By Nilofar Abrahemi
As a child Shokria was a “Bacha Posh”, a girl that was supposed to appear and act like a boy. Anyway, allthough of all this hardship she found her path, but got suddenly back to zero forced by the Taliban.
On August 12, 2021, Herat became the third major city invaded by the Taliban. According to an article by AP; “We heared about terror against women in areas under Taliban control. Fear of amputation, execution and stoning by Taliban forces has again overshadowed Afghanistan.” Besides Herat, all the other cities fell one by one. The morning after the fall of Herat, unlike other days, there was a power outage everywhere. It was as if the whole city was dead. No more shots were heard, the soldiers were no longer fighting to defend the country. Absolute silence reigned. Now, more then a year later, I see this scene as if I watch myself from a distance.
Shokria rested her head on her hands and thought of the twenty years of struggle, struggle, blood and tears shed on the ground to bring a false peace. Now the country has been thrown back twenty years. When she took the first step with high ambitions and dreams, she had been still in school.
28 years ago today a baby cried amid smoke, gunpowder and the sound of rockets. For the third time, a light shone on a family in a corner of Kabul. The baby was supposed to be a boy. That’s what the father wanted. Contrary to his expectations, a little girl was born. The parents already had a daughter and a son. But the father wanted to have another son. There is a saying in Afghan: “A playmate for the son makes both strong.” But this was the second time a little girl was born. The birth of a girl has always been a weakness in traditional Afghan society. A family with more Sons feels stronger and more proud. This problem has changed in the last generation but still boys are valued more than girls. This way of thinking is rooted in the outdated traditions and superstitions of war-torn Afghan society.
The little girl was named “Shokria”. The name means “to be thankful and grateful”, but she used to be called Shokoor, a name for boys. Poverty and growing up in a war region robbed her of her childhood; she didn’t learn how to play. Every part of the calendar of human life has its own sweetness and bitterness, but the best season of human life should be childhood with its children’s games. Deprived of these moments, Shokria grew up with great difficulty in a home without the slightest comfort.
Between 1992 and 1996, Afghanistan’s economic system was in recession due to the ongoing civil war, unemployment and poverty, killings were widespread across the country. Millions of Afghans had to flee and migrate to other countries. Their property and assets were confiscated. For this reason, Shokria’s family did not choose to leave the ongoing chaos and stayed in Afghanistan. The civil war ended four years later with the victory of the Taliban.
A girl dressed as a Boy
At that time Shokria was not more than four years old, and she was still living with a boy identity. At this time, her mother gives birth to another baby, who also happened to be a girl. She remembers with sadness that the parents were very desperate and the baby girl remained without a name for a long time since no one was willing to name her.
During the early days of Taliban rule, all schools and educational centers for girls were closed, and many working women became unemployed and stayed at home.
The schools were only open to boys, who were taught religious rules there. They were forced from an early age to go to school in Afghan clothing and a turban called “longi”.
All Afghan families had two choices in life: either emigrate, which was very risky, or stay in a much more difficult country where individual freedom no longer existed. Unemployment and economic poverty had peaked, the future was dark and hope was lost.
“Bacha posh,” which in Dari means girl “dressed up as a boy,” is an ancient tradition that pre-dates the Taliban in which a family designates a girl to live as a boy. That could either allow her a boy’s freedoms — like education, athletics and the right to be outside alone — or impose a boy’s duties on her, like working.
The poverty was also influenced by the domestication of women and opponents under the Taliban. Shokria's Father was fired, since he worked for the military of the former government. Shokria and her siblings had to learn how to weave carpets to earn their living.
Pauperization and child labor – finally living as a girl
Those who stayed in the country had to turn to domestic pursuits and chores including carpet weaving to survive and find a piece of bread. Shokria’s father was also unemployed. Because of this, her two older brothers and sisters, who were children, began learning to weave carpets to support the family. Later, Shokria was also forced to weave carpets along with her siblings, at the exact age she was supposed to start school.
Shokria was now five years old and getting older; but she still lived with a boy’s identity and wore boy’s clothes. According to traditional belief, if a little girl is dressed as a boy, the next baby will be born a boy.
Her father used to say, “You shouldn’t cry. A boy doesn’t cry and he has to be brave.” In 1999, her parents’ prayers were finally answered and their dream came true. This time, Shokria’s mother gave birth to twins, two sons. This event was so memorable for the whole family, especially for Shokria’s father who had wished to have more sons for many years.
After the twins were born, Shokria no longer had to live as a boy. When she was six years old, she was allowed to become a girl. These patriarchal beliefs had robbed her of her childhood; Nevertheless, she was happy about the birth of her twin brothers, because she was now allowed to be herself in a girl’s world and live and grow up with her true identity.
