Meet The Cool Girls At A High School In Kabul: #15Girls

Oct 15, 2015
Originally published on October 23, 2015 5:01 pm

Hadia Durani is one of the cool girls at her school in Kabul. She's chatty and gets good grades, and when she grows up she wants to be president.

In class, Hadia is outgoing, but once she leaves the schoolyard, things are different. She says men and boys yell at her when she's walking to and from school. They tell her she should stay at home, and call her mean names, and when that happens, she just keeps her head down and ignores them.

"It will just start an argument," she shrugs. "And [the girls] get blamed."

These girls are the lucky ones — they've been able to stay in school while many of their peers have dropped out.
David Gilkey / NPR

The heckling gets to her friend Layli. "I just want to punch them in the face," she says. But she never has.

These 15-year-olds are both students at the Tanweer School in Kabul, Afghanistan. It's a private K-12 school in a lower middle class neighborhood on the south side of the city. Their very presence in school is a sign of the progress girls are making in Afghanistan.

But teenage girls in Afghanistan are in a peculiar spot. They're better off than their mothers — for one thing, more and more young women can read — but their dreams for the future may not align with the opportunities available to them.

At the same time, there are still not enough opportunities for young women to continue past high school and on to careers.

Tanweer School is a private school in a lower middle class neighborhood on the south side of Kabul.
David Gilkey / NPR

The students at the Tanweer School, whom I interviewed for our series on girls at 15, know they're especially lucky to be able to attend classes. A lot of girls their age have dropped out because there's too much social pressure from their families who want them to spend their time in the home after they reach puberty.

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Somaya Rahmanzai is 15, geeky and crazy confident. Her career of choice: brain surgeon.
David Gilkey / NPR

At 15, they're full of dreams. Somaya Rahmanzai is a math and science nerd. In geometry class, she stands up confidently to volunteer the formula for the area of a circle.

"My school has a laboratory!" she says. "We can learn biology and mathematics. We have many rooms and teachers. I love school."

By contrast, her mother's school had one room and one teacher, and she wasn't able to continue past the sixth grade.

"When I grow up," Somaya says, "I want to be a brain surgeon, so I can inject people."

"And also make them better," she adds.

This is something you never would have seen under the Taliban: Girls walking to school.
David Gilkey / NPR

There's a lot of uncertainty in Somaya's future. To be a brain surgeon, she needs to go to college. Same with Hadia and Layli. When they graduate in a couple of years, all the girls I talked to said, they want to continue their education.

But that probably won't happen. According to Afghanistan's Ministry of Education, for every available college slot in Afghanistan, there are about five students who want to go.

Plus, with each passing year the pressure to leave school and get married will increase.

Yet their excitement about their futures is undiminished. They don't seem to know how hard it will be to accomplish everything they hope to. Or maybe they believe their sheer determination will carry them through.

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Life has changed for Afghan girls. For all the bad news from Afghanistan, any given 15-year-old girl is likely a little bit better off than her mother was at 15. For starters, she is more likely to be able to read. Yet, an educated 15-year-old Afghan girl may never get to use her education. It's one of the realities we are finding as we listen to 15-year-old girls around the world. Their experiences say a lot about the societies in which they live. NPR's Rebecca Hersher reports.

REBECCA HERSHER, BYLINE: I found the girls at a school called Tanweer in a lower middle class neighborhood on the south side of Kabul. The kids jostle through the gates early in the morning, boys in neckties and girls in the national school uniform, white headscarves, just in time for morning meeting.

UNIDENTIFIED STUDENTS: (Singing in foreign language).

HERSHER: As the meeting ends, the high school girls go up a flight of stairs to a classroom where they all study together.


HERSHER: They have to push aside this big, white sheet that's draped over the doorway. I ask them, what is that? So the boys can't see in, they say, and the girls can't see out. Inside the classroom, we pull the desks into a small circle.

HADIA DURANI: (Foreign language spoken).

HERSHER: As they walk to school every day, the girls say, boys and men yell at them. They tell the girls they should stay at home. Hadia Durani is a 10th grader, definitely one of the cool kids.

HADIA: (Foreign language spoken).

HERSHER: Hadia says she feels way safer when she walks to school with other girls. And her friends agree, stick together; keep your head down, and ignore it. But 15-year-old Layli isn't buying it. She mutters something under her breath. What was that?

LAYLI: (Foreign language spoken).

HERSHER: "I just want to punch them in the face," she says.


HERSHER: These girls are pretty gutsy. They're also lucky. At this point, high school, a lot of girls their age have just dropped out - too much social pressure from their families. So these girls who are still here, they have big dreams.

UNIDENTIFIED GIRL #1: I want to become a president.

HERSHER: President.

UNIDENTIFIED GIRL #2: Brain surgery.

HERSHER: Brain surgeon.

UNIDENTIFIED GIRL #3: I want to become a good doctor.


HERSHER: She wants to be a doctor. These are super ambitious girls, like Somaya Rahmanzai.

SOMAYA RAHMANZAI: (Foreign language spoken).

HERSHER: She's 15 and geeky and crazy confident. I mean, you can hear it in her voice.

SOMAYA: (Foreign language spoken).

HERSHER: She says she wants to be a brain surgeon so she can inject people and also make them better, she adds - of course, make them better.

SOMAYA: (Foreign language spoken).

HERSHER: Somaya knows that to be a brain surgeon, she'll need to go to college. Same with Hadia and Layli. When they graduate in a couple years, they all want to go to college, which probably won't happen. First, in just a couple years, these girls will turn 18, old enough to get married. Plus, for every available college slot in Afghanistan, there are about five students who want to go. But these girls, they're just teenagers. They actually don't know how hard it's going to be for them to do all these things they're so excited to do. Rebecca Hersher, NPR News.

INSKEEP: Remember, we're hearing from 15-year-old girls around the world. And if you are or were a 15-year-old girl, this program wants to hear from you. What was your most difficult challenge at 15? Tell us on Twitter and use the hashtag, #15girls. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.