John and I have recently spent 10 days in Afghanistan visiting some of the projects supported by the Linda Norgrove Foundation. Security checks on leaving the country were more onerous than when we entered. During the long walk from the airport gates to the departure lounge, our bags were x-rayed and our bodies searched six times, men on the roadside, women in the privacy of a small booth.
At the final search, I entered through a grubby curtain to find a serious looking woman huddled over a one-bar electric fire; it had been snowing all morning and was bitterly cold. While being searched, I noticed an exercise book open on the table. I don’t speak Dari and her English appeared limited to that needed for her work but through ‘sign language’ I asked this not-so-young Afghan woman if she was studying. She beamed and proceeded to pull two other books out of her bag, taking great delight in showing me, a foreigner who’d shown an interest, her writing and sums.
Earlier we’d visited the Gawharshad College of Further Education in Kabul where we met up with 17 students for whom we are providing scholarships to study for a degree. They had returned during the winter break to meet us and welcomed us with speeches, showing an unexpected interest in Linda and asking many questions.
They have admirable ambitions and show determination to succeed in their studies but we were only too aware that, without both our financial assistance and the backing of their families, none of these girls would have been there.
Carola Bell, Linda Norgrove Foundation trustee, and I accompanied female team members of Canadian Women for Women in Afghanistan on an unannounced visit to one of the Afghanistan Reads projects which provide literacy classes and libraries for women and girls in communities throughout the country.
We visited a classroom in a poor area on the outskirts of the city, the final part of our drive taking us through a maze of narrow potholed roads, muddy and slippery after the snow. At our destination we were ushered through a tall gateway where we splodged through thick mud to a bare looking building behind high walls. We removed our boots at the entrance as is the custom in Afghanistan and left them among a pile of flimsy shoes – strong footwear not an option for these students.
We entered to find 27 women and girls, aged between 11 and 50, seated cross-legged on cushions around the perimeter of the room. The room was unheated and the walls covered with posters of handwritten text used by the female teacher during lessons. Several of the girls, distinguished by their long grey dresses and white head scarves, go to the Madrassa where they learn the Koran by rote but, determined to learn to read for themselves, miss lunch and go straight to the literacy class afterwards.
We were impressed by the keenness of all the students, their shy confidence and the humour that infiltrated through the class; no-one embarrassed by the giggles of others when they made a mistake. The social element is an important aspect of the classes because a lot of these women and girls don’t get out of their compounds much.
Perhaps the ‘body searcher’ at the airport attends school when she is not working; perhaps she is studying off her own bat, taking advantage of the quiet times between travellers. I had no way of knowing. But the pleasure she showed at my interest and encouragement was something we saw in other women throughout our short time in Afghanistan. We found the eagerness with which they pursue education humbling and this gives us confidence that progress will be made now that women are standing up for their rights to have an education.