Under Taliban control, going to school as a young girl was almost certainly an instant death sentence, but for Safia Amiry and her parents, ensuring she received an education was worth it. Now, Amiry hopes to help provide access to other girls facing a similar fate throughout the developing world.

The nearly daily bombings throughout her city could not intimidate her as a 5-year-old. Nor could she be deterred by the threat of the Taliban killing her if it learned she had school supplies tucked away under a seemingly innocent, yet incredibly simple disguise.

For Safia Amiry, a 28-year-old Fulbright scholar and a graduate student from Afghanistan, education has always been a primary driving force in her life, and no one, not even an international terrorist organization, can prevent her from pursuing her love for learning.

She hopes the hardships she endured to get an education in the past and the knowledge she can learn while at Ohio University will allow her to give back in some way to those around the world who lack access the same levels of education as she has had in the past.

Education at the risk of death

When the Taliban took control of Afghanistan in the mid-1990s, it brought with it sweeping changes to the nation, according to the Council on Foreign Relations. Beards on men had to meet a certain length. Music, television and other forms of media entertainment were banned. And women could not, under any circumstances, become educated.

With these radical changes came immense levels of protest and violence, violence Amiry recalled as being a permanent scar on her childhood.

“I always say I am a product of war,” Amiry said. “All throughout my early childhood, all I remember is war. It’s not, I think, a very good memory to grow up with.”

While only at the age of five at the time, Amiry remembered seeing constant explosions and unrest throughout her hometown of Kabul, the nation’s capital.

During the U.S.-led intervention in 2001, Amiry said she would climb up the steps to the roof of her parent’s one-story, one-bathroom house to watch the military jets drop bombs on the Taliban strongholds, lighting up the night sky like fireworks on New Year’s Day.

“At some point, it became a very normal part of our life,” Amiry said. “It was essentially happening every night.”

It was also during this time when Amiry, solely because she was a girl, became illegible to attend public school. Her parents, however, had different plans, and they were determined to ensure she would continue to have an education, even with the risk of execution for anyone who defied the Taliban law.

“With all of the challenges, my family still struggled to find me a secret or hidden school somewhere that they were teaching girls the basic school subjects,” Amiry said.

Despite these obstacles, her parents eventually succeeded and found a place to enroll Amiry in an underground school for girls. It was there where she would learn and become fluent in English while also learning about other subjects that children her age would normally be taught.

While the initial issue of ensuring their daughter would receive an education was solved, Amiry’s parents found getting her to school every day while being covert about it became yet another challenge.

To get to the hidden and unnamed school, Amiry had to travel on foot through the city while ensuring her school supplies were well hidden. If anyone from the Taliban saw Amiry carrying pencils, books or binders, she said she would all but certainly be executed, likely on the spot.

“I had to hide my bags,” Amiry said. “It was not a normal way of going to school for me.”

Wrapped in a large body scarf, Amiry was able to blend in like any of the other girls in the city, though unlike most of the girls her age, she was bounded up with her bags, books and writing utensils for her day at school.

Walking to the underground school like this proved to be a hindrance of its own, but the daily Taliban checkpoint Amiry walked through added even more stress to an already seemingly impossible task.

“I was passing the checkpoint every single day, which was also one of their main bases,” Amiry said when referencing the Taliban strongholds throughout the city.

She credited her success of not getting caught by being a convincing actress, as the task demanded she be comfortable at being able to act normal and to not get scared when questioned by the Taliban.

Amiry traversed the ten-minute walk to school like this every day until she reached the age of 11 in 2001. When the Taliban fell from power after U.S. and coalition forces toppled the regime for protecting and hiding Osama bin Laden, Amiry was finally able to go back to public school.

Still, the adversities she faced throughout her early childhood continued to dwell on her, and she began questioning why, as a girl, she had to face these risks just to get an education. After all, her younger brother Ferdous didn’t have to face the same tribulations, so why did she, Amiry recalled asking herself.

“It was something, even as a kid, that was not acceptable to me,” Amiry said. “I was like ‘why not,’ we are both human beings, why is there a difference between me and a guy? That makes you think, even as a kid, why things should be different for me.”

From an underground school to a Fulbright Scholar

Amiry’s return to public school following the Taliban’s defeat brought new opportunities for her. She was able to graduate high school and began looking at opportunities for college.

“I was happy because I could see at least some equality was coming back to the country,” Amiry said. “It was also the fact that I did not have to wear those big scarfs to hide my bags and stuff.”

Amiry knew that she wanted to go abroad for college as university options, according to her, were not ideal in Afghanistan given the country’s war-torn past.

“With the war and everything, college education is not good in the country,” Amiry said. “For me, it was a dream, I always wanted to go abroad and study.”

By pure chance, a family connection with the Afghani ambassador to Germany resulted in Amiry receiving a scholarship to go abroad to Germany and study for her undergraduate degree. According to Amari, a faculty member at a German university was in talks with the Afghani ambassador about sponsoring a woman who pursued an education under Taliban rule, and Amiry immediately met that qualification.

Unfortunately, family health complications with Amiry’s father resulted in her rescinding her scholarship, taking her back to ground zero for pursuing an education outside of Afghanistan’s borders. She ultimately pursued an undergraduate degree in business administration in Kabul, so she could be close to home, though the desire to study abroad remained.

It was shortly after earning her undergraduate degree that Amiry learned about the U.S. Fulbright Scholarship Program from other friends who had applied and received the coveted award.

Amiry with her friends who also received Fulbright scholarship awards. Photo provided by Amiry.

“I was not sure if I’d get it, but I was like ‘no problem,’ if I don’t apply it’s already a ‘no’ so if I don’t get it, it’s fine,” Amiry said. “And I applied for it and I got it.”

According to the Fulbright website, the prestigious scholarship program is intended for graduate students who want to conduct research, study or participate in teaching opportunities. Placements are available in more than 140 countries around the world. Different awards within the program are available to American and international students.

Amiry’s Fulbright placement brought her to Ohio University, where she is pursuing a master’s degree in international development with a certificate in women’s, gender and sexuality studies.

“It’s a degree that allows you to do a lot of development projects or development work,” Amiry said.

Education for all

Amiry plans to graduate in the spring, but whether her pursuit of education continues after that is still to be decided. She is currently wrestling with either moving on to obtain a Ph.D. or heading back home to Afghanistan and embarking on efforts that will continue to reform education in the country.

“If I want to continue with development, I want to look into peacebuilding within development,” Amiry said with regards to potential topics for a doctorate. “At the same time, gender is also an interesting subject for me. Given my background on working for women’s rights back home, I see this as also being a potential area of study.”

Holding a position of public office also ranks highly on Amiry’s list of potential future jobs if she decides to go back to Afghanistan. It’s within the government, Amiry believes, that a lot of effective change can be made.

“I want to see myself in a decision-making position in the Afghanistan government because we have lots of issues in the country that still need to be fixed,” she said. “I want to see myself there to help girls and government in general because we need human capacity there.”

However, nothing will keep her in Afghanistan for long as Amiry cited a lot of work that has yet to be done throughout the world with regards to ensuring education and other rights for women and young girls.

“On the long run I don’t want to only stick with Afghanistan, I want to travel to different parts of the world where there are developing countries and possible areas where girls don’t have access to a lot of things,” Amiry said.

Her prior experiences will undoubtedly stick with her throughout her life, but these memories, Amiry believes, will only help fuel her passion of promoting equality and education for generations of girls to come.

“What always keeps me going, when I deflect to my tranquil [state of mind] and how I have overcome the challenges with the Taliban in getting an education. Like if I can do that, I can do anything.”

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