By Maryam Mursal
When the Taliban celebrated the Prophet Mohammad’s birthday in the western city of Herat on October 21, Sotooda Forotan was one of the speakers. Her name was listed to read a poem. But when she took to the podium, she delivered a speech instead, pleading with the Taliban to reopen secondary schools for girls.
“Today, as a representative of girls, I want to deliver a message that is in our hearts. We all know that Herat is a city of knowledge… why should the schools be closed to girls?” the 15-year-old said to an audience of around 200, including some provincial Taliban officials.
Soon afterward, a short video of her speech went viral on Afghan social media, with many viewers describing how watching the speech made them cry. Even the members of the Taliban who listened to her speech applauded her.
“I used to be the voice of many women and children, but since the Taliban took over, I have been silent and worried about what will happen to my goals for the future,” Forotan told Rukhshana Media in an interview. “So I decided to do something, to represent them again.”
A Taliban official in Herat province confirmed to Rukhshana Media that girls from grades 7 to 12 will be allowed to resume their education from Saturday, November 6.
This was welcoming news for Forotan, a 10th-grade high school student who did not return to school since the Taliban’s lightning takeover of Afghanistan in mid-August. On September 17, the Taliban effectively banned girls from secondary schools when it ordered teenage boys to return to schools, but made no mention of girls.
When Forotan stood behind the microphone, she recalled her mother’s tears when she lost her teaching job of 14 years. She described how her 7-year-old sister, instead of playing and being happy, now thinks about fleeing her country with her 4-year-old brother, who can already identify the sound of shooting and bombing. She recalled the cries of her classmates and her own vanished dreams. “All of these gave me the courage to scream in front of the Taliban officials. It was not my scream, it was the scream of a nation,” she said.
Forotan recalled the reaction of her own conservative relatives at her birth when her father hugged the small baby and said his daughter would bring pride to the family. Though her relatives tended to agree with Taliban ideology, her father has been her biggest supporter, encouraging her to read and become an activist from the tender age of seven.
“I wanted to become the first woman foreign minister of Afghanistan,” Forotan said, adding that she was reading biographies of successful women politicians and researching ways to fulfill her dreams. “Even in my sleep, I was dreaming about which university I would attend and where I would work.”