20 April 2011

Teaching in the pursuit of inspiration

KABUL, Afghanistan—Working at a new university in a war zone has its challenges, but a brief conversation I had with a student last week explains why I have taught here for the better part of the last two and a half years.

Farida, not her real name, will graduate this year with a bachelor’s degree in business. She works fulltime, takes in excess of a full-time course load each semester, does summer classes as well, and will graduate in less than four years. She also shares a large burden in caring for her family in Kabul. She is one of the hardest-working, most disciplined students I have encountered anywhere.

Farida is in her late 20s or early 30s and unmarried, which makes her a rarity in Afghanistan. Given her marital status, her career with outside the home, and her pursuit of a formal education, she stands in sharp opposition to conventional gender norms, which had made her extremely unpopular with her more conservative relatives in Kandahar province, she said. Farida recalled one uncle who would allow her to spend the night at his home—hospitality, even to non-relatives, is widely seen as social obligation in Afghanistan—but he would not allow her to eat at the same table with him or to talk with any of his children. Among those relatives, it was not uncommon for girls to be married as young as age nine but more often 12 or 15, Farida explained.

Despite the familial opposition, Farida persisted and in the fall she hopes to attend graduate school outside the country so that she can develop the skills that will allow her to return to make an even greater contribution to the development of her native land. Her visit last week was to ask me for a letter of reference, which I will eagerly provide.

“You described your uncle’s behavior in the past tense,” I said. “Does he still feel the same way today?”

Oh no, she said, his attitudes are changing and he is even thinking of moving to Kabul so his children can get a better education. Farida, smiling, told she is now allowed to talk with her cousins and even believes the girls look to her as a “role model.”

“Those girls could not have made a better choice,” I said.

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