In Afghanistan, girls are required by law to go to school. However, many of them never do.
Death threats, acid attacks and bombings by Taliban militants and other extremists lead many parents who support female education to keep their daughters at home.
Sometimes, it’s the families themselves who stand in the way. School officials in conservative communities say relatives are often more interested in marrying off their daughters or sisters than in helping them get an education.
But some girls, like 18-year-old Rahmaniya, are fighting back.
The 10th grader in the southern city of Kandahar province says the moments she savors most in her life are those she spends learning.
Rahmaniya, whose last name is being withheld to protect her, says she didn’t dare go to school until her father passed away five years ago. He had vowed to disown her if she tried to get an education.
These days, the slight girl with big brown eyes dreams of going to college to study journalism.
But she adds that it’s hard to think about the future when her older brother keeps threatening to stab her to death with a knife he carries in his pocket.
“Several times he has beaten me up,” she says. “He tells me, ‘You go ahead and go to school and I’ll throw acid on you like the Taliban. I’ll go to the Taliban and they’ll protect me if I do this in this land of infidels where girls go to school.”
Driven Into Hiding
Rahmaniya believes her brother’s anger is rooted in jealousy, since he quit school a long time ago.
Her family, like many in Kandahar, is also struggling to make ends meet and the teen says her brother wants her to marry. In Afghanistan, dowries bring in a lot of cash for the bride’s family.
“But I don’t want to get married, at least not before I finish my studies,” Rahmaniya says.
His insistence that she wed is something Rahmaniya says she uses against him.
She explains that when he threatens to blind or maim her, she reminds him that disfiguring her will make it impossible to find a husband.
Still, the threats and beatings have driven Rahmaniya into hiding. She moves every few days from one sympathetic relative’s house to another to avoid being found by her brother.
Societal Taboos, Taliban
Last week, her mother agreed to help plan her daughter’s escape to a women’s shelter in Kabul so she could continue her studies in safety.
The plan fell apart when Rahmaniya’s mother caved in to family pressure that her daughter marry a relative.
The mother says the man will allow Rahmanyia to attend school after they wed. But her daughter believes that’s a lie and refuses to marry the relative.
Saying she feels trapped, Rahmaniya begins to cry.
“If it wasn’t a sin to commit suicide, I would,” she says. “Life has become very bitter.”
Ehsanullah Ehsan, who is director of the Kandahar Institute of Modern Studies, where some 800 girls go to school, says Rahmaniya’s case is not unique. He adds that societal taboos are oftentimes as problematic for his students as the Taliban.
“There are many other threats … extremist threats, warlord threats, tribal lord threats, family honor threats, because still there are families in which education is an honor problem, so these women who are coming here, they are brave to come here for an education,” he says.
Ehsan says that bravery has translated into a brighter future for many young women. Three hundred of his graduates have gotten jobs in Kandahar.
But Rahmaniya says she doesn’t want to stay in Afghanistan.
She says she yearns to go abroad, but that she’s found no one who can help her.