From student to teacher: how Nazeera took learning into her own hands

Growing up under the Taliban regime

Arifa Omid
Omid Fazel1
UNICEF Afghanistan/2021/Omid Fazel
01 April 2021

It is a cold winter day in Kabul, Afghanistan; Nazeera and I sit close to each otherI hold her hands; look into her eyes; and ask her to tell me her story.

Before she utters a word, there are tears in her eyes.

She takes a deep breath and tells me, “I hope by talking about it, I can process the memories of those dark days and feel less scared.”

***

As dawn was breaking, 25 years ago, Nazeera, her three sisters and three brothers were sleeping in their living room. Her mother was preparing a breakfast of bread and tea with sugar. Outside in the yard, her father was watering the flowers of which he was so proud. As usual, the radio hummed, broadcasting the local news. Suddenly, there was an announcement: the Taliban had attacked Kabul and captured the city.

Even as she was waking up, Nazeera remembers seeing the look on her parents’ faces. Fear. A feeling that translated, quickly, to her and her siblings.

With the ascendancy of the Taliban, so began the darkest period of Nazeera’s life. She grew up quickly at 12.

“At first, my father had to hide at home until his beard grew lest the Taliban caught and punished him,” said Nazeera. “Previously, my father had worked for the military but after many attempts, he couldn’t find a job. Slowly, meals got smaller, then less regular, then I remember my mother telling him that we had no more food. We had spent all our savings. I will never forget the ache of an empty stomach and feeling so tired.”

Women were discouraged from leaving the home. If they did go outside, they were forced to wear a burqa.

“I felt as if I was in prison. I couldn’t breathe well and couldn’t see clearly while wearing it,” said Nazeera.  “I remember one day when I was in a bus and it was so warm that some women removed their burqa from their faces. Suddenly, one Talib appeared and whipped us badly. It was the worst day of my life.”

Girls’ schools shut or were destroyed; women were no longer allowed to be educated. Only boys’ schools teaching Islamic subjects were allowed.

“When I was banned from going to my beloved school, I felt my future get dark. All I wanted was to learn,” remembers Nazeera sadly.

Life, as the family knew it, slowly ground to a halt.

Desperate and scared, Nazeera’s parents decided to immigrate to Iran. With the little savings they had, they found a smuggler. But they were anxious about whether the journey would be safe.

When her parents broached the subject, Nazeera spoke of her fear about fleeing and trusting the man.

“At least if we stay here, my brothers can go to school,” she whispered to her mother, late one night while her siblings slept.

After several such discussions, Nazeera convinced her family that the safest option was to stay in Kabul.

But they needed an income. So, together, with her three sisters and mother, Nazeera started a small business tailoring clothes and weaving carpets. They sewed dresses and sold them to their neighbors. For each dress they earned 15 AFN – barely enough to buy bread for the family.

Trapped inside their house for fear of Taliban patrols, the days and nights dragged for Nazeera. Two years passed. She grew bored of sewing and tired easily. She missed her studies. Alone with her thoughts, she began to despair. She desperately missed her old life, the freedom she had, and her dreams of becoming a doctor.

“One day, the schools will re-open, and you’ll return to your studies,” her mother would reassure her. But the words felt hollow to Nazeera. Instead of bringing solace, they increased her frustration.

Determined not to abandon her love of learning, Nazeera came up with a bold idea. Against all good sense and at considerable risk, she created a makeshift school in her home under the guise of a tailoring course. At first, she invited her neighbor’s daughter to join the hidden school. But, soon after, her class sizes increased.

At first, the girls’ families did not agree to the idea. They were, understandably, afraid. But, after several negotiations, Nazeera convinced them it could work.

“Sometimes, I felt scared. I don’t know where I got the strength from. I convinced parents to let me teach their daughters! But with each girl who enrolled, I felt stronger and more empowered to make the impossible possible,” said Nazeera. “Before too long, I was teaching more than 20 girls in my home. I had become a teacher at the age of 14! It was important to me that I could help others by transferring what knowledge I had.”

Dividing the girls into groups, each group came at a different time. Before the start of class, she would close the gate and put a big bowl next to the door to help them understand if someone entered to the home.

Her most precious items were her stationery and books. Terrified that the Taliban would find them, she hid them in a box.

Although teaching her friends brought her much joy, Nazeera missed studying herself. So, with the help of her mother, she would borrow her elder brother’s books and study at night.

Nearly five years passed. And almost as suddenly as they had swept to power, the Taliban regime ended.

“Suddenly, we heard national freedom songs on the radio,” smiled Nazeera. “We dared to believe a new life with new hopes was possible.”

While returning to school was all she had dreamed about, she had a five-year gap in her education. But the years of night-time studying paid off.  Not only did Nazeera pass her third-grade class, she joined the eleventh grade directly. And not only did she graduate, but she was first in her school.

And her students? They also returned to school and soared high on the back of Nazeera’s teachings.

***

Today, Nazeera juggles a full-time job, with being a wife and mother to three beautiful girls.

More than anything, she hopes for peace in Afghanistan, and prays that her daughters will grow-up healthy, happy and study hard so that they have the freedom to do what they wish.

As the peace process rumbles on with uncertainty, Nazeera concludes, “On International Women’s Day, I want to say to all Afghan women, fight hard for your education and never give up. One day, you will see the impact of it on your life.”