Women in Afghanistan are often considered the property of their husbands. They work like servants. They cannot own property or make decisions about their futures. Yet I recently met three inspiring women in Kabul who are following their own dreams, despite living in a country where women are not treated as independent human beings.
Fatima is a new student at my high school in Kabul. Her father died when she was about three years old and she lives with her four brothers in Ghazni province. When she was seven and old enough for school, she went to the neighborhood school by herself and a teacher helped her enroll.
Fatima told me that she was the only girl in her family to go to school. Her brothers would not have permitted it, but by the time they discovered what she was doing, she was in high school! They locked her up in the house. While they went out, she went out through the window and went to school.
At this point, she told me, her male relatives gathered to discuss the situation. This is a common practice among men in the provinces. Fatima found out about the meeting and she went to defend her rights.
She told me how she said to them, “Who are you to decide what I should do and where I should go? According to our constitution, I am an independent human being and can decide for myself. Men and women have an equal need for education and none of you can stop me from going to school because this is my right.”
She said the men were very surprised to hear this about her rights and although they did not want her to go to school, they were unable to stop her. Now because of Fatima, other girls in the family go to school. She is very happy about it. They face difficulties at home and in society, but they are following their dreams.
My neighbor Mahtab is a 22-year-old woman who also broke traditions. We meet on the weekends. She was engaged to a cousin when she was about 17 years old. The boy had gone abroad for his education for a year. When he returned for his summer break he wanted Mahtab to marry him and live with his parents to help them with the house chores.
Mahtab said “No.” Her uncle told her that if she did not marry his son, they would end their relationship with her forever. Mahtab went ahead and did what she wanted to do. Now she is working at a UN organization and studying at the American University of Afghanistan, majoring in business. She drives her own car. She faces disapproval for her behavior, but she is doing what she wants, to live as an independent woman in the twenty-first century in a country stuck in the past.
Feroza is another girl who broke tradition in her village in Ghor province—a village that deprived many women from going to school after marriage. She persuaded her husband to let her attend school. She recently joined our class at my school. She is about 20 years old now and she has a two-year-old daughter. My school has a small kindergarten and she brings her daughter there each day.
She said that although her husband allows her to go to school, her in-laws don’t approve. “They create many problems to try to stop me. They tell me that it is a shame to them that their bride goes to school.” She said at first she was the only bride in the village who went to school but once the other brides found out, they wanted to go to school with her.
Feroza said she has helped thirty married women from her village attend school and break down the tradition that forbids women from attending school after marriage.
I know there are many other women in Afghanistan who are breaking down the traditions. There is Sara Bahayi, the first female taxi driver in Afghanistan; Sima Samar, the head of Human Rights; and Fawzia Koofi, who was an early candidate for president.
In the last few years, both men and women have crossed the boundaries of senseless traditions and are making decisions for themselves. It shows that change is possible and that not everyone accepts the old traditions.