I remember that I was always afraid of something. When I was born, war had started in Afghanistan, with airplanes dropping bombs and making the sky fearsome. Seeing people running to find a safe place made me feel as if there was always something out there that would hurt me.

The Soviet invasion changed everything. My family became refugees in Iran when I was six years old. Iran was different; we were different; the land did not belong to us. We heard that a lot. A refugee had to suffer.

When I had a chance to go to school, it was rigid and tough. Students wore the same clothes, the same shoes. They had the same accent and they thought the same, making it difficult for anyone who was different. The principal of the school could control everything, almost as if she could read minds. I was so afraid of her, I tried to blend into the crowd and lose my own uniqueness.

Fear drove my life for years. I made a thick cocoon around myself. When I was a young woman, I acted like a child, afraid to speak my mind. When I was 20, I still seemed like a 12 year old, skinny and unsure, afraid of dealing with life’s problems. But I had passions and dreams.

One boring, repetitive day in the library, among the oppressive stacks one book stood out to me. It was titled “The Psychology of Self Esteem.”  It even smelled different!  How dare it be different in a country that worshipped sameness, I thought. A selfish book about self-esteem in a place where everyone talked about sacrificing for others? The book opened a window in my cocoon, asking me who I was and what I was thinking, not what others thought of me. The book showed me how to think independently, to create my own values and how to be strong. What I read made me question my beliefs and society’s values. I could not believe it; I read the same paragraph several times to make sure I understood it. I was afraid someone might see me. Reading it was like having a beam of light come into my dark cocoon. It inspired me to want to dig my way out.

We returned to Afghanistan after the Taliban collapsed. Afghanistan after the Taliban seemed to offer more freedom than Iran. There was no powerful government controlling everything. However, I still felt the power of traditions, men, mullahs, and unwritten rules and I felt the fear of the explosions.

I loved going back to Afghanistan because I could work, and my family needed my support. This made me feel useful, powerful, and helped me challenge my fears and follow the advice in the “selfish book.” I refused to wear the traditional clothes; I wore dress that I thought was proper for work. It didn’t matter if men stared. I paid for my two young sisters to go to a school in Kabul. I refused to marry because I didn’t think I needed a husband for security. I wanted to secure my life with education, ideas, and abilities.

My father was amazed by this. I was stronger than my brothers and I was out in the world. He respected my decision not to marry. He was proud of having a different daughter.

When someone tried to put me down as a woman, I objected. I didn’t ask for forgiveness. I made my own decisions without my father or brother deciding for me. Happiness flowed in my blood.

Now I enjoy life. I live in Afghanistan in the middle of horrors, but fear does not drive my life anymore. I have escaped traditional beliefs and I fly in the open sky without boundaries confining who I want to be. I am responsible. I have made a different life for myself and my family. I believe that with my education I can make a difference in Afghanistan. I will create an outlet of hope in everyone’s cocoon to help them fight fear, to believe in themselves, and to make Afghanistan a better place to live, not to leave.

By Shakila