In Kandahar, Girls Show Grit Behind Guarded Walls
Reported by Renée Montagne & Produced by Jim Wildman
Edited by Shannon Rhoades
Aired on November 25, 2010 on NPR’s Morning Edition
“Education is gold— more precious than any other possession”
Down a street in Kandahar through a tall iron gate past a guard with a gun and into a courtyard, little girls let their bright veils slip and young women throw off their burkas. They’re laughing and chatting now that they’re within the walls of a place that promises to set them free.
Eleven-year-old Bilqis Ehsan lives in Kandahar, Afghanistan. Pretty in a ponytail and red sweater threaded with silver, she speaks nearly fluent English. And she wants to be a doctor.
“It’s very great that everybody has to be educated because education is like a gold – when you get it, it will always be in your mind and you can profit from that. Never – no one can stole it from your mind, education. We can do everything by education. It will shine your life.”
Beneath the Burkas
It would be fair to say that there’s no world of girls more hidden, literally, than the world beneath the burkas of Afghanistan. In Kandahar, these luminous coverings are often light brown, so on the street they can appear like dust swirling in the wind. But it would be a mistake to presume that all the women underneath are frightened or even meek. They aren’t – mostly.
Bilqis and other girls and young women are taking classes in English and computer technology at the Afghan-Canadian Community Center in Kandahar. But it’s not just for the joy of learning. They want careers.
“I am learning English because it’s an international language,” says Nurzia, 14. “If we become a doctor, a doctor needs to write prescriptions for the patient by English — not Dari or Pashto. We need more female doctors because Afghans, their womans, they hide their face or then they don’t want a male doctor exactly. They want to be treated by female doctors. Therefore, we need for female doctors.”
The girls who risk going to school in the heartland of the Taliban could be harmed or killed. But it would be a mistake to presume that all the women and girls are frightened or even meek.
Within the walls of the school in Kandahar, protected by a tall iron gate and a guard with a gun, the burkas are gone. The girls laugh and chat — and forge the skills they’ll need in future jobs.
Years Under Taliban Rule
Tahira Sadisaidi, 20, and Shahira Sadisaidi, 19, are sisters and classmates. They are making up for the years under the Taliban when they weren’t allowed to go to school.
“There was Taliban, so we were not going to school. We were just at home,” says Tahira who is now studying business communications at the Afghan-Canadian Community Center. “My father is a doctor. He was teaching us. My mother – she’s a housewife but she really motivated us. She really want to be studying. My mother never have gone to school because her father, her uncles, no one liked school but my mother liked school. My mother – lots of people said that she is uneducated, but she said, no, ma’am, my daughter will be educated.”
Living in a War Zone
One irony in Kandahar is that there may be more opportunities for girls who want to work when they grow up. There are jobs with the United Nations, NATO and USAID. There are also desk jobs for women who can use computers and speak English at construction companies and the cell phone giant Roshan.
The more obvious thing for a girl trying to learn and work here – it’s dangerous.
Somehow, every girl and her family must come to terms with the possibility that harm could come to her. Nurzia brushes off the threats that the community center has passed on to her parents. “They always say that the center is warning, but it’s lie, it’s not true,” she says. Her family chooses to view threats as intimidation by the Taliban or warlords or drug dealers – anyone who might benefit from fear and disorder.
But in war, every girl — along with her family — must come to terms with the possibility that some harm may come to her.
“Some months ago, a girl was killed by someone,” says Tahira. “She was our classmate.” Tahira and Shahira’s family is scared, but not scared away.
“We want to be brave,” Tahira says. “And we are coming to school.”
At the Afghan Canadian Community Center, a horn signals the end of the school day. The young girls tighten their head scarves, the older ones pull on their burkas. They hold their books to their chests like a shield and once again disappear onto the streets of Kandahar.
(Photographs by Jim Wildman)