Roya Shams: Future Afghani Politician, If She Has Anything To Say About It

So the House hasn’t been sitting for quite a while now, and there’s not a lot of interesting hoopla going on in the vaunted halls of Parliament other than that bit about Gilles Duceppe paying a party manager out of House of Commons money, to which my sum reaction is, “Dude, that was astoundingly stupid, and also illegal.” However, there’s a remarkable story out of the Toronto Star this week, and it involves a pretty badass Afghani girl named Roya Shams who wants to become a politician in Afghanistan, once she has a law degree.

The story starts in 2010, when Paul Watson, a reporter with The Toronto Star, went to Kandahar, which is where the Canadian military base was located. While there, he met Roya Shams, a then-16-year-old girl who was determined to get an education. She was studying at the Afghan-Canadian Community Centre, which is an initiative funded by the Canadian International Learning Foundation (CILF) and CIDA (Canadian International Development Agency) that offers classes taught both in person and over the Internet. But cash was tight, and while the Taliban hadn’t managed to shut down the school through its usual intimidation tactics and attacks, the dwindling funds threatened to shut the school down. Roya had finished all her courses, and was hungry for more. Watson wrote about this in The Star, donations earmarked for the school came in from readers, some specifically for Roya’s next course, and Roya kept going to school. She finished Grade 12, and started teaching classes, in spite of considerable threats to her safety and her family’s safety.

Her family was very supportive; her father was a police colonel who worked with the NATO forces to bring stability to Afghanistan, and he was instrumental in Roya and her four older sisters getting an education, just the same as her four brothers. But then he was killed in a Taliban firefight in the middle of last year. Shortly afterwards, Roya started getting death threats warning her to stay out of school; she stayed home, but the threats continued.

“Since my father’s death, I received two threats over the phone saying that I am working with infidels, I am going to school, I am making other girls go the wrong way and teaching them improper things,” Roya said. “They say I will be targeted sooner or later, and I will not be forgiven even if I stop going to school, because I am my father’s daughter. There will be no mercy for me and they won’t miss the chance to track me down and kill me one day.”

If the Taliban says you’re teaching girls “improper things,” you’re doing something very, very right.

Watson, after years of not intervening in other heartbreaking situations, got involved, and started calling around to private schools in Canada to see if any of them would take Roya as a student. Ashbury College in Ottawa said they would consider her application, and after she aced a Skype interview with them, they waived their tuition fee. Then he helped get her a student visa and plane tickets, and then after a quick trip to her father’s grave, they drove to the airport. I say that blithely, but I’m sure it’s not nearly as simple as it sounds. Getting a student visa is a non-trivial thing at the best of times, let alone when you’ve gotten death threats for going to school. And getting an international plane ticket for a girl in a country where women cannot safely move freely is no small feat either.

But all the paperwork came in, and after a trip to her father’s grave to say goodbye, Roya, Watson, and another Star reporter went to Kandahar airport to fly to Canada. The airport security was immediately suspicious and angry at the sight of an Afghani girl taking an international flight with two Western men, and nearly prevented them from leaving. But Roya, badass at 17, not only stood up to the security guards trying to harass her into staying in Afghanistan, but gave one of them the name of someone to talk to about finding a better job, after he’d agreed to let her board the plane, and had expressed frustration at his low-paying job.

She landed in Toronto last week, and starts classes in Ottawa next week. There’s a piece by her about her first few days in Canada in the Star with a photo of her, and if that mischevious glint in her eye doesn’t say, “I have a plan and I’m going to see it through, religious fundamentalists be damned,” I don’t know what does. She plans to finish her education, get a degree in law, return to Afghanistan to become a politican, and reform her nation so that it is a safer place for everyone to live in.

“Kandahar is a challenging piece of earth for women and girls to have access to education “¦

“I wish to be a politician “¦ I believe every Afghan citizen, man or woman, should have the right to speak freely and live in peace.

“God bless my late father and his soul. He prepared for family members to have education despite this unbelievable and most insecure province. A girl going to school in Kandahar is somehow like a hell, but many girls and women are daring and taking that risk.”

The Star is still collecting donations for her education (presumably for her university tuition, since her high school tuition has been waived). If you’re interested in donating, the information is here.

By Millie

Millie is a perpetual grad student, an internationally recognized curmudgeon, and an occasional hugger of trees. She also makes a mean batch of couscous.

5 replies on “Roya Shams: Future Afghani Politician, If She Has Anything To Say About It”

The best of luck to her. I read Malalai Joya’s book a few years ago (A Woman Among Warlords – everyone please go read it!) and it’s incredibly powerful, moving … and scary as hell to think of what women fighting for political representation in Afghanistan have to deal with just to be heard.

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