I’m a 23-year-old Afghan woman, ambitious and with big dreams for my own future and the future of my country. In February 2021, I returned to Afghanistan from Pakistan where I had gone for undergraduate studies. I arrived home with my BA in International Relations in hand and a long-held dream of winning a coveted place at Oxford University in the UK for post-graduate studies.
That was the plan anyway.
Months later, the old government fell and on 15 August 2021, the Taleban entered Kabul the same day and with them a new era for Afghanistan began. Overnight, our country became a harder place for a woman to pursue her dreams. In those early months, I mostly stayed at home, trying to imagine what the new Afghanistan would look like and what this sudden change would mean for my own future. Life settled into a quiet routine – working from home, reading and helping my mother with chores around the house. I even started to learn Chinese online. I would leave the house once a month, with my mother in tow, to collect my salary. But I knew this was not sustainable. I had to put my anxieties and reservations aside and properly breach the four-wall confines of our house. I needed to re-engage with the world outside, renew my social relationships, upgrade my skills and revive my plans to get a master’s degree.
So in April 2022, I bought a black hijab and announced to my family that I intended to enroll in an English language course at one of Kabul’s universities. My loving parents were understandably anxious. They tried every argument they could think of to change my mind. In Afghanistan, where decision-making is often a whole of family affair, even our relatives chimed in to dissuade me. These were uncertain times, they said, no time for a girl to travel clear across town for any reason, least of all to take an English course. My parents asked if I couldn’t find a course online or closer to home. The chorus of naysayers was loud and compelling and I had to be strong to keep up my resolve. I even fibbed a little and told them my supervisor at work wanted me to improve my English writing skills – a white lie to further the cause of my education and independence.
Finally, after weeks of negotiations, sometimes lasting well into the night, they relented. The discussions about safety measures then began. They cautioned me against talking to people I don’t know, telling people where I work, and talking politics. They even hired a driver to take me to school and back. As I was leaving the house to register, my father said: “You don’t listen to anyone’s advice. That’s why I’m not going to say anything to you on this subject ever again.”
I’m not particularly brave. On the day I went to register, I was very anxious. As the car travelled the long distance between my home and the university, my parents’ words of caution were on replay in my head, but all that disappeared as soon as I walked into the university, anxiety gave way to relief. I was energised by the staff’s welcoming attitude to the women and girls who had, like me, come to register.
There were no Talebs inside the university and if anyone judged what I was wearing, I didn’t notice. I asked the staff about the rules of attire for female students – they were not too particular about this. They stressed, instead, that the classes were segregated by gender and that there were separate areas for male and female students. Later, but only much later, we were told that a delegation from the Taleban’s Ministry of Higher Education would spend ten days on campus. They would observe classes, examine the curriculum and ensure classes were in fact segregated by gender. We were cautioned to adhere to the hijab rules as defined by the new government. They have not come to inspect our classes yet.
We faced a new problem though: our class was undersubscribed. It had not reached the minimum number of students (ten) required to convene it. Our instructors said the school would have to cancel the class because it could not run courses at a financial loss. There were relatively few female students, in sharp contrast to the boys’ classes, which according to our instructors, were oversubscribed and bursting with students.
As it turned out, the numbers in our class slowly grew. A new student one day, another two the next, until we reached the requisite 10 girls enrolled in the class. Every time a new student walked into the classroom, my classmates and I would cheer and congratulate them and each other and our spirits rallied as we saw the possibility of the course being cancelled diminish.
For most Afghans, finding the spare cash to pay for the course in the current economic environment is difficult, if not impossible. The 11,000 afghanis (about USD 125) I paid for this three-month course is equivalent to one month’s rent for the family that lives next door to us. I can bear the cost because I have a job and live at home with my parents. In a country where most families have difficulty putting food on the table. I am fully aware of my privilege.
My parents have always pushed my siblings and me to excel at school, to persevere and aim high. Sometimes, I think they care more about our education than we do ourselves. These days, my mother scours the internet for post-graduate scholarships and sends me the ones she finds, even if they are unavailable to Afghans. Their support gives me the energy to dream big and stick with it. Behind every successful person are doggedly supportive parents. This is also a privilege.
In my lifetime, Kabul has always been a city of unexpected incidents – suicide bombings, sticky bombs, roadside IEDs and kidnapping. Things go back to ‘normal’ quickly and people return to their routines – work, school, shopping, family visits – grateful if the incident has not touched them and the people they love, but heartsick with grief for their neighbours and compatriots. They make some adjustments to their routines and hope the next dreaded attack does not come.
Yet ‘the next attack’ when it came, targeted students like me – women and girls taking a mock university entrance exam at the Kaaj Higher Education Centre in Dasht-e Barchi – a district in west Kabul inhabited mostly by Hazara Shia Muslims on 30 September 2022. Some 60 people, mostly women and girls, were killed in the attack.
The morning after, as I prepared to leave for school, I could read the concern in my parents’ eyes, but there was no longer any question of my not continuing with the course. In our house, the issue had already been debated and decided. And now after the attack, the stakes were even higher; people were taking to the streets in Afghanistan and abroad to protest against what they consider to be a genocide of Hazaras. Women and girls who, like me, are in education have a role to play in defining the future for ourselves and our daughters. Our job is to keep going.
There were fewer people at the university that morning. Only half of my classmates showed up. All were, no doubt, concerned about the possibility of a similar attack against our school. In the days that followed, students slowly started showing up for class and by the end of the week, the numbers were nearly back to normal.
We continue to arrive every morning on a campus segregated by gender. Although there are no male students in the building when female classes are in session – except for the instructors and university staff, who are mostly male – female students must leave the campus immediately after their classes end. Coaxed by the guards to make haste and vacate the premises, we make way for male students to enter the campus 30 minutes after our classes are dismissed. This doesn’t leave much time for us to get to know our classmates or have side conversations outside the classroom. But, for now, sharing space in a classroom where we can learn together is enough.
Edited by Roxanna Shapour and Kate Clark