‘I just froze. It broke my heart,’ says Afghan émigré Roya Shams of Taliban’s decision to cancel girls’ higher education

“A girl going to school in Kandahar is somehow like a hell, but many girls and women are daring and taking that risk.

“Every day, we were expecting a cruel incident on our way; going to school in Kandahar was a compromise with life … either you should be targeted any time, at any level and anywhere or just waiting for any warning from head of family to stop going because of security reasons or threats disseminated.

“Despite of these all challenges, our brave girls have chose to go to schools and be a contributor to state affairs in future.”

The words above were part of a short essay, in imperfect grammar and syntax, Roya Shams wrote more than a decade ago when she braved violence and threats from the Taliban to attend school before ultimately fleeing to Canada alone with help from Star readers to go to Ottawa’s Ashbury College.

Education for Afghan girls doesn’t just loom large for the young woman, who is now 27, but it did, for her late father, police Col. Haji Sayed Gulab Shah, who insisted his five daughters be educated just as his four sons were.

He was assassinated by the Taliban in 2011.

This week, Shams says, she was saddened by the news that Taliban rulers have decided against reopening schools to girls above the sixth grade, reneging on their promise in order to appeal to their hardline base and alienating the international community further.

“I just froze. It broke my heart,” said Shams, who graduated with a degree in international development and globalization from the University of Ottawa in 2019 and is now a permanent resident in Canada.

“My father would have been very disappointed.”

The government’s decision to restrict girls’ access to education, at the start of the school year, has been widely condemned.

The international community had urged Taliban leaders to open schools and give women their right to public space after they returned to power last August with the withdrawal of the U.S. military and allied forces.

U.S. Special Representative Thomas West tweeted his “shock and deep disappointment” about the decision, calling it “a betrayal of public commitments to the Afghan people and the international community.”

The Norwegian Relief Council, which spends about $20 million annually to support primary education in Afghanistan, said its staff on the ground “reported a lot of disappointment and also a lot of uncertainty” about the future after girls who had gone to school were sent home.

Shams said education is crucial to gender equality. And it’s also key in shaping her own future.

It’s been exactly a decade since the Star and its readers helped a teenage Shams escape to pursue an education and her dreams after her father’s murder.

Then-Star editor Michael Cooke and reporter Paul Watson travelled to Afghanistan and escorted her to Canada.

She has since gone on to high school and university here, seizing every opportunity to build a life for herself.

In her household, her father made sure all five girls — Shams is the youngest — were educated; two of her sisters became doctors, one is a journalist and the other a businesswoman. They are now spread across Canada, Germany and the United States.

“An Afghan girl who lives under the Taliban is subject to forced marriage and violence. Freedom comes from being able to make choices in your life and financial independence,” said Shams, who is pursuing a master’s degree in international development and diplomacy.

“It’s a control mechanism; you can’t go anywhere. You can’t really choose to live for yourself. And I have benefited so much from having my financial independence. If I didn’t have education, I would’ve been one of them. If a man wanted whatever they wanted me to do, I would have to (do it).”

Shams hoped to eventually go back to Afghanistan and help shape her country into a better place for women, but she said that plan will need to take onger with the Taliban at the helm, as she continues to advocate for women’s rights outside of her homeland.

“Bringing Afghan girls back to the dark ages is a symbol of oppression. Why are the Taliban scared of us?” she asked.

“It’s because they know educated, strong women are not going to accept their barbaric rules.”

Shams hopes that the international community will do all they can to pressure the Taliban to allow girls access to higher education again.

“This is not an Afghan problem; I see it as a world value problem. The Taliban are not only threatening the girls’ rights in Afghanistan. They are threatening our world value,” she said.

“Access to education is a basic human right.”

With files from The Associated Press

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