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A room of her own

For Waheeda Jamil, forced from her teaching job and hidden from the world by the Taliban, going back to school in Afghanistan means going home.

By SUSAN TAYLOR MARTIN, Times Senior Correspondent

© St. Petersburg Times, published September 15, 2002


For Waheeda Jamil, forced from her teaching job and hidden from the world by the Taliban, going back to school in Afghanistan means going home.

KABUL, Afghanistan -- The Taliban would have been aghast.

Here was Waheeda Jamil, an Afghan woman, sporting a pair of slinky white open-toe pumps. In the Taliban's day, women couldn't even wear white socks because they might draw lewd attention to the female ankle.

The Taliban would have been appalled, too, that Jamil, 40, was showing her dark hair and fuchsia-tinted lips in public. No hiding beneath a burqa, one of those shapeless sacks that make women look like badminton birdies.

But these violations of the Taliban dress code paled in comparison to what Jamil was doing on this late-summer afternoon. In a scene no one would have imagined a year go, an Afghan woman was standing in front of a college classroom teaching trigonometry to dozens of Afghan men.

Jamil's voice was strong, her gestures emphatic. The self-assured mathematics professor was, in short, nothing like the beleaguered refugee that a St. Petersburg Times writer and photographer first met last fall in Peshawar, Pakistan.

In some ways, the story of Waheeda Jamil shows how far Afghanistan has come since Sept. 11, 2001. Then, it was still in the grip of the Taliban, its extremist Islamic rulers, and the al-Qaida terrorist network of Osama bin Laden.

With the Taliban gone from power and al-Qaida bowed, if not destroyed, Jamil and millions of other Afghan refugees have been able to return home to a country largely at peace for the first time in 23 years. Women no longer have to wear the burqa, and they can work, attend school or simply go out in public without a male relative escorting them.

In Kabul, home to 1.5-million people, music again fills the air, and the stadium where the Taliban executed prisoners hosts soccer matches and celebrations. Afghanistan has something akin to a functioning, democratic government, with an interim president that Jamil herself helped select as one of 1,500 prominent Afghans who took part in this spring's loya jirga, or grand council.

But Afghanistan remains mired in uncertainty and squalor. Although Jamil and her husband are among the relatively few Afghans who hold full-time jobs, they barely make enough to support themselves and their five children. Movie theaters are again open, but the family has no money for entertainment or even basic school supplies. The kids regard a gift of a notebook and a few pencils with the same glee that an American child might greet a Sony PlayStation.

The apartment building in which the family has lived for 19 years is so dingy and run-down it would be considered a slum in most Western countries. Kabul Polytechnic Institute, where Jamil teaches, can't hold classes at night because there is no electricity on campus. Dust and soot blow in through classroom windows that have long since lost their glass in shootings and rocket attacks. The library hasn't seen a new textbook in decades.

And though she never wears it these days, Jamil still keeps a burqa, just in case.

"I want it as a memory of the Taliban to tell our grandchildren."

Despair, then rebirth

By last fall, when the Times interviewed her in Pakistan, Waheeda Jamil's prospects had hit rock bottom.

Her career as a college professor seemed dead forever. She hadn't worked since 1996, when the Taliban seized power and ordered women to stay home. She and her husband Mir had two more children, and Waheeda spent the next five years in an endless grind of cooking and cleaning in the claustrophobic confines of their small apartment.

On the night of Sept. 11, the Jamils were listening to the BBC on the radio when they heard that terrorists had attacked the United States. The mastermind was thought to be Osama bin Laden, living in Afghanistan and harbored by the Taliban.

As it became apparent America would retaliate, the Jamils decided to leave Kabul and go to Peshawar, Pakistan, where Mir had a sister. They spent a few days with her until the place got too crowded, then rented an apartment they shared with another Afghan family that had six children. That meant a total of 15 people in four rooms.

The night the Times met them, the Jamils were wearing borrowed clothes and had no furniture except for a few rugs and cushions Mir's sister loaned them. What little money they had -- mostly from the sale of Waheeda's jewelry -- was going to pay the rent.

The Jamils knew Pakistan didn't want them or the millions of other Afghans who had taken refuge there in two decades of war. The morning after they were interviewed, the Pakistani family downstairs warned them not to speak to any more foreigners or they would be forced to move.

Over the next few months, life brightened a bit. Waheeda found a job teaching math to Afghan refugees in a high school supported by Arab countries. Her three oldest kids went back to school.

But Mir, a chemist, could not get work. Now the tables were turned: After five years under the Taliban yoke, it was Waheeda who was out in public and Mir who stayed home cooking and cleaning. "I got very bored," he says.

He also lived in dread of the police. Like most Afghan refugees, the Jamils had no passports. Mir Jamil was often stopped by Pakistani authorities, who demanded money when he couldn't show proper documentation.

