Small Reasons Add Up to Becoming a Feminist

two women with boulder

I grew up in a family where I was treated the same as my brothers, and sometimes even better. My dad, my hero, always wanted the best things for my siblings and me. But we lived in the north, in Kunduz, in a society that did not accept me. It was hard for me to be a good Afghan girl.

I couldn’t follow the rules, such as wearing a burqa, staying home and doing housework, or skipping school because of a party or guests. In the family I was encouraged to be outspoken, but not in public.

At school I was punished for saying what I knew was right. When I was in eleventh grade, my math teacher used to tell us how women should always be sad and not laugh because if women laugh, then men will hear it, and that is “a big sin.” He used to tell us how to walk in the street. He would say girls should always look at the ground while walking to school and not laugh. They should never wear makeup or bright colors because colors will catch men’s attention. 

No equality, no tolerance

Without a doubt, these were Taliban ideas. No one wanted to explain to the teacher that wearing makeup or bright colors is in women’s nature. Even I could not speak up; he already didn’t like me because my sisters were active in the society. He did not believe that women and men are equal. I could not tolerate hearing that from my teacher.

He used to look at me and say, “Give yourself some value, don’t talk with the boys.” He thought that girls should not talk with boys because boys can’t control themselves.

I always wanted to tell him that I was not the one responsible for boys’ actions or emotions. They have to learn that they are not animals and they shouldn’t attack a girl if they see her hair or hands or legs.

Something always held me back from saying this to him. It was fear. I was afraid he would fail me in math. I was tired of listening to his speeches about women. I cried so many times when he humiliated me and implied I was a “bad girl” for working on projects with boys or talking to them.  

One day during one of these speeches, I raised my hand. I asked a question about the position of women in Islam, and also where in the holy Qur’an it is written that women are a second-class gender.

I knew what his answer would be. I just wanted to open a conversation, even though I knew it would not have a good ending. When he started to repeat his same old story, I stopped answering him. I nodded my head and said that he was right. Now I wish I had told him that he was wrong. He failed me in that class. He failed me by one point—that is what hurt most.

The road to feminism

It was hard to play by two sets of rules in my life. I could be outspoken in my family but not outside. I did not learn how to be a “good Afghan girl” and I think I will never be able to learn.

Small things, day by day, led me to feminist thinking. 

I became a feminist because I could not tolerate seeing my neighbor beat his wife. I could not listen to my teacher call me a “bad girl” for working on a project with boys. I could not tolerate injustice towards women. I could not see women stoned for choosing their future. I could not stand to see a man who raped a young girl walk freely in the street and not even be ashamed. 

I could not stand to see friends stop coming to school just because their brothers didn’t want them to attend and I could not tolerate seeing men touch women just because they were walking along the street. I could not see my old grandma put on a burqa and fall down because she couldn’t see.

I am a feminist and I am proud of being one. I want to change the history of women in Afghanistan. I want the next generation of Afghan women never to go through what my Afghan sisters and I have gone through. 

I want to fight for their rights and take any kind of risk that is worth taking to bring more changes. I have a long way to go in order to achieve my dreams.

By Zahra A.


  1. This is an exceptional piece, Zahra. Your inner strength, your bravery, and your beauty shine through. I imagine being in your shoes and I would feel every emotion you felt. The sense of injustice is palpable. I am just very glad that you are supported at home. Though it is a terrible burden to have to play by two sets of rules. Why anyone would want to repress or control all that you have to offer your society is unfathomable to me. Keep on writing, Zahra. And keep on believing!

  2. Elizabeth Titus says:

    Dear Zahra,

    This is incredible! It is your Feminist Manifesto! Bravo,

  3. Norwan says:


    Best of luck to you my feminist sister.
    looking forward to read more from you.


  4. Jo Nelson says:

    You are a powerful woman, Zahra, with powerful ideas and the courage to say them out loud. You inspire a lot of other women. Thank you!

  5. Zahra jan, I am bursting with pride for you! This essay…or “op-ed” piece!… is extremely well written…clear, to the point, well organized, convincing. I wish you could offer it to the New York Times as a guest columnist! It is that good…and true!! The world is waiting…

  6. Wonderful essay, Zahra. Stay strong.

  7. Sahraa Karimi says:

    Best of Luck Zahra Jaan.

    I really liked reading your story:-)

  8. Zahra, what brave woman you are. You’re story brings to light all that we have to be thankful for as women in America. Where 77% of the time we’re treated equal.

  9. I’m so proud of you Zahra! This is such a strong piece. Your voice sings with beauty, bravery, and truth. May you continue to lead the way with your ideas and words.

  10. This is so well written, and so clear. How fortunate that your family encouraged you to speak out and not to accept second class status. The contrast between your family and the outside world, exemplified by your math teacher, is stark and shocking to a Western outsider. Your family’s support has obviously helped give you strength and confidence and helped you to use your keen intelligence. Bravo!

  11. AMIT KUMAR says:

    I have been there in Kabul for more than an year….. During my stay there, I had interaction with few women too…… They had great strength, mentally very powerful and most of then have vision for future…. They just need an suitable atmosphere……. I am praying for that and hoping that I will also able to contribute for the society, which has given me inner strength too. Amen

  12. Wow! That was so nice. I hope that you keep your pen and writing. Thanks a lot for sharing this story with us. You are great writer and I am happy read this likely story.


