Last December, my family held a graduation party for me and my siblings. Alia and I had graduated high school and my elder sister, Gullafroz, and my elder brother, Arif, graduated from university.
At the end of the party, as I was serving tea to everyone, my auntie called me to talk. She began, “Look you are graduated now, for example, you learned everything and you are smart now.” She said “for example” to make fun of me. Every time my auntie came to our home, she always said school was not a good option and advised my sisters and me to get married rather than go to school.
I was searching for my sisters from the corner of my eye; they were at a side of the room talking to each other. They smiled back and rolled their eyes—meaning they had already heard the lecture.
“When I was your age,” she said, coming close to look straight into my eyes as if she was telling the world’s biggest secret, “I was married and had a child. My in-laws were so happy to have me as their son’s bride. You have to marry soon because you are young and quick. I was young once too, and I could finish my house chores faster than anyone else.”
I said to myself, “I can do math faster than those house chores.”
She continued talking about her early life. But I was not listening. My mind was on a memory from Kandahar.
After I finished third grade at school in Kabul, my father found a job in Kandahar and the whole family had to move there. It was mid-December when we arrived. We had to live in a small apartment with two tiny square rooms and a square yard. A tiny bathroom was on one side and it shared a wall with the kitchen, which only had room for one person to cook while standing.
There was a girls’ school about three blocks away from our home, which my sisters and I attended. I really liked my school. I wore a long black dress down to my knees and black pants that I pulled high so that my ankles could be seen. My ankles were whiter than those of the Pashtun girls I saw. I really wanted them to see my ankles. I thought they would be jealous of my white feet; instead they looked at us as if looking at something dirty. And of course, we had to wear the white headscarves. Gulafroz was covered in black from head to toe since she was older. I ironed my uniform every night before going to sleep and polished my black sandals.
One summer morning, I got dressed and took my pink umbrella to shield my head from the sun although it was only 6:30 a.m. and the sun had not risen yet. When my sisters and I arrived in front of the school gate, there were two men standing there. They looked like tall, long birds with wide eyes. To see them, I had to raise my head high and move my umbrella to the side. They were frowning.
One of them asked, “Almond-eyed people, where are you going?” The other one spoke in a Pashto accent. I could not understand all the things he said, but I understood this: “Go back. School is closed. Go back home. Never again, no female school.” The two men exchanged some words in Pashtu and then burst out laughing.
One of the men was dressed in a dark brown pirhan tumban, the traditional dress for men. He had dark eyes, a steadfast gaze, and thick eyebrows. He looked down at me and frowned so that his thick eyebrows almost came together.
He shrieked at me, “I said go home, stupid Hazaras!”
“I want to go to my school,” I said.
They stepped forward and pushed the three of us to the ground. Our black uniforms filled with dust. They shouted and told us to go home and never come back again.
We were scared and ran back home. Two weeks passed but still the school was locked. My sisters and I were so depressed being at home that my father started taking us with him to the hospital where he was working twice a week.
One day it was too hot to play outside so I sat in the waiting room observing the patients and the doctors doing their work. A Korean doctor entered the room. She wore a white coat and she looked fascinating to me. For a moment, I saw myself instead of that woman. The desire to be proud of myself and make my father proud of me rushed into my heart and cut it so deep that I had to leave the room.
I sat outside in the harsh sunlight and cried. There was something I was longing for and it was hurting me. A woman, Khala Majan, who was cleaning the hospital, came to me. She asked, “What on earth caused my child to cry this innocently?”
“I want to go to school.” I said. When I said this out loud I realized all I wanted was to be able to return to school in my black uniform and carry my pink umbrella above my head.
Khala sat down beside me and wiped my tears. “You want to go to school? Then go,” she said. “Why you are crying? Your tears won’t change anything. Remember your dreams won’t come to you; you have to walk to them. And to walk to your dreams you need feet and eyes. If your faith in going to school is still strong, then nothing on earth can prevent you from going.”
Then Khala suggested I attend a school that was three miles away from the hospital, about a two-hour walk from our home. After three days of begging, my father finally agreed to let us go. After six weeks of no school, we began walking to our new school.
We had to walk about three to four hours to get to school and home again. It was a very long way but it was fun for us. So we would not get lost we remembered the shops along the way: a music store that played Indian classic music, a vegetable store with all my favorite fruits, a mosque painted white with a door we always kissed as our mother told us to do and finally, a bookstore. I liked to stand outside this bookstore to look at the books they put out on display.
I recognized that bad won over good when two men pointed their guns to my father’s forehead and shouted to him to get out of Kandahar because he worked with foreigners. I do not blame those men. If we put pens and pencils in empty hands of men and make them busy with writing about the beauty of their life, then murderers and enemies of peace won’t have the chance to put guns in their hands and teach them to point their guns toward us.
Today I am happy that I have continued school and finished high school. Sometimes I wonder what would have happened if we had not returned to school, although the answer is simple: we would believe all the things our auntie said to us. Gulafroz would get married, then me and then Alia. We would miss the future we dreamed of. We would not work in the office we dreamed about. I would never get the house with the library in it that I want. I would miss the woman I wanted to become.
By Arifa, age 17
This piece has also been published by Women’s eNews. Photo by Global Partnership for Education.