At a time when the future of Afghanistan as a state and society is deeply uncertain, we bring to you an in-depth case study of the life choices of one university graduate who has grown up on the outskirts of the country’s northwestern city of Herat. Following Roya (pseudonym), her family and a group of friends intermittently over the last three years, AAN researcher Reza Kazemi came across the story of a graduate navigating a challenging social context – family, community and broader society – to shape a life and a future under conditions of uncertainty. She and the many women in her situation represent those who are likely to suffer the most from an intensification of the already devastating and ruthless war and possible breakdown in law and order. They also offer flickers of hope for the future.The entrance to Herat University where Roya studied, Herat city, 2021.
To protect the confidentiality of Roya and her family, community and peers, all person and place names and other identifying data have been changed or withheld.
This report tells Roya’s story, first looking at her family’s life in Herat and their difficult decision to leave or stay in the country. We then follow Roya as she completes her studies and negotiates the challenges of being a young, unmarried and unaccompanied woman in Herat. Next, we meet Roya’s peers and explore their views and experiences on study, work and marriage. Finally, we reflect on what Roya’s story tells us about growing up as an aspiring woman in a society whose stability, peace and overall future is deeply uncertain.
Although this report focuses on the example of Roya and her peers, they are just some of the tens of thousands of women – and men – who study in universities and other higher education institutes in urban centres across Afghanistan. Many of the women come from villages and small towns from across Afghanistan. In Herat city, for example, one notices not only large numbers of students, but also significant numbers of women who study, teach or work in various higher education institutions.
A family torn between staying and leaving
Roya’s family moved back to Herat from Iran in 2002, about a year after the Taleban were toppled from power by the United States-led intervention. They had fled to Iran in the 1980s during the Soviet invasion and when they returned, Roya was about six years old. They rented a house in a suburb on the outskirts of Herat city, where Roya began attending school soon after their return.
Roya’s family worked hard to make ends meet, but struggled. Her father worked as a daily-wage labourer and her mother as a school teacher in a private school, doing everything they could to make it possible for Roya and their three other children – Roya’s older sister, younger brother and younger sister – to study.
By 2010, Roya was in secondary school and her family had managed to move to their own place. Her parents had built a simple house on a small piece of land they had bought from savings earned during their years in Iran. By 2014, Roya and her older sister had completed high school and begun their tertiary education. That year, Roya’s older sister also married and moved to live with her husband in the city.
By 2018, things were starting to change for the worse for Roya’s family. Her father often did not find work and when he did, the little income he was able to earn was barely enough to provide a decent livelihood for the family. Work as a daily-wage labourer is hard, insecure and poorly paid (more on daily-wage labourers, whom Afghanistan’s post-2001 economy has failed the most, in the author’s previous report). However, the family somehow managed to get by, not least because Roya’s mother fared better in her teaching job. Her income helped the family to stay afloat for years and support her children to study.
Roya’s brother, aged about 15 by then, was also causing the family some distress. He increasingly aspired to leave Afghanistan for Iran and, if possible, further afield to Turkey and then Europe. His family were worried – he did not seem to listen to either of his parents, did not take an interest in studying and was nearing the point of dropping out of school altogether. This kind of behaviour among young men in particular is not uncommon (see this author’s previous report), but was still a cause of great distress to Roya’s family. They were worried he would irreversibly turn away from the family and local community if he continued to stay in Herat. He had already begun passing his time in the company of what the rest of the family called “bad friends” (dosta-ye nabab), sometimes late into the night. “We’re worried he’ll become motad [a drug addict] if he stays here,” his mother said in 2019.
Between Roya’s father’s increasing struggle to find work and her brother’s behaviour, the family started to think about going back to Iran. This was not uncommon. By 2015, deteriorating security and a weakening economy in Afghanistan saw an exodus of many locals to Iran and further afield (all AAN reporting on Afghan migration between 2014 and 2016 can be found here and here). Roya’s brother had some friends who had made it to Turkey or Europe with whom he regularly kept in touch through social media.
