In Kandahar, Girls Show Grit Behind Guarded Walls
Education is like gold — more precious than any other possession.
That's according to an 11-year-old girl named Bilqis Ehsan. She lives in Kandahar, Afghanistan. She speaks nearly fluent English. And she wants to be a doctor.
Education "shines your life," she says.
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."
It would be fair to say that there is no world of girls more hidden than the world beneath the burqas of Afghanistan. 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 underneath their burqas are somehow pitiable or 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 burqas are gone. The girls laugh and chat — and forge the skills they'll need in future jobs.
One irony living in a war zone 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.
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 Sadisaidi, 20. "She was our classmate."
"We want to be brave," she says. "And we are coming to school."
A horn signals the end of the school day. The young girls tighten their head scarves, the older ones pull on their burqas. They hold their books to their chests, like a shield. And once again, disappear onto the streets of Kandahar.
RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
This morning, we're off to Afghanistan for the latest in our series: The Hidden World of Girls, produced with our friends, the Kitchen Sisters.
(Soundbite of music)
MONTAGNE: Follow me now down a street in Kandahar through a tall iron gate past a guard with a gun and into a courtyard. Here, 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.
Unidentified Group: I love my school.
Unidentified Woman: I like my school. (Speaking in foreign language). I love my...
Unidentified Group: I love my school.
MONTAGNE: Eleven-year-old Bilqis slipped away from her English class. Pretty in a ponytail and red sweater threaded with silver, she wanted to tell us why for her, learning is more precious than any possession.
BILQIS: 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.
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MONTAGNE: 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 an autumn wind. But it would be a mistake to presume that all the women underneath are somehow pitiable or frightened or even meek. They aren't - mostly.
And here at the Afghan Canadian Community Center is an especially determined bunch. The center offers courses in English and computer technology and business. The students aren't here just for the joy of learning, they want careers. Here's Bilqis' friend Nurzia, who's 14.
NURZIA: I'm learning English because it's an international language and English is very important for our life. If we become a doctor, because doctor needs to write prescriptions for the patient by English.
MONTAGNE: Do you want to be a doctor then?
NURZIA: Yeah, 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.
MONTAGNE: Yes, Kandahar is the heartland of the Taliban, but as you can hear, these girls have plans to be out in the world.
Ms. TAHIRA SADISAIDI: My name is Tahira Sadisaidi.
Ms. SHAHIRA SADISAIDI: Shahira Sadisaidi(ph). We are sisters and also we are classmates.
MONTAGNE: We found Tahira, who's 20, and Shahira, who's 19, sitting at computers along with a dozen other girls. Tahira's dark eyes shine beneath her gauzy, pink veil. Her sister, Shahira, is the conservative one - all in black. And when they speak for making up for the years under the Taliban when they weren't allowed to go to school, their words tumble out.
Ms. T. SADISAIDI: There was Taliban, so we were not going to school. We were just at home. My father is a doctor. He was teaching us.
MONTAGNE: So you're pretty motivated.
Ms. S. SADISAIDI: Yeah. My father, my aunties, especially my mother - she's a housewife but she really motivated us. She really want to be studying. Everything which - we are studying because of my mother and my father. My mother didn't study because her family was just a little bit conservative. They didn't like schools. My mother said, no, my daughter will be a teacher or maybe be a doctor, everything, but they have to study.
MONTAGNE: Why do you think your mother was different?
Ms. T. SADISAIDI: I don't know. 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.
MONTAGNE: One irony of Kandahar being a warzone, there may just be more opportunities for girls who want to grow up to be working women. There's the U.N., NATO and USAID, all hiring and paying well. Also offering desk jobs for women who can use computers and speak English, 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. When I broach the subject with young Nurzia, she brushes off the threats that the community center has passed on to her parents.
There is a war going on. Has it ever stopped you from coming to school? Is it dangerous? Your mother doesn't you want you to?
NURZIA: No, no.
MONTAGNE: And your parents have never been too scared for you?
NURZIA: No. They always say that the center is warning, but it's lie, it's not true.
MONTAGNE: So sometimes there are warnings for girls not to go to school?
MONTAGNE: But you don't believe it?
NURZIA: No, I don't believe it. Because it's lie.
MONTAGNE: Nurzia's family chooses to view threats as intimidation, pure and simple, by the Taliban or warlords or drug dealers - anyone who might benefit from fear and disorder.
The family of Tahira and Shahira Sadisaidi do allow themselves to be scared, but not scared away.
Ms. T. SAIDEE: Some months are going, near to our house, one girl was killed by someone. She was working. She was our classmate. My mother always says, when you are coming I am just waiting. I'm looking at the door if they come or someone come and says that they are - they will be killed. So we are coming, we just want to be brave and we want to be brave and we are coming to school.
MONTAGNE: At the Afghan Canadian Community Center, a pushy 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.
(Soundbite of music)
MONTAGNE: You can see our Kandahar girls at our website.
You're listening to MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.