Stepping into the Light

12 March 2013

by Tamana Heela

Tamana Heela’s mother defied the Taliban - and transformed her daughter’s life

I still remember the night the Taliban came to power in Kabul.  It was midnight when my Mum shook me, saying  ”Wake up - the Taliban are in the building!” 

I was only 8 years old.  I didn’t know what the Taliban looked like.  But I thought it must be something terrible and ugly.

We crept to the window in the dark, trying to see what was going on.  But nothing bad happened that night. 

The next day, at the building where we kids used to play, I was stopped by a man with a long black beard.  He demanded to know what I was doing and ordered me to go home and change my clothes.  I was wearing jeans and a white tee shirt.

It was a portent of things to come.  

The first thing the Taliban did was to announce that women should wear burqas and that girls’ schools were banned.  So I sat at home.  Girls were still going to school in cities the Taliban had not yet conquered.  I felt jealous, wishing I could move there to live a free life.

The Taliban’s ban on women working, or leaving the house without a male relative, hit us badly.  My father was killed by the mujaheddin a month before I was born- murdered because he worked for the Afghan government.   We had no male family members to go out and earn money.  My Mum was not allowed to work - and I was only a kid.

So my amazing Mum started running a secret school at our home.  It was a huge risk.  Every day we feared that the Taliban would find out and come to kill us. We - and the families sending their daughters to our “hidden” school - were risking our lives to study.

My Mum ran the school for two reasons: firstly, to earn a small amount of cash to keep us going.  Secondly, because she believed girls should have an education.

She bought me a beautiful green school backpack.  I loved it so much that I kept my books in all the time.  However, I feared that if the Taliban caught me with it I’d be beaten to death - not just because was a school bag, but also because it had a painting of Cinderella and English writing on it.  Both were forbidden by the Taliban.

The secret school continued through the long years of Taliban rule.  We often had to stop studying, fearing the Taliban were suspicious.  But we knew it was worth it; I could see hope for the future in the eyes of every girl studying there.

Then came 9/11 - and the international intervention in Afghanistan.  Mum and her friends said they felt free.  They could throw away their burqas, they could wear light scarves if they chose to, without fear of a beating from the Taliban.

Suddenly, I was allowed to attend school. I came top of my class and joined the Journalism Faculty of Kabul University.  After graduation I began working with NGOs and international organisations. Then I won a Chevening Scholarship to pursue postgraduate studies in the UK.

I didn’t choose one of the subjects popular with other young Afghans, like international relations or political science.  I chose to study something different; something I felt was lacking in my country - human rights, women’s rights.

Before I came to London, I knew very little about my rights as a woman or a human being. The violence, harassment or threats Afghan women faced on a daily basis seemed normal to me.  And I could not speak out - because I was a woman.

Now I’m a human rights activist, determined to defend Afghan women. 

Much progress has been made over the past decade.  Afghan women can work, go to school and take part in government.  They have more rights -  at least on paper.  But when they try to claim those rights, to enter education or take a public stand on an issue, they are held back by intimidation and threats.  Some are even killed.  Schools being firebombed, schoolgirls poisoned.  A 2009 law protecting Afghan women against violence is largely ignored.  When women complain about rape, or run away from home, they can be accused of “moral” crimes and be jailed for up to 15 years.  

What we Afghan women fear is that this situation will get worse after international forces withdraw from Afghanistan next year.  We fear we will lose our rights and security, particularly if the Taliban are brought back into government.

Not every Afghan girl has been lucky enough to have a strong mother like mine.  She refused to re-marry so I wouldn’t suffer in a stepfather’s house. She was both mother and father to me.  She ensured I got a good education.   

What we’re asking the international community to do is not to abandon Afghan females - to ensure that girls continue to get an education, that they are taught about their rights.

I remember only too well the dark days of the Taliban.  I hope and pray they never return to Afghanistan.  

Afghan women need continued international support to ensure that doesn’t happen.