"I gave them 50, 100 and sometimes more than 100 rupees," he says -- anywhere from 80 cents to $1.60 or more. It didn't sound like much, but with Waheeda bringing home only a few hundred rupees a month, it was a sizable sum.

Throughout their time in Pakistan, the Jamils kept in touch with Waheeda's sister in Kabul via acquaintances traveling back and forth across the border. By March, they decided it was safe enough to return to Afghanistan. Waheeda was thrilled to hear that the head of the math department at Kabul Polytechnic had called her sister, urging her to pass along the word: We want Waheeda to come back to work.

On March 28 -- "A beautiful day," Waheeda recalls -- it was time to leave. The seven Jamils packed everything they had -- three bags of clothes -- and piled into a hired van with eight members of another Afghan family. By 3 p.m., they were home in Kabul.

Someone had broken the door to their apartment and stolen several floor mats. Waheeda didn't mind -- "I didn't feel anything because I was happy to be here. I kissed my sister and we cried from so much excitement."

But the Polytechnic Institute, just a few hundred feet away along a dusty, weed-riddled path, looked worse than Waheeda remembered it. Built in 1963 with Soviet help, the institute was once a complex of sleek-looking buildings surrounding leafy courtyards. The library was full of new Russian-language textbooks.

But after the Soviets pulled out of Afghanistan in 1989, Kabul Polytechnic often found itself on the front lines during years of civil war between the country's many ethnic factions. One professor was killed and two others injured in rocket attacks. Fighting ruined or heavily damaged the library, laboratories, sports complex, dormitories and central heating and air conditioning system. To this day, there isn't enough money to repair even the plumbing: Students and teachers alike use portable toilets on the grounds outside.

But the faculty was determined to keep the institute opened, because it was the one place in Afghanistan that trained students in fields such as engineering and road construction that would be so badly needed in rebuilding the country. Kabul Polytechnic closed only twice: once in 1993-94, and again last fall and winter during the U.S.-led bombing.

It took Waheeda a week to get recertified as an instructor. Then came the day she had feared she would never see. At 8 a.m. on a fine April morning, professor Waheeda Jamil stepped into a classroom for the first time in more than five years. Looking eagerly back at her were 46 students -- 43 men and three women.

"I thought to myself, this is like a dream. Those woman started lessons in 1996, and when I interrupted my career, they also left the institute. When I saw them sitting there, I thought, here we are five years later. It was like nothing had changed."

That first day back, Waheeda wore a black robe and a head scarf that loosely covered her hair. The three women wore burqas; they have since abandoned them and started showing their faces again.

Of the institute's 105 faculty members, 15 are female. Of the 2,400 current students, about 5 percent are female. The trigonometry course Waheeda teaches has just one woman -- a 19-year-old who wants to be an engineer -- in a class with 75 men. But Waheeda is not discouraged.

"Day by day," she says, "the number of women students is increasing."

Although her hours have been cut back slightly as more faculty members return, Waheeda still teaches six days a week. She makes 25 laks a month -- about $60 -- which is less than what she earned in 1996, taking Afghanistan's rampant inflation into account. Mir, who works in Afghanistan's Ministry of Planning, makes just 20 laks.

Because Waheeda works for the institute, the Jamils are entitled to live on campus for a few dollars a month. Not that they get much for the money; their apartment is so cramped that all five children sleep on mats in one bedroom while an ancient refrigerator squeezes against their parents' bed in another room. Every morning Mir fills a big plastic tub with water because they never know when the water will be cut off during the day.

Of the 180 families in the complex, only a few have satellite dishes to pick up TV programming. The Jamils and most others rely on the radio. Virtually no one has a phone.

But the Jamils consider themselves fortunate. Mir proudly notes that his wife was an overwhelming favorite of her faculty colleagues to represent them in the loya jirga, held on the institute's grounds in June. And he beams as he shows a photo of Waheeda with Afghanistan's interim president, Hamid Karzai.

Ever ambitious, Waheeda is taking a computer course and learning English. To practice, she quizzes her 9-year-old daughter Baren, who is also studying English in school.

"How many brothers and sisters do you have?" Waheeda asks.

"I have two brothers and two sisters," Baren replies.

"What do you do?"

"I am a student."

"Which class are you in?"

"I am in the fifth class."

"Why do you want to learn English?"

"Because English is the international language."

When we interviewed her last fall in Pakistan, we asked Waheeda what she wished for her three daughters.

"I want one to be a doctor, one to be a teacher and one to be an engineer," she said. But with her country under attack and the family living as refugees, she quickly added: "I don't think that will happen."

Now that the Taliban are gone and the family is back home, we wanted to know: Do you think the future is any brighter for your girls?

The length of the pause was telling. Afghanistan is still a country that could go either way, and Waheeda Jamil knows that as well as anyone.

"Inshallah," she finally said.

God willing.

-- Susan Taylor Martin can be reached at susan@sptimes.com

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