My heart breaks when I think of girls in secret schools in defiance of the Taliban
This First Person article is written by Freshta Hemmati, women's rights activist and Afghan journalist living in P.E.I. For more information about First Person stories, see the FAQ.
My family first fled Afghanistan when the Taliban took over Kabul in 1996. I was just a few months old at the time and spent the first eight years of my life in Iran.
As refugees in Qom, my siblings and I didn't have access to school.
My dad became our teacher. He had worked as the headmaster of a school and the dean of the Balkh University at the faculty of medicine in Afghanistan. Education was incredibly important to him, and he didn't want us to fall behind. That's why he devised his own lesson plans to help us keep up.
He not only taught us the basics of reading and writing, but also life lessons — such as focusing on my goals and how to ignore distractions — that I will never forget.
In 2001, the Taliban government collapsed and our family returned to our home country in early 2005 when it finally felt safe.
Returning back to Afghanistan also meant that my siblings and I were finally able to attend school. I did well in a school assessment placement test and was allowed to skip a grade. I was so thrilled to go to school every day, because my dad had always made it sound like an exciting place.
I was consistently at the top of my class all through my school years. I also did volunteer work at my school and was socially active. Excelling in class became a priority for me, and I decided to pursue a career as a journalist — even though women in the media were looked down upon in Afghanistan.
Afghanistan is a country where men hold the vast majority of economic and political power, and where most women don't have control over their own lives.
But my dad had taught me that I shouldn't compromise my dreams for fear of what others might think of me. He was a well-educated man and believed in equality between men and women. He disagreed with the Taliban regime, and always encouraged my siblings and I to pursue our education.
Afghan women were first eligible to vote in 1919 — a full year before women in in the United States were granted the same right. But following the Soviet occupation in the 1970s and civil conflicts in the following two decades, women's rights in Afghanistan were increasingly rolled back.
After the Taliban's collapse in 2001, things were slowly improving.
I studied journalism at Kabul University and later started working as a journalist while I was still a sophomore.
I felt like a beautiful blossom on the verge of all life's possibilities opening up. Despite the security concerns, especially for Afghan women going to school and pursuing higher education, I hoped we might finally be able to take control of our future.
Then, all of a sudden, it all fell apart.
When everything fell apart again
After the second fall of Afghanistan in August 2021, the two months I spent living under the second Taliban regime was the most difficult time in my life. Growing up, I'd heard the tales about the first Taliban regime, but this somehow felt worse. I couldn't go to work or school simply because I was a woman. I wasn't allowed to see my friends. I was literally seeing half the Afghan society disappear right before my eyes.
Education is a right
I was fortunate enough to get out of the country and moved to Kazakhstan to pursue my postgraduate studies. I wrote my dissertation on the realities of female journalists in Afghanistan under the Taliban regime.
I was grateful to have escaped a country where girls weren't allowed to pursue their education, but I worried for my loved ones back home and I mourned the loss of the country where I was raised in the hope of building a future for myself.
In August 2022, I moved to Canada. In Charlottetown, I feel like I can finally can breathe peacefully. I volunteered with a group that helped other newcomers and now work for the provincial government.
But when I read news stories about secret schools for girls back in Kabul, I feel dead inside. The Taliban does not allow young girls to continue their education beyond Grade 6. Some are fighting the tyranny with teaching girls under the radar, but most of the girls I know who are still living under the Taliban have nothing to keep them going.
Afghan women are deprived of fundamental human rights like working, travelling, going to movies, attending public parks or wearing the clothing of their choosing. They are denied the right to an education, but I was one of the few given that chance — a sandwich generation of women who grew up in between two Taliban regimes. I was lucky to have parents who believed in the pursuit of knowledge and education. And I believe all Afghan women should have the same opportunities.
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