Story Behind a Surprising Picture; Why Did Nazila Present Her Graduation Certificate to Adila?

Nazila was a freshman at Georgetown University in Washington, DC, about three years and six months ago. It was reported that Adila died in a traffic accident. Nazila mourned each day she entered the classroom. She had been mourning all these three and a half years, and she could see the innocent face of her older sister in the pages of her books. On the day Nazila graduated, she wrote on a plaque: “I present my graduation certificate to my only sister, who could not go to school because of patriarchy.”

Her graduation photo was soon shared on social media. Everyone was talking about Nazila. A famous girl from Herat who worked for women’s rights for many years. Someone from a traditional family. The family says that when a girl is born, they engage her to a boy at that age. If she is very lucky, she will be engaged and married at the age of 13. A family where the girl should not study!

We talk on the phone. My heart sinks listening to her sad stories. With a world of unspoken words, regret, something like an unfulfilled dream, she says, “She was very young when she died, 38 years old with five children. She took her desire to study to the grave with her. The men of the tribe did not allow Adila to study.”

In the face of civil war, it is difficult for them to survive. The situation in Herat is not good either. They emigrate to Tehran, Iran. Years pass, but the atmosphere of the family is the same, filled with the culture of the tribe. Nazila is born and Adila is her only sister. A family of seven with three brothers and two sisters who mourn their father very soon. Nazila was two years old when she lost her father. His mother lost her husband at the height of her youth at the age of 28. This was not good, because the tribal culture cast a heavier shadow over them.

Their ethnic and tribal atmosphere was such that education for girls was limited only for reading, writing, and reciting the Qur’an. The girls’ marriage was decided at the time of their birth. The happiest situation for a girl was not to be engaged to anyone at birth and to marry at the age of 13 by the decision of influential people and the elders. Unlike Nazila, Adila fell victim to this patriarchal tradition and system. They said she should marry a family member. Marrying the girl to someone outside the family was considered a disgrace. Although they lived in Tehran, there was no change in family behavior or culture. There was not the slightest flexibility in girls’ education.

Adila gave birth to her first child when she was 13 years old. She was never allowed to go to school. The idea was that if Adila went to school, the pride of the tribesmen would be harmed. She was not alone, many girls were sacrificed like her in their tribe. Nazila and Adila’s uncles always emphasized that a good girl is a girl who does not show her teeth when she laughs, is always obedient, and does not react when a man speaks, only accepts. The right to work, the right to education, and the right to choose for girls were contrary to tribal custom.

“Adila always told me to study. ‘You study, don’t be like me’ she said…Adila loved books,” says Nazila.

Nazila going to school was like breaking the law; A revolution that should not have happened. She fought for every day she went to school. Each academic year that ended, she prepared for the new school year. Sometimes she even got to the point where hse was not considered a member of the family. She would get beaten. One day she went to school with a broken arm and the other day with swollen eyes and a bruised face.

The school was only 100 steps away from their house, it was a stroke of luck. Again, the family was not satisfied. “I cannot fight with you,” said Nazila’s mother. “I cannot fight against the men of the people.” Nazila would go to her grandmother and seek her support. She finished elementary school with the same conditions. When she reached sixth grade, the men of the tribe all gathered. Nazila was sitting behind the door of the room where they had gathered. It was said that Nazila had learned to read and write, understood subtraction and addition, that was enough and it was time for marriage.

“My hands were shaking,” says Nazila. “I still tremble when I think about it. The same fear remained in me. Fighting and resisting in childhood is hard. Adila herself did not study, but she supported me because she wanted to study herself. As I got older, I learned to read and write fairly, completely secretly and out of sight of the men of the family. Adila told me that the things in these books are much more beautiful than the reality of my life.”

Adila’s support made Nazila even more courageous. As a child, she had come to the conclusion that if she studies, she would not have to marry early. If she studies, she does not have to live with 25 other people and only have the role of cook and servant. She knew that if she studies, she could raise her voice.

She also passed the seventh grade with difficulty and entered eighth grade. Nazila would go to one of the family’s women and cry so the men of the tribe would allow her to study eighth grade. They did not allow it. It was the first day of the eighth grade of school, which she had secretly registered to. When she returned from school, her brother was sitting on the couch. Angrily and threateningly, he told Nazila to leave her school bag and books, and forget studying forever. “Get ready for marriage,” Nazila was told. But Nazila did not give up. She went to school the next day. Her mother shouted, “Don’t go, I can’t stand by you in this fight but Nazila went to school despite her trembling and fearing the men of the family. In those circumstances, tolerance and understanding were the most incomprehensible words. To keep Nazila out of school, her brothers and uncles did not refrain from any violence. One day she went to school with a broken arm and one day with swollen eyes and a bruised face. It was the same every day, but she still continued to study.

It was the end of the year exams. A fire was burning in a yard and as Nazila got closer, she saw her brother standing proudly and looking into Nazila’s eyes. What burned were Nazila’s books and notebooks. Nazila did not sleep that night and sat in her school uniform next to the ashes of her books and cried until morning. She hated herself, the women of the tribe. She wondered why women were left only with tears in the face of male decisions. That night, her desire to study intensified.

The next day she went to the exam without any books or notebooks. This was the situation until the twelfth grade. “I better not say what I endured in those days and years, words cannot explain my pain,” she says. After that, she took the entrance exam in Iran. At that time, his sister Adila had several children. The family did not wait for the result of her entrance exam and returned to Herat. She was later informed that she had succeeded in the Iranian entrance exam. She secretly took the entrance exam in Herat, knowing that she would not be allowed to go to university. Economic conditions became difficult too. Nazila fought alone for years, for the right to study, for the right to work, for the right to choose. She was excluded from her family and tribe, but she stood up for her future. The pain of not studying and the oppression of Adila and the girls of the tribe encouraged Nazila to work for women. She started cooperating with various institutions. She traveled to 27 provinces of Afghanistan and listened to their stories. She tried to provide education for women. “Every time I worked or sat down to talk to a woman or a girl, I remembered the night I cried until morning for my burnt school supplies,” she says.

Her efforts were such that she went to the United States to study. The day she started school, it was reported that her sister Adila had died. Adila, who was never able to study, was her biggest supporter but now that Nazila has taken an important step, Adila was gone. Nazila mourned all her school days. So, on the day of her graduation, she wrote on a plaque that she presented her degree to her sister.

The heavy grief behind Nazila’s voice is great. She has great sorrow for her sister, who passed away with unfulfilled dreams. “I wish she was alive on my graduation day, I wish she was right next to me,” says Nazila. “I wish my innocent sister could study. When Adila learned to read from me, she said that the things in these books are more beautiful than in her life.”