I was born into a time when few could live by choice; women especially were the first victims. But I was one of those lucky people who had a mother and father who supported my right to choose and my hopes for my studies and career. I still remember the day they told me I could select my elementary school and gave me the names of two schools close to my house. I was only four and a half years old. I saw lots of boys and girls coming from one of the schools where my brother also went. They seemed happy, and not bored. The other school had fewer boys and was basically formed for girls. I didn’t want to be in a school only for girls, and I wanted to go to school with my brother. So I chose the first school.
When I was growing up, we were one of the few families in Kabul who had bicycles for their children. My parents didn’t see any difference between me and my brothers. My brothers had bicycles and my parents encouraged me to learn to ride also. My brothers said if I did, they would buy a bike for me. I spent a week trying to learn and failed many times; I finally learned to bike but didn’t know how to use the brake. My brother stood outside on a corner. He said whenever I felt tired and wanted to stop, I should call to him and he would come help me stop. After less than a month, I learned completely how to bike.
After that, my old brother bought me a new bike. That was a very happy day for me because we three went to the park and ate ice cream to celebrate. My mother was really happy also, and she intentionally sent me to the bazaar to buy bread and vegetables for lunch and dinner. She knew that by doing such work, I would find inner courage and wouldn’t care about the opinions of our neighbors. But when some of our neighbors saw me on the bike, they also encouraged their daughters to learn to ride bicycles. After a few months, three of our neighbors had bicycles, and in the evening, the four of us would go out bicycling together. I owned my first bicycle until I was 16 years old. Then my father went to the bazaar and bought three Indian bikes, two for my brothers and one for me and my sister, who doesn’t like to bike so much.
My father also always encouraged me to learn an art in addition to my academic studies, and he told my mother I should not waste my time in the kitchen. Even when I reached the age to marry, my parents gave me the authority to decide whether I should marry or not. It is very common for women in Afghanistan to marry in early adulthood and face pressure to start a family at a young age. However, I am among the handful raised in a family that cares for personal development. Because of this, I could finish my studies and continue my career, despite challenges from our extended family.
My close relatives made their feelings known in bitter talks in front of my parents. Their views depressed my father and mother, but still I had to limit my activities. I began to feel my life was like a machine that does the same work every day. I attended school and returned home. The happiness of childhood seemed something that would never return. My isolation eventually induced my parents to think about my situation and find the way to make me happy.
My mother opened the door of hope for me by discussing this issue with my father. My father then told our close relatives he wanted to live without interference in his life or the way his wife and his children live. He said he had traveled to lots of foreign countries and knew how to decide what was best for his family. My father reminded them that they should also consider studying, since most of my relatives are illiterate. He said when you study, you will know the value of life and will not waste your time bad-mouthing others. My parents kindly requested that from here on, our relatives avoid criticizing our family’s lifestyle.
Just after I entered the university, dark times came into my life. I was forced to stay home for five years during the Taliban regime. I will never forget this long period in my life. During that time, I didn’t stop trying. I told my parents I wanted to do something. I opened a secret class for English and our own national subjects for girl students in my area. My older brother was afraid in the beginning and asked me what we would do if our neighbors informed on us. My parents supported me, and my father told my brother he would take responsibility for my actions. He also brought me different instruction books to use for my teaching, and also did assessments of my way of teaching my different classes. He found my students were happy with my teaching and this made him relax. He told my mother he was seeing the results of his support of me.
Of course this doesn’t mean I get to make all the choices. Some restrictions are still forced on me by our society and my relatives. For example, at times I have wanted to travel around our country, or even around the province where we live, but I couldn’t. I have wished to participate in group gatherings, but I couldn’t. I have wished to discuss issues with my male classmates but could not.
But I don’t lose my hope, and I am trying to find a way to receive what I want. My parents continue to support me, and my father promised that he will go Bamyan with me and will show me the place where the Buddha statues stood, and the five lakes of Bandi Amir.
photo from Shahmoama’s Afghan Women Bike Project