Roya’s family agonised over what to do for over a year, all through 2018. To stay where their daughters were studying and they owned a home, or to leave for Iran? They lacked the means to make it further than neighbouring Iran, but were hopeful of finding peace and better working opportunities there. In making this decision, Roya’s family were split in two, consumed with countless hours of often heated and angry discussions. The ‘leave’ side was dominated by her brother, who insisted he would not change his behaviour if they continued to stay, but that he would start working and might re-attend school if they moved. On the ‘stay’ side was Roya, who was studying medicine at Herat University and insisted she wanted to complete the final two years of her studies. To leave would mean an end to her studies and her dream of, as she articulated on several occasions, “building a future of one’s own” (ayande-ye khod ra sakhtan).
By early 2019, her parents started leaning towards the leave option. Roya’s father knew he would be able to find work once in Iran and her mother still cherished her experience growing up in Iran where, as she saw it, “There’s more freedom and comfort for women than there’s here in Afghanistan.” She spoke of less male harassment of women and comforts such as better access to utilities like a public gas supply, which is non-existent in Herat and elsewhere in Afghanistan, for heating the house in the winter. Roya’s younger sister was too young to understand what was at stake and kept quiet, while her older sister living with her husband’s family also had less at stake, although she clearly wished her parental family would stay nearby.
Ultimately, they decided to go. However, there was a compromise – Roya would stay and complete her studies. Her parents were gravely concerned about her wish to stay behind alone, but respected it and did not compel her to go with them. There was no question they would continue to support her from abroad, but they lamented leaving her.
Roya’s mother, brother and younger sister left first. They applied for Afghan passports and then Iranian visas and crossed the border to Mashhad, the centre of Iran’s Razavi Khorasan province that neighbours Herat province. Helped by relatives there, they found a house to rent in the suburbs and stayed on, even as their temporary visas expired.
While they settled, Roya’s father made arrangements in Herat. He sold their possessions and rented their house out to another family, receiving a geraw deposit. He then sent the money through the hawalato his wife who used it to purchase basic equipment for the house they had rented in Mashhad. Then, after securing his passport and visa, he too left. His visa expired too and for a while, Roya’s father and brother were afraid of being rounded up and deported by the Iranian police. However, they felt somewhat relieved after they received some papers following the enrolment of their youngest daughter in an Iranian public school. The Iranian police are not known for rounding up and deporting undocumented female migrants, at least individually.
For Roya as a young and unmarried woman, the fact that her family left for Iran has been particularly hard to bear. She struggles to cope with feelings of abandonment and often feels helpless, furious, disappointed and at a loss as to why her family left. Going to Mashhad and separating from Roya was a painful decision for the family, from which it is still reeling. Roya studied medicine for seven years – the longest field of study in the Afghan university system – on top of a twelve-year period of regular schooling. As supportive as her family is of her education, it felt to them like the length of her studies outlasted the viability of their life in post-2001 Afghanistan. Her mother too struggles to cope with the separation and speaks poignantly about Roya:
It’s over two years that Roya has been dur [away] from us. For me it’s been like a hundred years. Not a single day and night has passed peacefully for me. I’ve cried in the dead of the nights about my daughter, her safety and her success to complete her studies and achieve her dreams. We’ve brought her up with great difficulty and she has studied with great difficulty. I can’t wait to have her with us again in one home.
However, there have been upsides to the move. In Mashhad, Roya’s father has never been without work. He first worked in construction and then as a worker and watchman in a small iron factory. “There’s work in Iran; nobody wanting to work is left jobless,” he said. Similarly, Roya’s brother has worked as an apprentice in a small furniture company. As for their mother, she has been trying to find work as a teacher, ideally in one of the schools run by or for migrants such as Afghans, but with no success by the time of writing. Instead, she has been active as a volunteer instructor in a literacy programme for the elderly, including Afghan migrants. Roya’s younger sister is enrolled in a primary school. The family, and the parents in particular, have been regularly in touch with Roya back in Herat, calling often and sending her remittances through the hawala.