After the overthrow of the Taliban by US forces in 2001 and the establishment of an interim government, hope returned to the lives of all Afghans and Shokria’s family.
Schools were reopened to girls and women were able to work outside the home. A wave of immigrants returned to their homeland. Now the life of Shokria’s family improved as well. Shokria’s father was a military officer who had completed his basic education in military school and his higher education in aviation engineering in Russia. Now, like everyone else, he was able to return to work and provide food and shelter for his family.
Shokria and thousands of other girls didn’t have to miss school anymore. Having learned elementary reading and writing from her father, Shokria entered the second grade of primary school in Kabul, Afghanistan. Then Shokria moved to the city of Herat with her family because the father got transferred.
School years in Herat
Herat is a city famous for its science and culture and the birthplace of poets and artists. But contrary to the history of Herat, this city is apparently a religious and conservative place, very traditional and limited. Shokria was born in Kabul. A liberal place compared to Herat. It was very difficult for her to adapt because women’s and girls’ activities were monitored and judged by traditional and religious people who disliked active women in society.
In Herat, girls and women face certain restrictions outside the home; They must wear a full hijab called a “prayer chador or prayer tent”. In this regard, she was always criticized and condemned by her teachers at school for not wearing this type of hijab “prayer chador”. Women working outside the home, particularly in the visual media, went against the beliefs of many families. Shokria’s peers were mostly married at a very young age and were not allowed to go to school after marriage.
Shokria’s life during this time was overshadowed by clouds that didn’t just pass by. She began to brace herself. Now she had to live with that community and those thoughts and move on.
After school she transferred to Herat Technical and Vocational Institute and majored in Accounting and Management. She also had a particular interest in working for the media. She was eventually offered a job at a local television station in Herat. There she was able to assert herself and come to the screen.
As “Nilofar” on TV
Shokria worked as a TV presenter for a long time. The appearance of a young girl on a television screen was taboo in such a traditional community. Because of this, Shokria worked under the nickname “Nilofar” and for a long time did not reveal her original identity. She officially worked for the media in Herat for three years.
2012, NABTV, Herat
Back to Kabul
In 2015 she moved to Kabul to continue her studies. She managed to get a scholarship from the World Bank to study at a private university in Kabul and to complete her education in economics and administration with a bachelor’s degree, beside her studies she was hired as a financial officer at a private company in Kabul.
University Years in India
In 2018 she managed to get another scholarship. She left the company to start her Masters in Business Administration with a concentration in Human Resource Management at Jain U
niversity in Bangalore, India Shokria’s two-year study trip to India was not without its bitter and sweet experiences. The Indians’ view of the Afghans, the difficulties and changes in the education system and life without a home and family were challenges that had to be mastered.
But Shokria also experienced the comfort of security. She lived a life away from the usual sounds of explosions in Afghanistan. News of suicide bombings sometimes threatened Shokria’s sanity as she was always concerned for the safety of her family and friends.
Afghans living abroad are constantly confronted with strange questions that are painful and difficult to answer. All questions are about war, explosions and suicide. The country she was born in has nothing to offer but war, violence and misery. Shokria, too, faced many of such questions. It was always annoying and painful for her to answer everyone and be the narrator of the war there too.
Return to Afghanistan
After two years she had completed her master’s degree. But since Shokria’s father’s pension as a retired military officer was not enough to support his family, she returned and took responsibility for the family’s livelihood. After her return to Afghanistan in 2020, her applications were always rejected, despite her master’s degree.
Tuesday morning, May 3, 2021. Shokria is preparing to go to university, but this time as a teacher, not a student. Experiencing such a day, where she could share some of what she had learned with others, was one of her greatest dreams, which should now come true. That was exciting for her. She believed that all her struggles and efforts had paid off. After a six-month search, she had finally found a job with the ARCS (Red Cross and Red Crescent Society) in Herat province and at the same time began teaching as a lecturer at a private university. Meanwhile, she had also established contacts with media and worked as a freelancer with some local media in Herat, reporting on the life and conditions of women in the local areas and districts of Herat.
Return to Zero
But those happy moments didn’t last. On August 12, 2021, Herat was the third major city captured by the Taliban. AP: “Fear of amputation, execution and stoning by Taliban troops has again overshadowed Afghanistan.” After Herat, all the other cities fell one by one. Now the country is at the point twenty years ago before she took the first step to go to school and university with high ambitions and dreams.
Back to zero. This is not just my story, but rather the story of thousands of my contemporaries in Afghanistan. Our generation was born with the noise of war, grew up with war. We struggled and fought. We fell asleep every night dreaming of peace, but woke up in the morning to the sound of an explosion. Peace never came, but we were glad to have a kind of relative freedom and security. Now we are in total darkness, suffering the nightmare of war and an uncertain future.