In the words of Adelah: “I believe that with gender equality, peace will come”
Illustration: Milica Cvokic
Adelah*, 27, is a former Afghan school teacher now pursuing her dream career in information technology. She is developing an app that connects Afghan women with gynecologists abroad. Adelah 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.
My story starts with a computer we had at home that only my brother was allowed to use. In a poor family of eight, I was the only girl interested in electronics. Daily, I went into the room where the computer was located to clean it. I wanted to touch it and learn how to use it. When I asked my brother to teach me, he told me that girls should do house chores; that a computer was not a woman’s thing. One day at dinner, I announced: ‘I would like to become an IT girl.’ Everyone laughed and said: ‘Computers are not for girls!’ This cut deep and I continued to think about it for years.
When I was in 7th grade, after passing three exams, I got a scholarship for a special school, and my life began to change. I started working at my school as a teacher’s assistant. I started to support my family financially and began a one-year programme to study English. Then, I joined a women-only university where women could become teachers.
In my family, women can be either teachers or doctors. There was no other choice. So, this is what I did. But deep down, it was hurting me. Every day, I cried on the way to university. After graduating, I became a teacher, but I wasn’t enjoying it. I loved kids but it was not my dream. I wasn’t happy. I wanted to be free, be under no one’s command. I told my family after a while that I couldn’t do it anymore. I asked them to let me do what I like. That was the first time I stood up for myself. I told them that they didn’t need to support me. I had savings. And they said: ‘Okay, go and try. We know that you cannot become what you dream about.’
I used my savings for the TOEFL exam. I sat it three times. Every time it cost 3,500 Afghani. I was poorer with each test. I did not pass the first and second time but thankfully, I passed the third. After a few days, I received a call from a university and learned that I’d received a full scholarship.
As a first-year student, with some friends we decided to found an NGO for Afghan children, youth and women. The aim was to educate and empower and then develop the community. We worked for one year to build it. Then COVID-19 ruined our plans. However, we didn’t give up. We started spreading information about COVID-19 safety measures through our NGO.
Then the Taliban came. We lived in Kabul, but my mom was in Kandahar visiting my aunt. She was stuck there and my dad disappeared. When you are a father with daughters like us – who are studying, have an education from abroad and are socially active – you have lots of enemies. Before the Taliban came, my dad got threats from our relatives: ‘Why are you not pushing your daughters to get married? Give them to us to find husbands. Otherwise, something might happen to them.’
When the Taliban took over, nobody could help because everything was in chaos. My mom tried to come back to Kabul but couldn’t. After one week, we ran out of food. We couldn’t sleep. When my mom finally came, we still didn’t know where our father was. We made it over the border to Pakistan and stayed there for one month. There, we heard from my dad. He had escaped and hid at the airport, getting evacuated first to Qatar and then another country. We were so happy he was alive!
Later, we went to Tajikistan, where I received a call from my university with an offer to continue my education abroad. It was a hard decision for me to leave my family, but I asked them to let me finish my education. In October 2021, I went to another country. My first semester was awful. I was alone and everything was new. After I found a job, I started sending money to my family to support them. It’s just me helping them. They’re still in hiding.
Now I’m studying to become an IT developer. I remembered not being able to use the computer at home and decided to become an expert in this field so I could show the world that IT can also be a woman’s thing. I’m working on an application to help Afghan women. In Afghanistan, when you get your period, you cannot tell anyone. So, I decided to connect gynecologists outside of the country with Afghan women through an application they can easily download.
Being an Afghan woman is hard itself. Men treat us as servants. Afghan women should be silent. If you raise your voice, you could be beaten to death. I remember coming home from school one day and seeing a big crowd and a lot of police at a neighbour’s house. I found out that a girl I knew had been killed. Later, we asked her sister, who told us that the poor girl was killed by their father because he caught her with her boyfriend. The father worked in the police force. Later, we had a conversation in my family and my parents said that parents could kill their children in those shameful situations. I thought: If I get a boyfriend, the same thing could happen to me. Nobody would ask where my dead body was. I was afraid.
After years of education, I slowly understood that all this is not normal. Everything should be equal between women and men. I learned that in Islam all rights – men and women’s – are equal.
I see Afghan women as brave and passionate women because even though they are excluded from education and schools are banned, they still find ways to learn and educate themselves. When I see their passion to study, despite everything, I can see a bright future for Afghanistan. I wish for peace in Afghanistan and equal rights for women and men. I believe that with gender equality, peace will come.”
* Names, locations and details have been changed to ensure the safety of the featured protagonist.
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.