By Nargis Omar
This story was published in partnership with Rukhshana Media and The Fuller Project.
It was 9 am. All members of my family were around for breakfast. Suddenly, my father’s phone rang. The person on the line told my father, “We’re visiting you this afternoon for the proposal ceremony.”
My father, his throat dry, responded: “The guest is always beloved by God. You are welcome.”
The person calling my father was a relative who had joined the Taliban. He’s ten years older than me, with a wife and two children. Now, he wants to force me to marry him as his second wife. My hands are tied; I am helpless. He is a Talib and I am a woman. Apparently, there is no way to say no. If I can’t escape, I have to accept this marriage.
I am a woman who worked hard and managed to provide a decent life for herself and her family, a decent life based on Afghan standards. But with the Taliban returning, just like 25 years ago, we lost everything. My relatives were against girls’ education. But my father was different from them. My father, who is a hero in my life, supported me in receiving an education.
I was the happiest when I was going to school. I wanted to get educated and become someone so that I could build my Afghanistan. After high school graduation, I took the Kankor exam (university entrance exam) and was accepted to my favorite field, agriculture. I loved studying agriculture.
However, this was not acceptable to my relatives. According to them, if a woman is to study, it should only be in a religious field and in a female-only environment, away from the eyes of men. Living as a woman in such a misogynist atmosphere was torture. However, I did not give up and insisted on my decision to continue my studies in agriculture.
Despite getting annoyed by the continuous mocking and sarcasm of people around me, I was not willing to give up my goals and dream for the sake of others because I was the one who had struggled a lot to get to university. I would often say to myself, “I shouldn’t give in like a weak person. I should believe in myself.”
I vowed to study and work in the same field at all costs. I wanted to prove to my relatives that a woman can do far more significant things than housekeeping and childcare. On the other hand, I would soften the path for other girls in my relatives and neighbors to study in fields other than religious studies.
During my studies, I was banned from going to school several times due to the pressure and intervention of my relatives. However, my father stood behind me and supported me in continuing my education. Although I studied in the field of my choice, my family was still quite conservative and discriminative towards women working outside. But I was sick of compromising and accepting other people’s decisions about my life and desires. It was time for me to flourish.
I was in the third year of university when I learned of a job opportunity near my house. Without consulting anyone, I applied for the job and took the required entry exam. As usual, I got a high score and got selected for the job. When I discussed the matter with my father, he objected. However, with the mediation of my teachers, he finally agreed to let me work.
From the day I got my permission to work outside, I was determined to help fellow women achieve their dreams. One of the first things I did to help women was to write several letters to local media managers. I volunteered to run a program for them that reflected the problems of women. Through this program, I was able to solve several women’s issues and put a smile on their faces.
About a year ago, I started working as an agricultural engineer with an NGO in one of the western provinces of Afghanistan. As a part of my job requirements, I traveled to the districts and villages to teach women how to process and distribute their new agricultural products to the market. For instance, I trained village women to make pastes from tomatoes and sell them in the market.
I worked so enthusiastically that I wouldn’t feel exhausted even after hours of traveling and training women in the villages.
My daily routine started like this: I would wake up at 5 am and after the morning prayer, I would study for an hour, have breakfast and head to the office afterward. Based on my work schedule, I would travel to a different village every day. After conducting the training, I would sit down with women, hear their stories, and note the problems women faced in that village. At the end of working day, I would go to the media and discuss the problems I had noted. I focused on the problems that were solvable. For example, in one case, I managed to help a woman who was a victim of forced child marriage to find a job and divorce her husband who was beating her.
Every night, before going to bed, I used to review my points of strengths and weaknesses. I must admit that pen and paper have been the means of relieving my pain during these years.
After a few months, my relatives found out about my activities. They tried to dissuade me from working, first with a softer tone and later with threats. They pressured my father to get me married like other girls in our community and keep me busy with housekeeping and raising children. But my father resisted their pressure. Our relatives were firmly against my work outside the home. Because I had refuted all their absurd beliefs, and apparently, I had hurt their religious and traditional values/feelings. I had become a successful woman who pursued her goals steadily and did not pay attention to their misogynist demands.
However, before I could achieve my goals, Afghanistan fell to the Taliban, and my relatives joined the Taliban and their ideology. For other Afghan women and me, this fall was not just the fall of a country, it was the fall of our aspirations and achievements, for which we worked for 20 years.
The night our province fell to the Taliban, I was numb.
I couldn’t believe we were, overnight, 20 years behind. If we were supposed to live 20 years ago, I would say to myself, then why did I suffer so much? To reach where I was, I had run so hard, and I had injured my feet metaphorically. Was it even worth it? But all the achievements, aspirations, and dreams are multiplied by zero. Yes, I was so numb that I had nothing to say and no voice to shout.
Now, getting forced to marry a Talib, becoming a second wife, and being imprisoned at home is what awaits me.
I wish someone could take my hands and save me from this mire.
Remember, this is not only my fate; this is the fate of all Afghan girls and women who have been deprived of their most basic rights with the return of the Taliban.
Nargis Omar (pseudonym), 24, is an agricultural engineer.