I wear hated Burqa. It made me itch, it made me sweat. And made me invisible. I had a blue one with a small slit of lace for the eyes, although under it I wore a short-sleeved dress and pantyhose. Walking in the burqa, I lost my usual gait: I hung my head down, both hands holding the edge of the cloth so as not to stumble. The fact that he was wearing it made me feel inferior. To leave the house, when I became a teenager about a decade ago, I had to transform myself into something.
My method of protest was to go out as little as possible, which seemed to be the only way to protect my individuality. At home, I created a world of my own. But the desire to be a part of the outside world never left me. I longed to walk the street and eat street food, swim in the lakes, know every corner of my city in the southern province of the country – to participate in life firsthand rather than just observing it through my veil.
Our front door had a hole in the alley. Through it, I could see men buying snacks, old men sitting and talking, or boys flying kites, playing cricket and cycling. I imagined what it would be like to walk there and interact with the world. Do I remember how to smile at people? Look them in the eye?
My parents also wanted me to step into my fullest potential. When other mothers praise their daughters for their cooking and housework, I would claim that the true gem of a woman is her education. When other parents focused on how quickly they could marry their daughters, my parents laughed if someone came to our house with a marriage proposal.
Some nights, when the neighborhood was asleep and only stray dogs were running the streets, my father would walk me outside to give me a taste of the world without the burqa. In the moonlight we were walking around and heard crickets and dogs rummaging through the trash. With every step I took, I felt free. Once my father disguised me as a boy to swim in the river I used to go to when I was a kid. At home, my parents let me listen to music as loudly as I liked. In the late afternoon, after coming home from work, my father and I were dancing to Tajik music. He didn’t want me to forget the feeling of freedom.
Sometimes I would get angry and complain loudly that I had been forced to lock myself in the burqa. My mother would look at me with a solemn expression, put her hand on my head and say, “Be someone who can leave this place.” She encouraged me to learn English.
And I did. Armed with an iPad, internet, and a free educational website called Khan Academy, I taught myself English. and philosophy. and mathematics. And science. and history. I wanted to understand the world in every possible way, and my place in it. Solving math problems gave structure to a mysterious world I was inhabiting, even if it was only in my head. I felt liberated when I learned to graph a linear equation. On the page, draw a two-dimensional coordinate plane And plotting an equation, the world was under my control.
Learning through the screen Ten years ago it was safer than going to school. Several suicide bombings took place on the side of the road, and the Taliban occasionally used the building as a base to launch attacks on government buildings. Besides, the female students were threatened by the Taliban with pouring acid on them to attend the classes.
It was different when my mother was a child in the sixties. It was an era of hope: girls’ schools were opened and the burqa was not obligatory. In the evenings, when the room was dimly lit by the fireplace, my mother would tell stories about her past, about ordinary Afghanistan.
She talked about the freedom that women have and the choices that women have in life, other than marriage. My mother grew up in Afghanistan, which was in the process of modernization. Her father wished her to become an educated and free woman. The desire came true. She became a lecturer at Kabul University. Wearing her sporty short hair, long skirt, and T-shirt, she walked into the classroom, full of male and female students. She even got a fellowship to study in Germany, but the civil war started and she wasn’t able to go.
Through these stories, I realized that Afghan women have the potential to achieve something great in their lives. My mother believed that no matter how difficult the situation, you should always focus on what you can change. “Of course, you can’t change everything, but you can always change something,” she often reminded me of when I was frustrated with the challenges I had to face as a young Afghan woman.
So I studied. While most young women my age were getting married, I was learning how to argue like Socrates or how to apply mathematics like Newton. With everything new I learned, I began to feel alive, like a plant that blooms when it gets water after it dries up and dies. By allowing me the freedom of education, just beyond the four walls of our house, my parents gave me a window into the world. More than that, they gave me the tools to create my own identity and make me visible again.
About five years ago, as the situation in Afghanistan worsened, I did not want to become my destiny. accepted Scholarship to study Math and Science in America, my parents left Afghanistan with their blessing and encouragement. Today I am a university researcher in America and have published in my scientific field.
Now, another horrific reality is beginning to unfold in Afghanistan, eroding the progress Afghan women have made on their rights.
“Afghan women are sinking into the abyss,” my mother told me shortly after the US withdrawal last August. I felt as if someone had stabbed my heart. My soul hurts. “Any sign of women being present in public is removed. How can we teach boys to respect women when they see pictures of women on the street Knock it down and see the women being beaten? Why is there no end to the tragedy of Afghanistan and Afghan women? She cried as she spoke.
Since then, darkness has swept Afghanistan. My mind never stops to think of my mother and all the women and girls stuck in the country, again forced to hide their existence. A new decree has been passed that women are in fact not allowed to travel by car more than 45 miles (70 km) from their homes, unless accompanied by a male relative. My friends told me that with no school and no future to look forward to, life turned into waiting for death.
As a new veil emerges over Afghan women’s rights, and women across the country are forced to stay behind closed doors, I feel the same suffocation I felt as a teenager under the thick, scratched fabric of a dark burqa. It is as if the whole of Afghanistan is wearing the heavy burqa which I hated so much, and under it all Afghan women are suffocating.
Sultana is a university researcher in sciences in America. Her surname has not been revealed for the safety of her family.