It’s a wonderful time in a girl’s life to be young and care-free with the future so bright with promises.
But not for Marvah Shakib, an Afghan girl during the rule of the Taliban.
All the girls’ schools were forced to shut down, but her mother was determined to give her daughter an education.
Her mother was a teacher until the outbreak of war in the country. She had majored in English literature in the university.
And so her mother secretly gave lessons to Shakib and a few other girls in the neighborhood at home. They had to watch out for the Taliban’s surprise inspections, which could be as frequent as three times a day.
“If the Taliban came, we would pretend we were trying to learn sewing instead,” Shakib recalls.
Despite the difficulties, Shakib was able to acquire up to Year 6 level of education under her mother’s guidance.
When the Taliban were ousted and schools were reopened, Shakib enrolled in a government school and finished with outstanding results.
Child marriage is still prevalent in Afghanistan. Girls are normally married before they reach 18. Some poor families treat them like commodities, traded for food.
And once they get married, education stops.
Only Shakib and 14 others, out of the 60 girls in their class, were not married or engaged at the time.
“However, I was ambitious,” says Shakib. “I wanted to bring change to our community, our society.”
In order to make her dream come true, she had planned to pursue a degree at the Asian University for Women (AUW) in Bangladesh.
However, many of her relatives stood against her decision, including her mother, who worried about her daughter’s future — and marriage.
Shakib’s enthusiasm for learning eventually moved her uncle, who persuaded the whole clan to let her study abroad.
“He is an open-minded senior, and he believes that education is the only way out for women,” she says of her uncle.
“Only when women become independent and take back control of their lives could the psychological violence imposed on them be stopped.”
Shakib was 17 at the time, and was the first female in the family to go abroad.
At AUW she received liberal arts training and many opportunities for foreign visits.
She once represented her school and spoke at a forum in the United States. She also got the chance to visit her classmates’ home countries.
Every summer Shakib would also return to Afghanistan to organize programs or do internships.
In Afghanistan, it is not difficult for women to find a job. The most challenging part is how to persist in the job.
It is a male-dominated world, and all high-level positions are taken by men.
Many women give up in the end as fighting all kinds of discriminations and challenges is hard, Shakib notes.
Shakib is now a consultant at the Ministry of Counter Narcotics in Herat, one of the largest cities in Afghanistan.
Once she attended a meeting of village elders on how to assist former opium poppy farmers to get rid of the addiction.
The municipal chief insisted that the government financial aid should be used to build a sports stadium.
Not even Shakib’s boss, the commissioner of the Ministry of Counter Narcotics, could dissuade the chief from his idea of what’s good for the village.
Though she was the most junior staffer on the board, Shakib decided to speak up because the issue was important and would affect the entire village.
For five minutes, she stood up and explained why the chief’s decision was not practical.
Two weeks later an official letter was issued, confirming that the fund would be used to subsidize an opium replacement project.
Shakib regarded that as a good head start for her country.
In Afghanistan, government officials, whether male or female, are under constant threat of attack from terrorists.
She knows that many of those who serve in the government will suffer, and some may even have to sacrifice their lives.
Still, Shakib is determined to do everything she could for her country — in small ways, as a woman.
This article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on Oct. 5.
Translation by Darlie Yiu
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