Life in the suburbs: any room for a lone woman?
A key challenge for Roya was where to stay, now that the family home she had lived in had been rented out. From early 2019 onwards, she tried various living arrangements. First, she moved to the house of her aunt – her mother’s sister (khala) – who lived with her husband and daughter nearby, in the same suburb. Roya said she was happy with this arrangement as she had been on good terms with them before and did not feel lonely in their company. She helped her khala with housework and gave them a part of her remittances as cost-sharing.
However, this arrangement ended after the khala’s family too left for Iran. Roya then lived in the houses of other close relatives, shifting between houses over short periods of time to make her presence, in her words, “less monotonous and boring.” She stayed with her older sister and her husband and children in town and her younger maternal uncle (dayi, more often known as mama in Afghanistan), back in the suburb. She also has an elder maternal uncle in the same suburb, but did not stay there because there was hardly any space in his house.
By late February 2020, the Covid-19 epidemic had hit Herat, closing down universities and resulting in partial quarantines and movement restrictions (more on Herat during the Covid-19 epidemic in the author’s previous reports here, here and here). Roya found this period particularly hard because her routines were disrupted:
It’s very boring. I’m getting more and more impatient. There’s no [university] programme at all. My time is passing uselessly. Before corona there was university and I was going to and from it. There was some encouragement to study. It’s the same with my friends; our get-togethers have stopped. I went to work [on an internship] in the clinic one day, but my uncle’s wife told me not to go [so that I wouldn’t risk bringing the virus to the house]. I listened to her and stopped going.
Despite trying out living arrangements with all these different family members, Roya has never felt as ‘at home,’ as she was in the company of her parents in their family house. So her family agreed to try and get their own house back by paying the geraw deposit back to the tenant. They raised the money, including by borrowing from their relatives, returned the deposit and Roya moved back into the family home. At night, they arranged with Roya’s grandfather to keep her company in the house. Roya’s relatives lived nearby and all the neighbours were families, which gave her a general sense of safety in the neighbourhood. However, everybody, including Roya, agreed that she should not be left completely on her own in the house at night.
Roya worked hard even while the Covid-19 epidemic was ongoing. She studied alone or with her peers at home or at their homes and went to several clinics for internships once the partial Covid-19 restrictions were lifted. She also took care of her grandfather by cooking dinner and washing and ironing his clothes. However, when winter approached in late 2020, her grandfather stopped coming to spend the night in the house because of the cold. Roya was not able to make the house as warm as the house of her grandfather’s son, Roya’s elder maternal uncle. She has since lived on her own, including at night, and from time to time, shifted to the houses of her sister in town and younger maternal uncle in the suburb.
It was not just a safe place to live that was at stake for Roya, but also the social space such a home provided for a young, unmarried and unaccompanied woman. Culturally, it is considered inappropriate for a person – whether man or woman – to live on their own. Since her family’s re-migration to Iran, and especially since she moved back to their family house alone, Roya has lived as if she was invisible in order not to attract or overhear unkind commentary from some within the community. People would talk about how, for example, she had been abandoned by her family. Roya’s relatives in Herat were concerned about – and some of them outright against – her independent living arrangement. Her elder maternal uncle articulated his displeasure:
I don’t agree with Roya being on her own in this house. All our neighbours and acquaintances here [in the suburb] know that Roya is alone in this house, but we’re compelled to tell a lie that there’s a family with many children and adults in this house. A young woman living on her own in a house – it’s not acceptable at all…
As a result, Roya often stays indoors and ventures out only to buy necessities and then rush back home. Nevertheless, she has not given in to the pressure to move back in with her relatives and leave the family house completely. However, she is still afraid of living entirely on her own at night. She makes sure to lock all doors, but even small noises – the movement of a cat, the bark of a dog or the blow of a strong wind – still terrify her some nights when she does not fall asleep quickly and deeply.
