibu Times

A few months before the 1973 coup in Afghanistan, a contest took place that changed a young woman’s life forever. In 1972, Zohra Daoud became the first-and so far, the only-Miss Afghanistan. Speaking from her hilltop home in Malibu with sweeping views of the ocean, Daoud reminisced with pride about her title.

“We didn’t call it a beauty contest – the criteria was based on academic achievement,” Daoud said. “My parents thought it was wonderful.”

How about the swimsuit competition? Daoud laughed, “This contest was not that type of contest-no swimsuits.”

After she was crowned (actually, no crown either, but she did wear an evening gown) Miss Afghanistan, Daoud traveled throughout the country. It was then that this privileged girl from Kabul was exposed to the plight of girls and women in Afghanistan. “I saw women abused everywhere-many in jail because of family abuse and forced marriages. I was appalled,” Daoud said.

After her tour of duty as Miss Afghanistan ended, so did the contest. Daoud found work anchoring news and quiz shows for Afghanistan radio and television, when she met her future husband, commercial Afghan pilot Mohammed Daoud. Early in their marriage, the couple visited the States. “In 1976, we visited Manhattan,” Daoud said of her first trip to the U.S. “I marveled at the diversity-I called it a fruit salad. I saw different colors of people. I instantly loved that about America.”

Then, the unthinkable happened-the Soviets invaded Afghanistan in 1979. Along with her husband and infant son, Daoud fled Afghanistan. (Daoud’s five sisters, three brothers and mother, who died last year, and father had also moved to the States.)

“The next time I came to United States, in 1980, it was as a political refugee,” Daoud said. “We moved to Virginia-I didn’t speak English-my husband became a taxi driver.” With a degree in French literature, Daoud found work in a French bakery in Annandale, Virginia, mopping floors. “At that point, I decided to close my past for a while and accept the reality,” Daoud said.

Working “night and day,” this refugee family from Kabul eventually moved to Malibu. (They had many relatives and friends in Southern California.) Daoud’s husband became a pilot for United Airlines, where he still works, and she founded two Afghan organizations while adding two daughters to the Daoud family.

Then, again tragedy hit on September 11, 2001, bringing personal and national tragedy to the Daoud household. A friend of Mohammed’s was one of the pilots killed on 9/11, and following the grief and confusion, the couple’s children suffered discrimination from their peers at school. “My children were very uncomfortable returning to Malibu High School. Some people called them “Afghan terrorists,” Daoud said. However, “the principal resolved this problem instantly.”

The tragedy also increased Daoud’s profile. “After 9/11, I was invited to participate in Afghanistan issues and when ABC.com wrote an article about me-well, that’s when the phone starting ringing,” Daoud said.

Among other venues, the former Miss Afghanistan spoke at the Women for Afghan Women, an organization founded in April 2001 to promote Afghan women’s human rights, and was the keynote speaker at a Manhattan conference of Afghan women leaders and American feminists on securing the rights of Afghan women in the post-Taliban government.

She continued to speak to groups around the world, but it was also time to go “home.”

“I went to Afghanistan last July after a 23-year absence,” Daoud said. “I saw scenes of destruction, but the citizens of Afghanistan are putting the shattered pieces of their lives behind them and starting anew.”

At home, Daoud couldn’t help being impressed by the women of Afghanistan. “I found them very strong-they stood up against the Taliban and created underground schools for the girls.”

Recently, Daoud’s title as the only Miss Afghanistan was challenged. Last year, Vida Samadzai, a college student and Afghani refugee, competed in the International Miss Earth pageant as Miss Afghanistan, complete with a swimsuit competition. However, Daoud does not believe that Samadzai represents a true Miss Afghanistan. “She lives here and was not chosen by the Afghan people,” Daoud said. “She claims she did it for the freedom of Afghan women, but I think wearing a bikini cannot solve the problem of Afghan women.”

The Miss Earth pageant rules allow natives who live abroad to represent their country if someone here nominates them. Susan Jeske, a former Ms. America, nominated Samadzai to represent Afghanistan. The Afghan government later denounced Samadzai, but some hailed her as a role model for the “new Afghanistan.”

Today, at 49, Daoud is energetic and poised. A nonprofit organization she founded recently built a school in Kabul, and is busy looking for donors to buy school supplies. Her husband, Mohammed, is busy, too, starting a new airline in Afghanistan. As for the future, Daoud sees herself returning to Afghanistan. “I would like to become a teacher,” she said. “I saw kids studying in bombarded buses and schools with no walls, no windows, no chairs, no books, no pens and pencils, but they still conducted school regardless.”

For more information on Zohra Daoud’s organizations-Afghan Women’s Association of Southern California and the Afghan International Association for Professionals- contact 310.457.5724 or thecaravan@juno.com