When I left school in the fall of 1995, I didn’t know that I wouldn’t be able to return for six years. The years that followed could’ve been spent learning and improving myself, but they turned into the darkest and the scariest years of my life when the Taliban took over Afghanistan. For the first few months, I was hopeful that the Taliban would change their mind and open schools to us. Months turned into years and I struggled to remain hopeful.
Compared to millions of girls in Afghanistan, I was very lucky because my father was a physics teacher and homeschooled me and my sisters. I learned how to read and write in Persian. My mother sent me to Masjid where I learned to read the Quran in Arabic. My parents made sure my sisters and I would be literate and able to stand on our own feet if and when we found opportunities.
After the fall of the Taliban regime in 2001, my dream came true. I went back to school. On the first day, sitting on the bench of my classroom, I felt like I was on the top of the world. Because I was able to read and write, unlike most girls my age, I didn’t have to start over.
I grew up in a big family. My parents, six siblings and I shared three rooms and we rarely had quiet spaces to study. Sometimes I studied on the roof, unbothered by the birds pooping on my books and notebooks.
When I was in the 11th grade, representatives from a non-profit organization visited my school and asked us to take a language test. The girls who passed the test were invited to study in the United States. I took the exam and passed despite knowing only a few English words. It was only possible because I had been homeschooled. When I told my parents that I wanted to study in the U.S., they immediately said “no”. They said that people would say negative things if they let me travel by myself. I knew I was given an extraordinary opportunity so I kept talking to them until they agreed. Two years later when I returned, our relatives- including the ones who had opposed my education abroad- took notice of how I had improved. They asked my parents about how they could send their daughters to the U.S.
This is how positive change happens, in tiny, painful steps.
Unfortunately, even today, not all girls have the opportunities I have had. Being literate opened many doors for me, but getting a basic education is still a dream for millions of girls in Afghanistan and around the world. In fact, according to a new UNESCO report, globally, an estimated 130 million girls are out of schools and girls are one and a half times less likely to complete secondary education than boys. In Afghanistan, at least 3.3 million children, the majority of them girls, are out of schools and dropout rate for girls is staggeringly high. According to the Ministry of Education, only 21 percent of Afghan girls graduate primary school. A variety of obstacles such as forced marriage, lack of schools and female teachers, street harassment, and Taliban’s threats and violence continue to prevent girls from reaching their full potential and women from becoming literate. It is no surprise then that Afghanistan has the second lowest literacy rate in the world, following South Sudan.
Having grown up deprived of the right to learn, I am familiar with the depth of the harm inflicted by lack of education. I also know that I was able to access many opportunities simply because I could read and write, something the vast majority of Afghan women still can’t do. Depriving women and girls from education is a human rights violation and a form of gender-based violence. In addition, a lack of serious investment in grassroots and widespread women’s education, and literacy in Afghanistan, is a disservice to the country and the region. The way forward, in fighting the many issues we face today, including unemployment, radicalization, gender-based violence, is increasing literacy rates through a national campaign so that no one is deprived of education and forced into illiteracy.
Feature Image by Rada Akbar.