In the silence of the night, when the moonlight enveloped the world outside my bedroom, and everyone else slept warmly under their quilts, questions about the world pressed on my mind. Like the cold breeze that found its way through the cracks in our living room window despite the heavy curtains being drawn failed to stop it, my active mind stopped asking questions about the difference between the “truth” my culture offered me and the reality that contradicted it from seeing in.
I don’t know when I first felt it, but this fog of unanswered questions about things I’d witnessed growing up in Afghanistan would keep me awake for hours. In one incident that I vividly remember, my mother had to write in public. The year was 2004, and I was 8 years old. She had selected fabrics of various sizes and prices for a tailor to sew into clothes for my brother and father, and she prepared to pay for them. The proprietor started typing the prices into his calculator, but it malfunctioned. My mother was educated and knew how to add large sums without using a calculator and began to write down sums in a notebook. Everyone in the shop was in awe. How could a woman write? This encounter informed me a woman is not supposed to write, and it’s an astonishing sight when she does. But I didn’t understand why.
Over the years, growing up surrounded by constant injunctions regarding what a woman can and cannot do, informed by the basic assumption that women are stupid, I did, in part, unconsciously accept the truth that women are inferior to men. This assumption was bolstered by a constant emphasis in religious and cultural contexts that this was true. Whenever I got stuck on a lesson while studying, therefore, I immediately thought that I was stuck because I was a woman.
Then, one sunny winter day when I was 14, I joined my mother on the veranda. On Fridays, before the prayers, the Imams give a talk about what is good and what is bad. The mosque’s loudspeaker carried the Imam’s voice to our veranda, and I could hear what the Imam was talking about. When he mentioned women, my ears pricked up. I stopped talking to my mother and listened to the sermon. The Imam said that women should not be able to leave the house alone because “they will disgrace themselves and the family.” He said that a woman is like a child, and you do not trust a child with their own well-being. Then, he corrected himself, adding, “Woman is even worse than a child because a child does not have some of that tendency that a grown-up woman has.”
I was shocked to hear this. Maybe I had heard those words or words like them before, but this was the first time they made me think. Were women really worse, or less intelligent, than children? I thought of a male relative who I could easily see was less smart than me. He would laugh at stupid things and had no interest in studying. Then there was my mother’s education and abilities. These things I knew to be true encouraged my skepticism of the accepted “truth.”
From then on, whenever I struggled with my studies and immediately blamed it on my gender, I would fight back hard against that thought and focus again on my work. This suspicion about my intelligence would subside for a few days, but then it would sneak up on me again during the night when I was stuck on a calculus or physics problem, and most of the time, those nightly thoughts would spill out to the day . On and off, I pursued this question for years.
Now, at the age of 27, I laugh at myself because it’s so obvious to me that women are not stupid, just acculturated to think so. Doubts about my abilities were the direct consequence of patriarchal indoctrination. I grew up in a time when women were confined to roles of cooking and cleaning as a result of a society still recovering from the Taliban’s reign, and it took me years of studying and proving my intellectual abilities to myself on multiple occasions to come to this realization.
Now that the Taliban have come to power again, though, I fear the young women of Afghanistan will feel the way I did growing up. The Taliban have forbidden girls from pursuing an education after sixth grade. In their speeches, they constantly emphasized that women have a lesser intellect, that their place is at home, and that their duty rests only in caring for their families. Another generation of girls will grow up doubting their potential.
I was lucky to have a mother who showed me that women can be educated, and I hope that the women of Afghanistan who have been educated will show this to their daughters. But will that combat the messages of the Taliban or the reality that young women, under their rules, can’t pursue an education?
The more I grow intellectually, the more I mourn the loss of young Afghan girls’ potential. With education, they could be anything: scientists, writers, philosophers. Education is the door that opens infinite possibilities. What a loss it is for the world and what a loss it is for Afghanistan that millions of girls are knocking on the door of education, but with the might of Kalashnikovs and threats, these doors are closed to them.
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