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Maryam Amarkhila

Maryam Amarkharkhila is from the Maidan Wardak province of Afghanistan. Her family members became refugees in Pakistan during the Taliban regime. Her father worked in Iran on a daily wage to help support his family financially. He wanted to educate his children so they wouldnt have a future like his. Maryam’s father faced all kinds of problems in Pakistan but he never gave up on educating his children. Her father started working in a brick kiln. Maryam recalls: ‘I was six then and I told my father that I would work and help him. He took my hands in his and said, your thoughts are bigger than yourself, but that’s not what you should do." Later, Maryam started carpet weaving in her neighborhood and made flowers out of date leaves. She started attending school. There came a day when her father told her that they were going back to Afghanistan because it was a free country once and they had a president named Hamid Karzai. 

Back in her village in Afghanistan, Maryam’s father was called an honor-less man for sending his daughter to school. At that time, eight-year-old Maryam thought something had to be done to encourage girls to attend school and break the taboo of parents being honor-less if they sent their daughters for studies. Maryam suggested to the headmaster that there should be a national anthem and exercise classes at school. Her suggestion was accepted and practiced. Noticing her higher aptitude level, she was asked by teachers to help teach other children in lower grades/classes. Later, she started teaching the same material to girls regardless of their age, who were not allowed to attend school, at their homes in her village. When she was introduced to their families, they came to personally know her and appreciated her. She started asking their fathers to let them attend schools. She told them, "Uncle, please help your daughter become a doctor by letting her go to school. It’s the only way they help sick women in our village". She was able to mobilize a community in favor of girls education at a very young age. 

After a few years, more and more girls were attending her school. Soon the Taliban started sending ‘night letters’ to her school. The school was close to her village, but not inside it. There came a day when her school was set ablaze by terrorists. After awhile, school resumed normal activities, but again came under a rocket attack and as a result many people withdrew their daughters’ names from school. Maryam was chased by a man holding a knife on a motorcycle and they shouted threats at her while she ran for her life on her way home from school. 

Later, Maryam received a permit, through her father, to create a primary school inside her village so people would not have the excuse of the other school being too far away. Her father started teaching at the primary school. Maryam anonymously wrote an enormous amount of articles on women’s rights for different magazines including their right to education and on customs such as the dowry and giving girls in exchange for settling disputes, etc. It was no easy matter for a young girl in a faraway village in Afghanistan. Maryam was eleven years old when she arranged simulation sessions for school girls and boys to understand how to approach different matters including family disputes, voting in elections, why it is important for women to vote, etc. 

Maryam was not able to continue her studies in Maidan Wardak since her school was attacked and the other school she helped set up was at the primary level. Maryam moved to Kabul to live with her uncle’s family there. She started sewing people’s clothes and contributed to the rent of their house. Meanwhile, she did not abandon her social activities and helped girls in her neighborhood. She arranged seminars through her school on womens and childrens rights. 

Maryam was told that one of her male relatives was sent to Pakistan for suicide training through his madrasa in her village. She travelled back to Maidan Wardak alone and met the person who was responsible for sending students abroad to get training for terrorist activities. She threatened to report him to the authorities if he didn’t give her the contact information of her relative. At first he threatened her and said, "One bullet is enough for you", but upon her insistence, he later gave her a phone number which she used to talk her relative out of Pakistan by telling him that his mother was extremely sick and wanted to see him. Once back in village, she talked with him and his family about a peaceful Afghanistan and how young men and women should be working develop Afghanistan and not kill and torture other fellow men. The man chose not to go to that madrasa again. Similarly, Maryam spoke with different people about a peaceful Afghanistan in her village who were contacted by Taliban for recruitment. Some of her relatives did listen to her and gave up on their intentions. 

Soon the word spread and her family started to receive threats on regular basis. Once, armed men went to her house in Maidan Wardak and threatened to kill her whole family if she didn’t stop her ‘propaganda’. Someone even left abusive and obscene messages on the door of her village mosque about Maryam once. In those messages, she was accused of promoting ‘democracy’ which is considered un-Islamic by many uneducated people. In one instance, Maryam was followed in Kabul by an unknown man and was physically attacked. She says, "He started slapping me so hard and said, ‘you are misleading other women with you’". In another instance, Maryam was nearly abducted by armed men when she sat in a car thinking it was a city taxi. The man who tried to abduct her disguised as a woman in blue burqa and threatened her, "Let me teach you women’s rights’". She managed to open the door and jump out of the car close to a police checkpoint next to Afghan-German hospital in Kabul. 

Maryam was studying in Kabul away from her family, working part-time sewing people’s clothes for a living and was supporting a few other girls from her neighborhood in buying pens and notebooks for their schools who were not able to afford it. She moved her six-year-old sister with her from Maidan Wardak to Kabul to help her study in a relatively secure environment. Back home, her father was teaching at the primary school she helped build in her village. She encouraged her father to complete his studies and he did. Maryam was able to encourage her father to finish his studies and when she was in final year of her undergraduate studies, after his undergraduate studies, her father graduated from the Darul-Malimin-Pedagogy program in Maidan Wardak. 

Maryam contacted other women with financial problems in the neighborhood in Kabul if they could sew clothes and created a small network. She started selling her sewn clothes in Kota-Sangi market and used the money to buy more fabric and gave it to women to sew more clothes. Maryam believes that "eating fish is good but learning how to catch a fish is even better". So she also started teaching women how to sew in the meantime. She founded an association for women who want to sell their handicrafts. 

She graduated from Kabul University’s 1394 undergraduate program. Maryam also anonymously wrote on women’s rights and democracy. She also worked with the Afghan Ministry of Borders and Tribal Affairs. Maryam also worked in the field of psychological counselling to help young women cope with effects of war and other societal pressures with the help of her university professors. She also has taken part in polio vaccine campaigns. She is an active member of the famously known Afghan women’s poetry club Merman Baheer where she works with other women on issues concerning them and others. Currently she works with a radio where she makes programs on women’s issues particularly affected by domestic abuse and raises awareness through her work. She also founded an association of 400 women from almost all provinces of Afghanistan who make handicrafts. Her association is called Zartaar-"Golden Thread". Her association is working on an exhibition of handicrafts by Afghan women in order for them to find access to international markets for a sustainable livelihood. 

Impressed with her tireless work, many of her relatives followed Maryam’s footsteps and started sending their daughters to schools. Back in her village, unfortunately, the Taliban have taken over most parts of the area and have banned girls from going to schools. Maryam has not given up and is trying to persuade the Qari of her village madrasa to hold talks with the Taliban to let girls study at least until primary level in her village. Maryam says, "I want to continue to work for a peaceful Afghanistan at the grassroots level, where the real deal is. I am hopeful every Afghan will live the life they deserve as human beings."

Maryam proved in practice that a girl can be a leader and work for the betterment of herself and her community. She is the hero of many women in Afghanistan who are not allowed to speak for themselves or others. She is the voice of ordinary Afghan women who form the basic and biggest part of the society. 

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