Different in Afghanistan

“If you want to be respected, be like others.” This is a famous phrase among Afghans. It means you must dress like others, speak like others, eat like others, and even think like others.

Differences are always put down by people in this culture. When you walk in the streets you must all walk like each other. Walk like the others do, although you may feel breathless and want to escape. You must not listen to music or laugh loudly in the street. Why? Because others don’t. Others. Others. Others. You will get crazy.

At school, I must wear a uniform that makes me look as if I were a sailing ship anchored to a classroom chair. I stand in line and listen to the same speeches again and again. My teachers speak, teach, laugh, and give assignments exactly like each other. They all want us to be the best. They want all to be best, but if all are the best, nobody can be the best.

I miss change, differences, and happiness. I remember the day that my different side let me comb my hair and put on my scarf and then the disciplined, responsible side came to me and advised me to wear my scarf the usual way. I remember the conversation:

Responsible: “Wear your scarf like OTHERS, tuck your hair inside! RIGHT NOW!”

Different: “Why? I like it this way.”

Responsible: “Who cares about you? Don’t you feel shy among boys when you show off? Don’t make them pay attention to you. It is the law.”

Different: “Where’s this law? I didn’t see it on the law notice board.”

Responsible: “Do like others.”

Different: “Ohhhhhhkay!”

I felt once again like that ship that can’t stand on its own. Being different in Afghanistan is a crime worse than lying, worse than gossip, worse than being lazy.

I think to myself: Why are you so different?

The reply comes: I don’t know, I am just me. I am not different. I am Fatima. I can’t refuse to be myself.

After that I learned how to pretend. How to dress like others, speak like others, eat like others. But I have not learned the trick of thinking like others. I can’t trick or lie to myself. And I know hundreds of girls who act like everyone else on the outside, but have their own ideas. We are the different girls. I want to act differently too, but here being different is too much of a difference to be accepted by others.

By Fatima H.

Photo: Muhammed Muheisen/Associated Press


  1. karen schneider says:

    Dear Fatima,
    I liked your writing very much. I wish that you could express yourself more openly in your daily life, but it is wonderful that you organized your thoughts into such an intelligent essay that many people can read. I am glad that you know other girls who feel as you do. Do you get a chance to make any drawings or other art work? Please keep up with your writing.
    Yours sincerely,
    Karen Schneider

  2. Dear Fatima, don’t ever stop being different! You are wonderful for being exactly who you are.

  3. Dear Fatima, I think your story is very well written. I think that many people, especially women, feel like this inside. In some places it is easier to be different and in others it is harder, but I think everyone feels that they don’t quite fit in at some time in their lives.

    Keep writing!

  4. Christine Rathbun Ernst says:

    Oh, Fatima! You speak a universal truth! It is hard for young women — and especially hard for you in Afghanistan — I hope you never learn the trick of thinking like others. And I wish you the courage to stay different, beautiful girl.

  5. You write beautifully! Although it is difficult, knowing that you are different on the inside will help you cope. I hope someday you will be able to express your differences more openly. In the meantime, keep writing!

  6. Richelle McClain says:

    Your writing portrays so well how much courage it takes to be different. Being one’s true self is difficult everywhere and so this story really resonated with me. When I feel pressured to be like others, and actually want to do something else, I will remember your story and courage.

  7. We do this day in, day out, pretending to be someone else and conforming to norms without realizing we are conforming and being just like others. When you’re sitting in that chair in the classroom rather than yelling and running in the classroom, you are conforming. Norms can be good – they let you know when someone who cannot or is not conforming may need help. Norms can be bad – your actions are limited when it may be completely unnecessary to control you, like how to wear your scarf.

    There are many different ways to express yourself. Writing here is one of those ways. I hope that you will find many more opportunities to express who you are. =)

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