Peers: on work, study, marriage and more
With her family in Iran and unwilling to show herself much in the local community in order to avoid hurtful, unsolicited commentary, Roya increasingly took refuge in her peers. She enjoyed their company and found them supportive and inspiring. She was one of about 60 students (roughly half of them women) who successfully made it to and graduated from their last year of studies. As graduates of medicine, they generally have a better chance of employment than many other graduates in Afghanistan where the job market is challenging. Roya’s peers have gone in various directions since they graduated a couple of years ago. According to Roya:
- Five alumni (three women, two men) were employed as lecturers in Herat University.
- About ten alumni have started their own medical practices or joined private family practices. Examples include an alumna who joined a private family clinic and an alumnus who opened his own private practice, both in town. They both had access to the financial means – mainly through support from their families – to undertake these ventures upon graduation.
- Some alumni (number unknown) have found employment in public and private hospitals and clinics in and around the city of Herat.
- Some alumni (number unknown) have started pursuing or are making plans to pursue further specialist education, for instance, in neighbouring Iran. They too enjoy significant support from family and friends, because further medical studies are very costly.
Roya herself found work in the health service. Keen to work and start earning her own income, she approached two public and two private health centres for internships as part of her last year of studies. It was a struggle to find work, but she finally managed to find minimal employment in one of the private health centres in downtown Herat. However, it was difficult to make ends meet, as she described:
Those who have studied for seven years like me have been desperately looking for work in hospitals and clinics. We’ve been trying our best to get employed for at least one shift of work and make some 8,000 Afs [approximately 104 USD] a month. But how much really is 8,000 Afs for a month’s living cost? It’s little and can’t provide one with a good livelihood. Just he electricity bill is some 1,000 Afs [about 13 USD] a month and that is when you already have a house of your own in the first place…
The [job] market is full of doctors and other professionals. Those who have studied and graduated from medicine have all put their focus on the city. Few, especially among the women, are willing to go and work in the villages even in the nearby districts because of safety and other considerations. This is while they know that the space for work is much bigger in those areas outside the city.
She has continued trying to find a better-paid job in a health clinic on Herat city’s outskirts, if not downtown.
Of her classmates, Roya had four close friends, through whom her social world kept expanding. One was Morsal who, unlike Roya, had stopped wearing a chadar, the large head-to-foot covering, which leaves the face exposed, in favour of a shaal, a large headscarf which covers a woman’s head and upper body. Morsal had a sister who was in Europe on a scholarship. The second was Bahara who, like Roya, wore a chadar when outside and whose brothers had migrated, legally and illegally, to Iran and the west. Bahara and Roya lived in the same suburb and are from the same ethnic group. The third was Sara who drove her car, bought for her by her father, to and from university. Sara did not wear the chadar. She practiced taekwondo in a local gym and had been to east Asia for a short scholarship, where she had learned the local language. The fourth, Asma, was a previous high school classmate who had obtained a scholarship to study in a Central Asian country.
Through these friends, Roya became increasingly aware not only of different women’s lifestyles (for example, not wearing the chadar, driving one’s own car, travelling abroad), but also opportunities to go outside the country for study. However, despite several desperate attempts to win a scholarship, especially to Iran where her family lives, she has yet to succeed. Like most of her friends, Roya is trying to find a way to get out of Afghanistan “before something happens, like getting killed in the blind [indiscriminate] war.”
Security has continued to deteriorate in Herat, even in the districts adjacent to Roya’s suburb on the outskirts of the city. There have been small-scale security incidents which have killed and injured civilians on the road between Roya’s suburb and the town, including a recent mine blast along the road which injured four people, including two children (see this media report). Her memory of one of her relatives who was killed in a similar incident is still fresh. She was a mother and school teacher and was killed in a roadside bomb explosion while travelling on a se-charkh (Herat-style rickshaw) to the city several years ago, leaving behind mourning and fear.
