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‘It’s Worth the Risk’: Afghan Girls on the Dreams They Refuse to Relinquish
Barred from school and now university, Afghan girls are finding other ways to continue their education.
The footage of Afghan girls crying as they were turned away from school in 2022 drew sympathy from across the world, but the heart-wrenching scenes were only a glimpse of the suffering that ensued. Across Afghanistan, teenage girls found themselves adrift from everything that felt familiar, unable to pursue their plans and dreams. Many describe “dark days” when the despair seemed insurmountable. Stuck at home, they watched their lives shrink as the Taliban tightened restrictions on women, banning them from work, university and many public spaces.
“It was like being dead. All my sources of motivation were gone,” says Arwa Wafa, whose plans to pursue higher education were dashed when the Taliban seized power on August 15, 2021. At first, the future seemed hopeless, but gradually she realized there might be ways to salvage her future. Looking online, she enrolled for an English language course that helps students pass their TOEFL exams so they can apply for scholarships abroad.
The program, which received an Innovation Hub grant from Ideas Beyond Borders, was set up by Ghulam Reza Pazhwak to help women and girls find a way out of Afghanistan. “We have tried to create a window for girls to find another future by securing a scholarship and getting out of the country because inside Afghanistan we cannot see any opportunities for girls to support themselves, learn or thrive,” he says.
We spoke to some of his students about their struggles after the Taliban seized power and how they found a way to recover their dreams despite the monumental challenges facing women and girls in Afghanistan today.
Anita Nikzad, 18
An ‘ocean of sadness’ is how Anita describes the feeling that engulfed her when Afghanistan fell to the Taliban, and she realized everything was about to change.
I felt like I was drowning and there was no one to save me. I couldn’t walk or run or even stand. I had no strength, no power. And it got worse as the days went by and the rules grew stricter. But gradually, my outlook changed. I decided to put those terrible days behind me, accept the situation and find a way to carry on in spite of it. These dark days are not going to last forever, but they have forced me to change my plans. Instead of studying medicine and working to support people in Afghanistan, I am studying hard to pass my Toefl exam to secure a scholarship overseas and get my education without fear or restrictions. I am afraid of the Taliban, but if I accept their ruling on girls’ education and just give up, I will always live in failure. This isn’t the end of our lives, even though for now, the situation for women in Afghanistan gets worse and worse.
Zerka Dawran, 21
Before the Taliban seized power, Zerka Dawran was studying Law and Political Science at Kabul University, which she paid for through her work as an English instructor at the Muslim English Language Institute. Now she is barred from both.
“You educate a man; you educate a man. You educate a woman; you educate a generation” – that’s what Brigham Young, the former governor of the Utah Territory said in the nineteenth century. That’s the case in Afghanistan, where women and girls, despite the multiple challenges they face, have always been eager seekers of education. Sadly, when girls get the opportunity to go to school in Afghanistan, it’s only a matter of time before they get barred again. That’s how it has been here for decades and history just repeats itself. These restrictions have stolen our opportunities, killed my dreams, and made me see life in a different way.
Sara Rezayee, 19
Sara was in twelfth grade, preparing for her university entrance exams with plans to study economics. Then the Taliban seized power, and all hopes were dashed.
When the Taliban took over Afghanistan, my country became strange and unfamiliar to me. I knew that now, I would be imprisoned in my own home, deprived of my rights simply because I’m a girl. Still, I was shocked when I learned that girls would be totally barred from education, everyone was. We didn’t know what to do. Before they took over, I wanted to finish higher education and then serve my country, but now I just want to get out and escape the Taliban and their ideas. I am pursuing the Toefl grant program in the hopes of achieving my goals abroad and becoming the successful, independent woman I have always imagined I will be. That said, I will always dream of a day when the Taliban are out of our country, and all girls are free to live the life they want.
Arwa Wafa, 20
After graduating from high school, Arwa couldn’t wait to embark on the next phase of her education. When that was taken, she lost her sense of self.
I am a teenager with thousands of dreams of living under the Taliban. I had a normal life before, but then they took over, and all my hopes were lost. I thought I would never learn again. For a while, I was severely depressed. It was like being dead, all my sources of motivation were gone. My whole focus had been on studying. I spent most of my time among books. Then, suddenly, it was forbidden to me, and countless other girls across the country. I was angry too because it was shameful and unfair to deny women and girls their right to education, but after a while, I realized I had to find another way to rebuild my dreams. I had thought about studying before, but now it is my primary goal. Not only that, I have my sights set on Harvard, because I want to gain the best education possible so I can bring about change in my country and improve the lives of other Afghan girls.
Maral Noori, 19
Manal planned to pursue a bachelor’s degree in economics with the eventual aim of starting her own business before women in Afghanistan lost the right to work.
In the past 20 years, Afghan women and girls have been able to launch their own businesses and pursue successful careers thanks to education. They have held high-ranking positions showing that their presence in the community is crucial to society. Thinking about this helps us stay strong now that those opportunities have gone and women are cut off from society. As girls, this is the worst thing that could happen to us, but the consequences will be felt by everyone. But I still want to gain an education, develop my managerial and entrepreneurial abilities, and be a business leader who can influence female participation in society. I study 20 hours a week, reading online about how to start a business and run your own company. Outside, I see Taliban soldiers with their guns, flouting their dominance and intimidating people into obedience. I want to live in a society without these threats, where women can walk freely, so it’s worth the risk of studying to achieve that goal.
Pseudonyms have been used to protect the identities of female students who face a significant risk for pursuing an education under the Taliban
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