  13. Larry Pace says:

    My dear Zahra,
    I am a man of 60 yrs old. I read about you with a heavy heart. I have read parts of the Quran, and I do not find where it says that women should be treated like dirt under the foot of man. The God of Abraham would not have wanted it that way. We here in the western world respect the fact that women are equal partners in this life. I understand that some of our ways would be strange, and not acceptable to even the most liberal of Eastern women. The women in the US wear whatever they want, adorn themselves with jewelry, and makeup. They speak to whomever they wish. They are educated in the finest colleges and Universities, and are business owners along with the men. I wish that there were some way to extricate all of the women in the East, and Middle East. Let them come and experience what it’s like to be free. Maybe then the men of the Hardline Islamic countries would miss you, and come to realize how much they depend on you. Dreaming, I know.

    • Dear Larry: I was moved by your response. I think your dream is a beautiful one. Stacy

      • Larry Pace says:

        Thank you , Stacy..

        • Karen Lambie says:

          Larry, I was also moved by your response. I salute you. I have never understood why there are men who believe that women are less than human. My father taught us to treat all people with dignity and respect regarless of race, gender, etc. My wish is that all men could be as enlightened as you and my dad–may he rest in eternal peace.

  14. Dear Zahra,
    What a beautifully written, powerful testament to your strength, your family’s support and your struggle to live by two sets of rules, one true, one false…and to bravely speak up for your sisters. Thank you for writing this, many of us are listening around the world, filled with pride in you and with hope for Afghanistan’s future, thanks to courageous, gifted young women like you. Love, Melissa

  15. Beautiful, brave, and sad, all at the same time. You inspire me from the other side of the world!
    Some of my own writing is on, but nothing recent. If you visit, I’ll post your thoughts. The fanbase on that page is over 36K today 2/16.
    with love, Margaret, Connecticut USA

  16. Mackenzie Largie says:

    Dear Zahra,
    I am inspired by you, your strength, and your mind. I like you, grew up in the same insane mental environment that saw and treated women like 2nd class citizens. The only opposite is that this was the belief system inside my home. It was intolerable. I grew up in the United States and my parents, who are from Jamaica brought this thinking with them. My pain is your pain and my story is your story.

  17. Homa Hamid says:

    Dear Zahra,
    I really enjoyed your story, Thankyou!
    I left Afghanistan in 1980 and I remember that I also had traumatic and harmful experiences at school with teachers who were harsh, critical and violent. So you are not alone there.
    I wish you all the best with your goals for yourself and your afghan sisters. We all need to join hands, both women and men, and help bring about positive change for women and girls in Afghanistan.
    Best wishes,
    Homa Hamid

  18. Dearest Zahra – If I may say so, you, Norwan, Mahboob and all the others – you are all the epitome of a “good Afghan girl”. You love your families, your people and your country; you simply want to make things BETTER for all… and in no way could that possibly ever be bad.

    Power and equality are not given; they are taken. They are not something to dream for; to wish; to hope for; to pray for. They belong to you already, as God’s children. You own them. They are yours for the taking.

    May you all find your courage, your voice to claim your rightful place of power and equality. Together, you can do anything. I will not pretend that the road is easy, or free of danger, or that I can possibly imagine how it feels. It is not and I do not. But please, never doubt that the world believes in you and loves you all.

  19. Dear Zahra,
    Your piece really moved me. You’re strong. And powerful. And brilliant. You are already changing your world, and in doing so, changing the whole world. May your intelligence, power and heart grow everyday. The world needs women like you. I’d love to interview you for an article I want to write. I wonder how we can do that ? Sending you so much support and love.

  20. You’re amazing Zahra! Your piece is brillant and I can feel your strength in every word. You give hope to many Afghan women and you show how passionate you are about defending women’s rights. Keep going and don’t let anyone stop you or tell you that your beliefs are wrong. We support you and hope that you’ll continue to share your stories with us!

  21. This is a beautiful piece of writing and Zahra’s idea that “in the holy Qur’an it is written that women are a second-class gender” is completely FALSE and an intentional misinterpretation of Quran that is typically taught in patriarchal muslim majority countries. An excellent book on the subject (there are many) is Amina Wadud’s “Qur’an and Women”.

  22. Zahra — You are an inspiration to women everywhere! Thank you for bravely standing up for the women of your country and for voicing your resolve to work towards change. Bravo! Nancy

  23. Jeremy Pietron says:

    Inspiring yet still heartbreaking. The courage required to stand up in the face of a wind that stiff and ubiquitous is in fact exceptional, and often will be supported by only a few of her peers. Real courage is often as heartbreaking as it is inspiring even to witness second hand, as it often has to be mustered in the most impossible of circumstances. And it’s too easy to imagine the worst outcomes. May the brave souls pushing back on suffocating walls be aided in good time by those working to pull those same walls down from within and without.

  24. Extremely exceptional work! I found it so inspiring as a fellow young feminist emerging. Your words really resonated with me. I look forward to reading future pieces of yours.

  25. Karen Lambie says:

    Zahra, your story moved me beyond words. My heart bleeds for our sisters who must endure such torture and stunted lives. I think you are an angel put here on earth to help all people. I salute your bravery and courage. My prayers are for your safety. Thank you for all you are doing.

  26. A very moving piece. Zahra. I really wish that you would respond to your readers so that we know you are alright. Prayers and healing thoughts are being sent your way!

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