Sohaila’s tale: shamed for wanting to be independent

She had just entered university and did not have the expertise to find a good job. She whispered to herself, “It is okay, I will do hard work if I have to but I will study.” She tried her hand at short-term jobs. Sometimes making clothes, working in large fruit cold stores, and sometimes confectioneries. Even finding these jobs were hard. Everyone made the excuse that “you are Afghan, the labor office will fine us.” It was worse when some employers wanted to exploit her desperation; from verbal harassment to violation. They told her: “You will not be accepted anywhere because you are Afghan. If you do not comply with our wishes, you will be fired.” And that is why most of the jobs she worked did not last more than a few mornings.

On the one hand, her family, and on the other, a wave of humiliation and violations wore out Sohaila’s hopes of achieving her dreams every day. She had to work to pay for her university. The family’s economic situation in Iran was unstable and yet it was not possible to drop out of school. As a child, she had a world of big dreams that she wanted to achieve, but how?

Sohaila’s story is a choice between two paths: homeland or emigration. The struggle for independence against restrictive traditions and customs that do not allow her this freedom. When she finished her studies, she could no longer stay in Iran. She was not happy with the bitter memories of school and the neighborhood and the humiliating work experiences during college. She decided to return to Afghanistan. She had only seen her homeland once before until Herat when she traveled for a student visa; but there has always been something like a sense of restlessness rooted in her, a kind of nostalgia for her homeland.

She had to face strong opposition from the family, something that a lot of girls must experience. This was worsened by the economic responsibility for the family and their silence and indifference to the difficult conditions that temporary and non-professional jobs create. Her mother had repeatedly stated that she trusted Sohaila, but that she could not shut people’s mouths. It even got to the point where Ali, his brother, repeatedly beat and threatened her, saying that if Sohaila went to Kabul alone, she should leave home for good because of the disgrace that would bring.

But Sohaila had made her decision. There was something in her mind that went beyond the traditional and misplaced judgments of the people. For her, independence was important, standing up for herself was important, dignity was important, and most importantly, she believed that a woman should be empowered enough to decide on her future.

Her mother was finally convinced and Sohaila came to Kabul. Six years have passed since those days. Six years have opened a new chapter in her life. Although she experienced many problems during those years away from her family, she says: “Where in this region do we have the right to easily achieve our goals? You can place stone after stone but that will not stop the flow of a river.”

In the first few days after reaching Kabul, she settled in a dormitory in the third district. At the time, she met some of her friends who had studied architecture like her. She took a job in the private sector according to her specialization and at the same time started studying English. Living in a dormitory was difficult. After work, she would take an English course and she would return to the dormitory late at night. The latest that women could return to the dormitory was five in the afternoon. Every time she arrived a little late, she was confronted with a wave of personal questions from the dormitory guards. “Where were you? Who were you with? …” There were even several cases where after the girls protested, they were threatened by the dormitory management that if they raised their voices again, they would be reported to the police station on charges of immorality.

Six years ago, the situation was different than it is today. The idea of an independent woman who decided to live alone had not yet taken root in society. Sohaila and her friends were often mistreated by brokers when they wanted to rent a house. The first question was: “Who is your man? Are you with a family or not? We do not allow single women.” In a few cases, houses were given, under harsh and ridiculous conditions that interfered with their personal lives, without guaranteeing their independence and privacy, but only with the guarantee of two or three men. This meant that in this region, you have to live behind a man’s name and a man’s guarantee and that alone, or you are nothing…

During the years, months, and days of the war in the capital, and despite all the obstacles, many windows of hope opened in Sohaila’s heart. She worked and got a master’s degree. She completed her English studies. Over all these six years, despite her longing for the family, she did her best to support their finances and succeeded. She even got a job for the same brother who said to her, “If you go to Kabul, I will lose myself out of shame.” Sohaila has now become the light of her household that once said her departure to Kabul was a shame and disgrace.

Kabul has a lot of hardworking and independent women. Women who are the hopes of their family, women who have goals, women who stand on their own two feet on the basis of their skills, and prefer hardship to being confined. Kabul, despite its war-torn and tired face, also contains these beautiful tales, those of Sohaila and her kind.

Now Sohaila is sitting in front of me, and she suddenly picks up her coffee cup and puts it next to the window, and leans against the sill. Whenever she wants to talk to her mother on the phone, she always goes behind the window and looks at the mountains in the horizon. It is very rare for her to be able to swallow her anger and speak normally, but every time I ask her, she says in an Iranian accent: “I will soon get a home for my mother, and I will bring her with me to Kabul.”