By: Hakima Afzaly

Last week, I posted some photos of my mother’s handwriting on my Facebook and Twitter accounts. I was surprised at the amount of support and compliments I received, especially in my twitter account. I received praiseworthy comments even from complete strangers. This encouraged me to write a little more about my mother’s journey of learning.

My mother has a very peaceful and calm personality, but she is a woman of action and she believes that hard work pays off. In her mid-fifties, he decided, just very recently, to learn to read and write.

Decades of bloody war and subsequent forced migration have deprived generations of Afghan women from education, and for many women—especially women of my mother’s generation– reading-and-writing still remains an unfulfilled dream.     

A few months ago, my mother joined a literacy centre for elderly women in Kabul in order to fulfil her long-cherished dream of learning how to read and write. When she first joined the centre, the class was full of elderly women, some of them at her age while some were younger than her. As weeks passed, some of her classmates gave up and dropped out of the centre.

 25 women including my mother resolved to continue. The centre provided each woman with a Persian textbook. Before the lockdown, my mother attended her classes six days a week: four days scheduled for reading and writing the Persian textbook, Wednesdays for the Holy Quran, and Sundays for learning tailoring.

Pictures of my mother’s assignments

Two weeks before the lockdown in Afghanistan, my mother was getting close to the end of her semester. She wanted to have a copy of the textbook, so she can study even after the textbooks were collected from them. Therefore, she utilized the last few days of the semester for intensive writing. She wrote 80 pages of her textbook in her notebook. She says, it took her three notebooks to write those 80 pages from the textbook.

When I asked my mother that why didn’t she ask anyone at home to have printed the textbook for her? She replied, “If I can do something with my hands, there is no need of machine.” She added, “Writing down all the pages was good for improving my handwriting.”

When I asked her how she could manage to finish writing 80 pages just in a few days, she replied, “I skipped tailoring sessions, and I told my teacher that I am not interested in tailoring, I want to do my reading and writing instead.”

My mother’s journey towards learning began when she attempted to read the Holy Quran a few years ago when my siblings, except my youngest sister, and myself were away from home pursuing our higher education.

 “I looked at the pages of Holy Quran and noticed that everything written in the first page is also in the second page and the pages that follow, only in different order. That is when I felt that if I learn how to read one page, I can probably read rest of the pages as well,” says my mother.

With my mother and father working outside home to win bread, there was no patriarchy in our family.

Passionate in reading Quran, one random day, my mother asked my youngest sister, who was then the only one at home, to teach her the alphabets. After she learnt the alphabets from my sister, it was all self-learning for her with the rest of the Holy Quran. She reads the Holy Quran every day for years now.

Having learned how to read Quran at old age, my mother gained confidence to join literacy centre.   

Where I and my siblings stay today is the outcome of my mother’s passion for learning and her love for education. She wanted us to be educated.

During the Taliban regime in Afghanistan, many Afghan families migrated to neighbouring countries. My family migrated to Pakistan in a city called Quetta, the provincial capital of Baluchistan. We had to leave all our belongings in Afghanistan. When we got to Pakistan, my parents had to start from scratch. Many of the Afghan refugee families living in our neighbourhood started making a living for themselves through making carpets at their homes. The more people working on a carpet, the faster it would be completed. Upon completion of a carpet, a family could sell it right away and receive money. Therefore, most of our Afghan neighbours had all their children involved in making carpets, instead of admitting them to schools. Some of those families would say, “Living as immigrants and not having our own houses is not easy, we better buy a house first, so we don’t have to worry about the monthly rent.” For my parents, however, buying a house was never their priority.

My parents were also encouraged by our relatives to start making carpets, but my mother did not accept this. She told my father, “We have to send our children to school whatever it takes us. My children can only have a bright future through education. The circumstances I grew up with, did not allow me to get an education. I won’t let this to happen to my children as well.”

She worked with my father side by side so my siblings and I could go to school. My mother started making Mantu, Afghan dumplings, and my father would sell them. She decided to work with my father, and all she wanted was to make sure we get a quality education. With my mother and father working outside home to win bread, there was no patriarchy in our family. In fact, my father always refers to my mother as Raes, the boss. Whenever, we consult with our parents about any issue, my father always says, “We will do whatever the boss suggests.”

My parents continued making dumplings for several years and eventually they were able to open their own small café which soon got very well-known across the city we were living in.

By the time my parents opened their own café, my siblings and I also grew older and we wanted to help them with the café. My mother, however, wanted us just to focus on our studies. She would always tell us, studying requires a lot of energy and time, if you do not put your energy and time on studies, you will not perform well in your studies.”  

Despite work pressure from our café, she always made sure we ate and slept well, even if she herself barely did. I remember, my mother would always give each one of us seven almonds in early morning. She would say, almond is best for memory, and by the time we returned home from school, she would always be ready with tea and dry fruits for us. 

On the weekends, Mantu was in high demand. Since schools were off, my siblings and I would also try to help my parents. However, majority of our customers, wanted Mantu for their lunch so we had to wake up as early as 5:00 AM to prepare it, so it was fully ready for lunch. Most weekends, my mother would wake up at 3:00 AM herself, so none of us had to wake up early. She would say, “You all just have the weekends, where you can rest well and don’t have to wake up early for school, I won’t let the café work ruin your weekend sleep.” Of course, we would debate over this with her, but nobody could ever win her. Our café was never closed. Neither on the weekends nor on any holidays because my mother did not want us to just go to school, she also wanted to make sure we attend English language classes and computer courses, which required higher fees back then.

At the age of 14, I was a full-time student. Mornings at the school and afternoons at English language and computer courses. My siblings did likewise. When my parents bought us our first computer, not many of our neighbours had any. Once we had a computer, my parents also asked for internet cable, which required monthly payment. Then, the same relatives who had encouraged my parents to start the carpet business would come to our home and would request us to connect them online with their family member or relatives who had gone abroad for work. I still remember the passwords of all the yahoo messenger IDs I created for their children and taught them how to use it. Some of our neighbours regret not sending their children to school.

My siblings and I really owe everything to my parents, especially to my mother, and her never-ending patience and hard work.

These days, my mother is spending her quarantine days with reading and writing. She is happy to have a copy of her textbook even though she had no clue about the lockdown when she decided to make a copy. My mother and her peers were supposed to take an exam before the lockdown. My mother looks forward to hearing her exam result and hopes to start a new semester once the lockdown is over and the centre re-opens.

You can reach Hakima Afzaly @hakimamafzaly.

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