From Kabul to Oxford University

Image Description Tabasum Wolayat (by Anthony Chiorazzi)

In the flickering candle light of her home, 13-year-old Tabasum Wolayat stared at something that was illegal for a woman to own: an Oxford Dictionary.

The Taliban was now in control of Kabul, Afghanistan, the city Wolayat lived in with her parents and five sisters. The year was 2000, and women couldn’t attend school, read books or even be seen with one. As Wolayat stared at the Oxford Dictionary’s front cover, picturing Oxford students milling around in front of the Radcliffe Camera, she closed her eyes, dreaming the unthinkable: how wonderful it would be to attend Oxford University.

Today, Tabasum Wolayat is a graduate student of Social Anthropology at St Hilda’s. She will be the second female Oxford graduate originally from Afghanistan.

Home at St Hilda’s

“As a child, my dream was to come to Oxford,” Wolayat tells me, seated in her college dining hall, enjoying a salad. St Hilda’s seems a nice fit for Wolayat: from the late 19th century, it was one of Oxford’s pioneering all-female colleges, and the last one to admit men, with the first male students arriving in 2008.

“I want to go back to Afghanistan after my Masters and hopefully work with UN Women, so that I can help improve the conditions of women in my country,” Wolayat says, surrounded by photos – some dating back to 1896 – of St Hilda’s female students looking on. Wolayat knows firsthand about the challenges that women face in Afghanistan. During most of her childhood, her father moved the family – including five daughters – from region to region of Afghanistan, searching for safe havens for his daughters to be able to attend school. The family ultimately settled in Kabul, which by the mid 1990s had already fallen to the Taliban.

For Wolayat and her family, there was no escaping them.

Testing out a Burka

“The first time I wore a burka, I wasn’t that good at it,” Wolayat says, today dressed in heeled boots, corduroy pants and with her hair pulled back in a bun.

She remembers stepping out into the street of Kabul that morning, trying to learn both how to walk and how to see through the heavy folds of her new burka. “I kept tripping all over myself. Burkas are huge,” she says.

In time, Wolayat says she got better at sporting a burka and manoeuvring her way through the bustling and noisy streets of Afghanistan’s capital.

But the burka was just one challenge she faced. During the two years that the Taliban ruled Kabul, Wolayat couldn’t attend school and getting books was a major problem. There was a solution, though. Some shopkeepers would keep books hidden behind vegetables and dried food. “So when we went into these shops with our burkas on,” she explains. “We would secretly ask for a particular book, and the shopkeeper would look around to see if there were any Taliban, and if there wasn’t, he would slip the book in with our groceries.”

Brutality wasn’t uncommon either. Wolayat says she remembers an incident when she was in her burka and riding in the back of a bus, where the women had to sit. Suddenly, she says, the bus was flagged down and stopped by the Taliban; they had seen a woman with an unveiled face open a book on the bus. “A man with a long black beard, black eyes and black turban entered the bus and started to beat the woman to death with a whip,” she says.

Wolayat says that the woman had a screaming baby in her arms. “That was a horrible, horrible experience for me,” she recalls. “I was so shocked and numb that I couldn’t even talk about it when I got home.” Wolayat says at that moment she hated herself for being a girl, a woman. “Why was I a girl? Why wasn’t I a boy?” she asked herself.

But today, Wolayat says she is happy to be a woman, and wants Afghanistan women to be happy about being women too by empowering them through education.

“If one woman is educated in one village in Afghanistan, she changes her entire village,” explains Wolayat. “Because she can then educate and train another woman to do something, like to read or embroider, then that woman can educate and train another woman and so on.”

Still Just Tabasum

Wolayat is already making a difference in women’s lives in Afghanistan. When she left her country to earn her undergraduate degree from Middlebury College in Vermont, Wolayat’s family was besieged by neighbours and friends who asked how they could send their daughters to the decadent United States for an education.

In her third year of study, Wolayat returned to Afghanistan from Middlebury College and visited her family and friends. “And, they saw that I was still just me, Tabasum.”  She says now many of her neighbors want their children to study abroad. “Just because you study in the West, doesn’t mean you’re going to go wild,” she says with a laugh.

In fact, Tabasum observes her Muslim faith, prays regularly and sometimes wears the hijab or headscarf. “Wearing the headscarf gives me peace inside, but on the outside it’s kind of uncomfortable when people look at me weirdly.”

Tabasum says that if a man sees a woman wearing a headscarf that he thinks she might be grumpy or unfriendly. “But it is just a piece of clothing, like a hat or cap,” she says. “Would you treat someone any different just because they were wearing a cap? A headscarf doesn’t cover a woman’s brains, spirit or her sense of humor.”

Full Circle

Finishing up lunch, Wolayat pauses and looks up at a row of old photos of St Hilda’s graduates on the wall facing her. She reminds me that women didn’t become full members of the University until 1920. “St Hilda’s dining hall is special to me,” she says, still staring at the photos. “Because it’s the only place at Oxford where I see mostly photos of women on the walls. They give me strength.”

Plodding through a snowstorm with me in the historic part of Oxford, I ask Wolayat if she is concerned about her safety if she speaks out about the plight of women in her country. “If you stay mute, you can’t make a revolution. Change has to start wih somebody,” she says, her breath misting the frigid air. “I don’t live just for myself, but for others,” she continues now framed by the Radcliffe Camera, the same building that was pictured on the cover of the Oxford Dictionary that inspired her to come to Oxford. “That is what brought me all the way to Oxford from my country. I can never forget that.”