It was a dark evening and I hoped for some time to myself to think. This was my daily life: from morning until 5 p.m., I worked as a tailor and taught my female students tailoring techniques. I lived for the nights, when I could be alone and daydream in my small room.
What did I dream about? A better life than what I had. Was that all? Yes. My world was very small, and my vision did not go beyond the walls of my house. I barely went outside once a year.
This evening did not seem different from others, except I felt a little more tired. I walked from the kitchen toward my room, whispering to myself. My younger brother was always curious about why I talked to myself, or why I suddenly laughed when I was alone. He always loved to tell my parents, “See, she is talking with walls, and laughing for no reason.” That evening, I just ignored him.
I wished for longer nights and more time alone. I did not like people. Whatever they said seemed like common sense. I did not enjoy their repetitious mentality. Thus, I lived in a world with imaginary friends who were very understanding. Because of this, my neighbors thought of me as self-centered. “If she gets married,” they would warn my mom, “this antisocial behavior will not be acceptable to her in-laws.” My mom wondered too, but was always supportive and gave me space to be alone, never interfering in my small, private world.
That evening, my younger sister entered my room without permission. I hated people coming in without asking or knocking. If their feet were not clean, that drove me crazy. She ignored the way I stared at her feet. “Meme,” she said. “Baba is calling you.” We call our father “Baba.” Oh, gosh. Not again, I thought. My sister, who was not normally allowed in my room, seemed to enjoy looking at all the movie stars’ posters on my walls. “Get out!” I told her. My sharp tone sent her away. Sorry, baby, I thought. But I was that way. Her big sister was not her friend at all.
I went to our living room in a bad mood, but kept it off my face. I was aware that to show Baba any sign of disagreement meant causing anger that could last for weeks. My father sat with his shoes on and looked at the TV, but I sensed he was not watching it. “Come here,” he told me. I sat in front of him, thinking please, God, I hope I have not done something bad. I didn’t want another lecture. A big part of living a refugee life meant bad news was a part of my family’s daily life. “Lima,” he said. “Let’s go to the Challenger Academy. I want you to take an English language course.”
Was I hearing this? Was it a dream? I couldn’t decide for some seconds. But it was true. Really true! He was allowing me to go out of the house after…I do not even recall the exact year. But it had been ten years.
I couldn’t speak at first, but finally I said my older brother would not like it. “He will fight you on this again,” I said. My father’s voice grew harsh. He said I could not live according to my brother’s wishes any longer. “Still, Baba,” I said. “I do not want to cause another fight at home.” In the past, when Baba tried to provide me with an educational opportunity, my big brother resisted. He warned that he would leave the house if I went to school. I never wanted that.
But this time, Baba had made up his mind. “Your brother will not fight,” he said. “Let’s go!” I wasn’t sure what to do. What ran through my mind was, how would I walk outside with all the people looking at me? How would I pass them in the street?
A few minutes later, I was ready with my big shawl covering me from head to knee. I was nervous, worrying that the veil might slip and people would see my face. We went from our house to the academic center, which was famous for its 4,000 students at the time. I was excited, but thinking of myself as an alien among normal people who easily interacted with one another.
Life became easier once I was able to see more than the walls of my house. But there were still many hurdles, and much that was new and unknown. The first obstacle was crossing the street from my door to get to the main road. Each morning, I was ready with my younger brothers at 7 a.m., waiting for the rental car across the street. All the people would be looking at me, scanning my body, and I felt as though I weren’t wearing any clothes. It was totally new to me, and I felt insecure. I couldn’t bear the watchful eyes of the car’s driver, who looked at me in the mirror as he drove me home or to the center. After two weeks, I grew in confidence and decided to take public buses. That was the first revolutionary stand against the being the victim of the driver’s bad eyes.
Sitting in my class of almost 40 male and 5 female classmates was a hair-raising experience. All of them were university students or preparing for their first year of college. I felt lonely and alien among all those educated people. I was fully covered, but couldn’t keep my nose and mouth veiled while concentrating on what the teacher said or wrote on the board. Even now, this man remains the image of a perfect teacher to me. Maybe that is because he was my first formal teacher. He was such a fast writer that I couldn’t takes notes on all that he would tell us.
I enjoyed the company of my female classmates. I could not speak English, but I could still communicate well. Very soon, I found out I was unique among my female classmates. The first difference was that they did not interact with our male classmates. They did not look at them. Not even by mistake. I was the only one who looked at boys as they explained something in class. I didn’t feel any embarrassment. I didn’t find our male classmates to be different from us.
The Level One class lasted for two months. At the start of the second month, I wanted to show the teacher I was one of the intelligent students. So on our test day, when everyone had to stand in front of class to answer questions, something made me raise my hand. I do not know why. The next minute, I stood in front of our class. The teacher told the students to ask me questions. I wasn’t able to answer any of them, but my body did not shake at all. The teacher looked into my eyes. He asked me why I had stood up if I didn’t know anything. I couldn’t answer in English, but I tried to tell him that I wanted to know how it felt to be an intelligent student. My teacher shrugged, but looked at me as though he understood.
The journey of two months came to an end. This was my last class and I would receive the results of my final exam. If I passed, this would allow me to step up to a higher level. All 45 of us were hoping. Everyone seemed to expect to hold the first position except me. The teacher announced the first and second highest scores of the class. Both were girls, and could you imagine who held the third highest?
Yes, it was me! I feel proud now looking back, but at the time I didn’t feel that way. The girl in second position was crying and saying that her father would not allow her to attend the next class, and that she would not be admitted to college because her score was only 78% out of 100. I looked at my result card, and my percentage was only 65%. I felt hopeless, and sure this was the end of life for me.
The entire way home on the bus, I thought that if 78% couldn’t secure this girl’s educational opportunity, then my 65% was very near to embarrassing. I felt broken on the inside. My Baba was always proud of his sons with their first positions in all their educational institutions. Here I was, his only daughter to go outside our home for an education, and I would embarrass him with my 65%. The trip home seemed longer than usual that day. Finally, I entered our house, and my Baba and Mom were sitting on the ground of our yard. Baba called to me, “Come here, show me your certificate, my Bachai,” an endearment which means “child.”
I didn’t want to. I didn’t want to see the sadness on his face to match the sadness in my heart. Before I could give it to him, my younger brother yelled that I had gotten the third position in class. “Don’t tell me that.” These were my Baba’s words, and he had a big smile on his face. This gave me a bit of courage, but still I thought when he saw my 65%, he would for sure be sad. I struggled inside, but gave him my card. His gaze was focused on my grade and he didn’t glance up. “I am sorry,” I told him. “I tried a lot.” He looked at me, and then he checked the result again, putting on his glasses.
Do you want to guess his reaction? I will tell you. He swept me into a big hug, kissed me and whispered in my ear. “I am proud of you, my child. No one has a daughter like you.” My 65% score was a proud gift to my father. His support made me the most successful woman in my circles today.
But what happened to that daughter who got 78%? And there are hundreds of daughters who daily earn 100% out of 100%. Do their fathers encourage them? Or are they stopped from receiving a higher education? Why, when our brothers fail or bring home poor marks, are they given more chances? Why are girls only given one chance, do or die? I am telling all fathers of the world that your sons do not need your encouragement as much as your daughters. Your daughter always looks into your eyes, expecting a smile when she accomplishes something. Please do not ignore her. You are her first friend. My father made me successful with his encouragement and his love. Do you encourage your daughter?