Despite these challenges, Roya and her friends represent an emerging female generation in urban, post-2001 Afghanistan that contrasts with previous ones. It is a generation that gives unprecedented value to higher education, participation in the economy outside of the household and self-empowerment to women as autonomous human beings, equal to their male peers. In Herat University alone, there were 7,338 female students (48 per cent) and 116 female lecturers (26 per cent) in the year 1397 (2018/19). Women constituted over half (56 per cent) of around 11,000 applicants who participated in the university entrance test known as kankur in Herat in May 2021 (watch this media report). Many women also work as school teachers, health personnel, businesspeople, civil servants, and NGO staff in Herat, to mention only some of the most prominent professions.
At the same time, this mass of educated and aspiring women have faced reactions from parts of society that oppose even a slightly higher, let alone equal, status for women and find it destabilising to the existing gender and social order. One local male resident summed up the problems he thought such women and the Taleban have: “What do you do outside? [The Taleban believe women should] sit at home, or wear the burqa and have a mahram [closely related male chaperon] when they’re outside.”
Provocative messages about women’s clothing have also appeared on billboards, banners and on the back of some rickshaws in town, for example, “bi-hejabi-ye zan az bi-ghairati-ye mard ast” – “a woman’s lack of hijab stems from a man’s lack of honour.” The statement refers to hijab, which, in the context of Herat city and its adjacent districts at least, mostly means the chadar (see these media reports here and here). Additionally, the uncovered faces, hands and feet of women in wall paintings and poster images, like those on the windows of women’s salons and barber shops, have been blackened in some parts of the city.
Women such as Roya and her friends have been conscious of such attempts to set limits for and control their behaviour in the public sphere. In some cases, some of them acquiesce by being more attentive to observing the hejab in specific areas in and around the city where such sentiments run deeper. In some other cases, they have engaged in both subtle and more daring acts of defiance against such control efforts. For instance, some of Roya’s friends have continued not to wear the chadar and have at the same time delicately tattooed statements such as “az aramesh-at mohafezat kon” (protect your peace) on parts of their hands and ankles, which they sometimes keep only partially hidden from view. They wear decorative and diverse styles of clothing under (and sometimes without) the chadar and take pride in modern dress and ways of speaking, socialising, and moving around; this is the case even for those from poorer backgrounds.
During their internships, Roya and her friends faced similar societal and generational tensions. In one incident she described, the doctors – mostly male – and interns – mostly female – had a discussion in the Herat Regional Hospital. One of the doctors said the period of Taleban rule was better because he had received far fewer cases of “knife injury, bullet injury, other injuries and killings.” He asked: “What kind of a state and law is this [current period presided over by Ashraf Ghani and Abdullah Abdullah]?” A few of the interns disagreed, Roya among them, who asked, “But what will happen to us [women]? Who will respect our rights? [Under the Taleban], we have to remain at home all day.” Similar questions had been raised by women in, for example, a national peace-related gathering of Afghan women in Kabul in April 2019, as AAN reported at the time.
At the same time, not all parts of society are as liberal as Roya and her friends. Working in the health service, they often encounter female patients who come from both the city and districts of Herat and need permission from their chaperoning husbands to speak to male doctors and take the hejab off their faces for medical examination. Though they do not agree with these gender norms, they respect the views and comfort of their patients. Similarly, they expect others to be tolerant of their styles of living.
While Roya and her friends worry about how society may change in the future, their ideals are also tested on a daily basis as they agonise over a ritual consuming youth the world over – marriage. Marriage is probably the most talked about topic among Roya and her circle of close friends. Aged around 25 by 2021, they had all received suitors, rejected them for various reasons and sometimes felt they were growing older than the average local age of marriage – most people marry before they turn 25. .
As far as Roya was concerned, the main reason for rejecting several suitors was that they belonged to an ethnic background that was different from hers – for her family, marrying outside one’s ethnic background is absolutely unacceptable, although she increasingly finds it difficult to reconcile this custom with her own beliefs. Morsal’s family gave a similar reason for rejecting a suitor, while Sara’s family had simply “disliked” one and sent him and his family away after a first brief meeting. Of all the four young women, however, it was Bahara who was most concerned about “torsh kardan” (turning sour, a pejorative term, meaning becoming an old spinster).
