In the words of Zuleika: “I want women to see”
Zuleika*, 22, is a young Afghan activist who has initiated several social projects supporting Afghan women refugees. She advocates for women’s freedom of choice and strongly believes in the power of women supporting women. Zuleika participated in a design thinking workshop for young Afghan leaders organized by UN Women to identify existing capacities, needs and solutions to support women’s empowerment and gender equality, and influence peace discussions in their home country Afghanistan.
I was born and raised in a strict family. I was around eight or nine when I noticed that girls and boys were treated differently. Nobody celebrated the birth of a girl. But when my brothers were born, there were sweets for the neighbours to share our family’s happiness. My mom would tell me and everyone to pray that the baby in her belly would be a boy.
Housework was always the girls’ job. I remember when I was in 10th grade, my brothers cleaned the yard and said: ‘Look, we did your job.’ And I asked: ‘Which law says that this is women’s work?’ They got angry and said: ‘You want to major in Human Rights Law, but you haven’t studied. So, don’t act like you’re already a lawyer or a human rights activist. You’re nothing yet.’ At that moment, I promised myself that I was going to study human rights and become a professional.
In terms of education, my dad was always supportive saying that I should become independent. This was not a common thing. He was open-minded about us going to school or English centres as long as we would not interact with boys. He would say, ‘If you talk to your male classmates, I will lock the door.’ Going to school from 10th until 12th grade I always feared the door being locked and me not being able to go to school. A scary thing.
Living in a strict family and having satellite television at home with channels from Europe, the U.S. and Russia, I could see that life is different outside of Afghanistan. I wanted a life like that one day.
I had English courses in 10th grade and I finished all the levels until the advanced. But I realized that if I didn’t continue studying or teaching, I would forget the language. I went to my school manager and volunteered to teach girls who weren’t allowed to take English courses because the usual courses were mixed with boys. The manager agreed. My sister and I decided to teach together but we didn’t have a classroom. We just had the schoolyard, one big blackboard and chalk. We were tired after our own classes, but we still had the energy to teach around 40 or 50 girls afterwards.
Then a kind man who had come from Malaysia for his Master’s degree heard about us teaching in that schoolyard and he decided to open a course near the school. He invited my sister and I to teach there officially. We agreed and started teaching and all the girls from the school came because it was nearby and the male and female students were separated. My sister and I taught there for two years.
After graduation, I applied to two universities outside of Afghanistan and was accepted to both, so I chose the one that was closer to my goals. I didn’t tell my dad I was applying. Once I was fully accepted, I had to send my [high school] diploma, but I didn’t have it. I called and asked my father to solve this problem because I had won a scholarship for five years. First, he was shocked and said: ‘Why didn’t you tell me from the beginning?’ He blamed me, but he was also happy. He was strict, but that was normal in Afghan society.
In 2019, I said goodbye to my father to leave and study abroad. He said: ‘I trust you’ and ‘I believe that you will become someone, and that you are going to support us.’ I’m trying. I’m sending them my savings, so that I can support them financially a little bit since the situation in Afghanistan is bad.
When the Taliban took over, my roommates and other Afghan students would cry in the corridors. For one week, we were crying, shouting, crying. Our souls were dead. We could not eat. We heard that during the first days, the Taliban came to houses in another village and just took the single girls. I was thinking about my younger sisters – 15, 16, 17 – and how the Taliban could just come and take them.
Now, my family is at home. My dad just sits at home or goes to the garden because he lost his job as a police officer. My sisters cannot go to school. One was about to graduate. My other two sisters are in 9th and 10th grade. The Taliban want girls to stay home and learn to cook and sew. My sisters are safe because they are inside. But they are in a cage. They’re just breathing. They’re not living.
Currently, I study and work on different projects I started dedicated to public speaking, Afghan refugees and civic engagement. I also became a peer advisor at my university. I hope to get an internship with UN Women because it’s been my dream place to work since the 6th grade.
During the UN Women design-thinking workshop, we were asked to write a message and mine was ‘Let me see!’ The Taliban say, ‘Wear burqas and hijabs.’ But it’s not easy to breathe when you have them on. … My mom had a burqa and I wore it at home once as a joke. I couldn’t see. I really couldn’t see where the path was. I remember whenever we were crossing the street and my mom was wearing a burqa, she would take my hand and say, ‘Show me the way. I cannot see.’
I want women to see. Because there are a lot of beautiful things in this world. They should be able to see their way, their path. But the Taliban make us see nothing but darkness. With this message, I want to say: ‘Let me breathe, see and enjoy nature and the world as a human being.’
I see Afghan women as very independent people who will not give up and we will have a bright future if we work on it. We need to work hard, study, learn English and computer skills, and support each other. Together women can; separately we cannot.
The article was prepared under the UN Women regional programme “Enhancing women’s leadership for sustainable peace in fragile contexts in the Middle East and North Africa region”, funded by the German Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development (BMZ) in cooperation with Deutsche Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit (GIZ) GmbH.
* Names, locations and details have been changed to ensure the safety of the featured protagonist.