Marzia Hakimi, a prominent woman human rights defender, social activist, university lecturer, and educator, had to flee the Taliban with her husband and four children to pursue her academic career as a professor. She was an active member of Herat University’s gender unit that aimed to empower female university students and fight discrimination and violence within the academic institution. During her academic career, she struggles at a different level to increase the number of female professors in the university and also at the university’s leadership. Now she is a PhD student at an online university in Iran and a visiting researcher at the mechanical engineering department of the University of Alberta. Meanwhile, Marzia teaches science subjects online for girls inside Afghanistan through Education Bridge for Afghanistan.  She also got the chance to teach a course as well in UAlberta. Marzia’s scholarly articles have been published in several national and international journals. 

Can you share your personal experiences of how the Taliban ban on education impacted your life? 

Marzia: You all witnessed when the Taliban took over, they barred girls from getting secondary education, then through a partition, separated university girls and boys in the class and finally banned girls from going to university. I was a female lecturer at the Engineering faculty at Herat University. I believe I can help girls get an education through my teaching. I can’t do other jobs better than teaching, as teaching is my passion. When the Taliban seized power, they ordered our university that girls should not attend the engineering faculty as this field is not for girls. It was so hard for me as a woman, and psychologically it impacted me a lot. It was so heartbreaking to see no girls in the class. On the other hand, if there is no student, there is no need for a lecturer. After the university ban on girls, the female lecturer was somehow erased from the university. The prohibition on education by the Taliban made me think of the opportunity to get out of Afghanistan so that at least I could continue my higher education and academic work, especially teaching, which I feel is part of my life. 

Do you think displacement affected your aspirations and future goals (both positive/negative)? If yes, how? Can you share with us any challenges or opportunities you experienced in access to education?

Marzia: I travelled to many countries and had the opportunity to stay there, but I only wanted to live in my own country. I did my PhD in Iran but returned to Afghanistan and started teaching there as I wanted to live in my own country and work for my people. Being a refugee is so hard, and nobody wants to experience it until they are forced to do it, as we all had no option other than to leave our country. Living in your own country always gives you a feeling of comfort and happiness. Migration has both positive and negative aspects. The positive part for me is that I am grateful to God that I got the opportunity and managed to continue my academic career. I have been awarded a research fellowship from the University of Alberta with the support of the Institute of International Education’s Scholar Rescue Fund. As a visiting researcher at the mechanical engineering department of UAlberta, I am also a teaching assistant where I teach a course in engineering. This opportunity gave me a new life, so I am happy I did not remain stagnant here but continued my education and academic work. Migration also personally gave me the opportunity to foster my knowledge and develop and empower myself using international educational standards. 

I would say that immigration provided me with another ample opportunity where I got the chance through some NGOs to teach online the girls inside Afghanistan that are banned from getting an education under the Taliban regime. If I were in Afghanistan, I would not have managed to do it for many reasons. I am happy from here I educate my fellow Afghan women inside Afghanistan, which give me lots of happiness and joy that at least I can do something for them while living here as temporary resident. 

Migration has its huge challenges. Culture shock is one of the challenges, especially for me, and you might agree that all of us who never wanted to migrate but were forced to decide suddenly and get out of the country. I had a stable life but had to start everything from scratch or zero here. As a woman and as a mother, it has other challenges that we must deal with and manage them.  

What type of support do you think is necessary for Afghan women and girls in exile to succeed in pursuing their education? 

Marzia: I want to divide Afghan women refugee into three groups. The first group, who have some level of education and technical skills, by giving the opportunity of doing research or fellowship for one year, or some others may have entrepreneurship skills by providing internships in some companies etc., will empower these women to large extend to integrate themselves in the society. Most resettlement agencies offer basic services for refugees; they do not have specific programs to tackle mental health problems and increase their social integration. Refugees will empower themselves in different areas if empowerment programs are provided to them. They will find work that impacts their mental health and will overcome the refugee-related challenges they might face. 

The second group of Afghan women refugees might have some level of language skills but require higher education. They should be awarded some scholarships and, meanwhile, should improve their language skills through language skills programs. For this purpose, they must be financially supported by the government for some reasonable period, so they should not worry about handling their financial problems as refugees. They should have enough time to educate themselves and learn the specific job requirement according to Canadian standards. If refugee women are not empowered through such initiatives, they will face many migration challenges. 

The third group of women were those that were school and university girls. This group can integrate into society very quickly and learn language skills easily as they are still very young.

In your opinion, how can education help to promote gender equality and empower refugee women and girls, and contribute to their future success in the new host country?

Marzia: While talking about gender equality and women empowerment, let me share my personal story of how in Afghanistan, women were and are facing gender discrimination. Three times I applied for promotion to a leading position in the university I was teaching, but I did not get that because I was a woman; even I was told that we [men] should die the day that women order and lead us. Here in Canada, I noticed that women are given more opportunities. Here there is no question of gender, and it’s the question of your talent, skill and qualification that fits the position. Education has a direct impact on women’s empowerment. If educated, they can find a job and compete for opportunities, which automatically empowers them in society. When you are equipped with higher education, and you are a woman, then there is no fear for you to reach any position like men in societies like Canada. Canada has many job opportunities where empowered women can get it if they are educated, and this makes me so happy. 

What role do you think host countries, NGOs, educational institutions and other women’s and human rights organizations should play in creating educational opportunities for displaced Afghan women and girls?

Marzia: NGOs, resettlement agencies and women’s organizations should try to find fellowship, scholarship and other educational opportunities for Afghan women refugees and help to get them into the universities and government offices. Without the support of these agencies, it’s really challenging for newcomers to find these opportunities by themselves. They should be introduced to the companies for some internship to learn jobs and skills, and again without the support of these organizations; newcomers can’t find internships within private sectors. Afghan women, despite many problems they have in life, are so talented that if opportunities are provided to them, they will integrate into society very quickly and easily. English language courses should be provided for free to all women as I am aware that many women here, because of lack of language skills, could not continue their education and, due to financial problems, had to join the daily wage workers that significantly impacted their mental health. NGOs, alongside the government, should provide financial support to women so they can afford to study and foster their knowledge which will empower them and help them find good jobs.  NGOs could help refugee women in the process of their educational equivalency, which is another problem for most Afghan women that they do not know how and where to reach to get the equivalence certificate of their documents. NGOs can play an essential role in communicating between government institutions, private and educational sectors to provide educational opportunities for refugee women. 

What message would you like to share with the world on this World Refugee Day about the importance of education for Afghan refugee women and girls? 

Marzia: Education is the only way to empower Afghan women refugees. If they are provided with educational opportunities, they will show how talented they are. If Afghan women refugees become busy with educational opportunities, it will help them to a large extent to deal with their mental health problems and the refugee challenges they face. I wish we all women in exile could support the girls inside Afghanistan that are trapped under the regime of the Taliban. My only hope is that one day I could be a university professor here in Canada, and through my university, I could provide educational opportunities for women and girls inside Afghanistan. Achieving this goal will be the happiest moment of my life in Canada.