In one instance Roya described in some detail, she and Bahara engaged in a serious and tense dispute on marriage, married life and motherhood in the company of Morsal and Sara. “It’s a pleasure and happiness to marry, become pregnant, give birth to a child and become a mother,” Bahara opened the discussion as a part of one of the usual rambling chats among the four friends. Roya immediately countered her by replying that, in her view, it was “stressful and worrisome to marry, become pregnant and give birth to a child.” Bahara defended motherhood and countered that if a woman married but did not have children, “her life [would] be ruined,” referring to ubiquitous marital and familial problems over childlessness and its repercussions for the continuity of married life – a common theme in the wider community. Roya again disagreed, saying that “nothing will happen… the world won’t come to an end” in the case that a woman does not have a child. Bahara responded by insisting that, “The husband will divorce her [a childless wife] or bring another wife on her.” With the discussion heating up after every point and counterpoint, Roya then said that Bahara’s thinking was misguided because her [Bahara’s] “standard for a husband was such a [patriarchal and polygamous] man.” She also told her friend that she needed to think otherwise because “you’re educated yourself.”
Already angry over differences in their opinions, the two friends ended their dispute without reaching a consensus, with Bahara saying that Roya was “denying the reality of the men and the society” in which they lived in Afghanistan and with Roya saying that Bahara was educated and should not have continued to think of women as “factories of child production.” Morsal and Sara had appeared to agree with Roya in this dialogue. Despite Roya and Bahara’s similar backgrounds and upbringings, this exchange highlighted the diversity of views on the topic and is an example of the preoccupation with marriage as an event that might transform, or upend, the lives of young women particularly those who aspire to independence.
It has been uneasy and difficult for Roya to live as a young, unmarried and unaccompanied woman in the absence of her family. She experiences immense pressure to conform to what the community at large thinks is an appropriate living arrangement for women, including in the form of negative and distressing social commentary. To cope with these challenges, Roya has relied on a circle of intimate friends who have strived to carve a space of their own in Afghan society – to complete their medical studies, find work, earn independent (if meagre) incomes and live, to some extent, according to their own desires – under conditions of uncertainty. Despite occasional disagreements, they dress comfortably and as they see fit, drive cars and look for scholarships and other opportunities to study and live abroad.
Roya’s story shows both the tensions over gender norms in society and how they are being reshaped in post-2001 Afghanistan. Within her family, local community and peer group, Roya has experienced the winds of change, or the lack thereof, in different parts of her world. In her family, it was the increasing ability of the graduate to decide to stay to complete her studies, against the bigger familial re-migration decision. In her community, it was her struggle to carve out a space to live independently, which she has managed to achieve to some extent. In her peer group, it was a broader struggle to find decent work and contribute their much-needed knowledge and skills to society.
Roya and her friends represent women who have grown up in post-2001 Afghanistan and, through their studies and incomes, have empowered themselves to make decisions and choices, albeit often in tense ways with difficult trade-offs. They have increasingly taken active roles in shaping the circumstances of their own lives and futures, as, over the past two decades, some broader social tolerance for these changes have expanded.
The major risk facing Roya and other young graduates and women like her is a sudden rollback of all the changes they have fought for and struggled to achieve since the fall of the Taleban. That might happen if peace efforts between the government and the Taleban continue to flounder, possibly resulting in an intensification of Afghanistan’s already destructive and merciless war, large-scale disruption to law and order or even a complete Taleban return to power. Such women will be among those who stand to lose everything in such a scenario. Nevertheless, as the unique and indomitable spirit of this graduate reveals, the struggle for fairer gender relations and therefore a more just and peaceful society is certainly here to stay in one manifestation or another.
Edited by Thomas Ruttig and Hannah Duncan.
All photos are by the author.
This article was last updated on 21 Jun 2021