“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