A heroine is officially defined as a woman who is endowed with great courage and strength in the fight for her country. We always look for heroines in our history books while forgetting to look for them around us. A heroine is not just someone with a sword in a battle or a political leader leading a revolution, but is anyone who sacrifices her life for the service of others. We meet many heroines in our everyday life serving their society as doctors, engineers, police officers and, to be sure, even the teacher who is willing to leave all else behind to teach. One of these heroines is Maryam, an elementary teacher at Zarghuna high school, one of the best schools in my country, who chose to continue nurturing little minds at the expense of everything.

Maryam entered the big, blue and red striped main gate of the school. There was a group of watchmen and police officers standing on each side of the gate for security reasons. As she entered, she looked up and saw the big, two story reddish building with the paint coming off. She looked at the windows of the building and saw a few students. ” I must be at least 30 minutes early,” she said to herself. But she did not know exactly why she was early. She could not sleep last night. She had wanted so badly to come to the school. She was missing the school. Yes, that is what she was feeling. Everyday a group of ten students with two teachers were responsible for the security check of the school. They would look for poisoned water, matches, gas, guns and love letters. But today, it was still too early for them to be there. On her left there was a big, green tree. Under the tree was a table and the attendance clerk was sitting there, having the attendance sheet open and ready for the teachers to sign in. “Salam Alikum Maryam Jaan, you have come so early, is all okay?” asked the clerk, knitting her brows together.

“Sure, all is fine. I just had to finish some work in the office,” she said, looking around. Her eyes caught a glimpse of the big board close to the tree that had the picture of Ms. Zaaher, an Afghan-American who financially supported the school in the construction of new buildings, with two other girls in their black and white uniforms. Three of them looked as serious as if they were about to go to war. Their backs were straight and their eyebrows up. There was also a statement, “We will make you, Afghanistan, with a pen.” She had read that statement before, but it had never had the same kind of influence before. She looked down at the earth. She felt like a traitor. Maryam moved on, going towards the main building. On her left there was a small garden. Although the whole school was kind of green, this garden was particularly very beautiful. On this side of the garden there was three tents that had written on then the word UNISEF. These were classrooms for sixth and seventh graders. “The kids will get sick sitting in the sun all day,” she thought, “but in a few months, the new building that Ms. Zaaher is paying for should be ready”. The thought brought a few drops of tears to her eyes for she knew that she would not be here till the summer.

She kept walking, keeping her head down until she arrived at the place where all the students would gather in the morning. A group of students would sing the national anthem and one student would read a part of the holy Quran. Maryam never did any. She recalled a memory from when she was in twelfth grade. She was standing in the second line with her best friend Naima. Naima got married just after school and settled down somewhere abroad. One day while the students were singing the national anthem, she turned her face to Naima and said in her ear, “You know what Naima, when they read us holy Quran and the national anthem everyday before going to class, I feel like we are going to a battlefield”. Naima laughed out loud and they both had to see the principle after the class, a man whom the whole school referred to as “the old ghost”.

While crossing in front of the principal’s office, she walked slowly, trying not to make a noise. She remembered three years ago when she was first appointed as a 2nd grade teacher .She was standing in front of a principal named Alia Jaan, a widow in her early sixties. It was a big office and all the walls were colored yellow. There were two desks, one at the right corner near the window where the principal would sit and the other on the far left corner where her assistant would sit. While the principal was talking, Maryam was looking at her and nodding, but she was not listening. She was too busy thinking about her students, what to teach them and what they might call her. At the time of her appointment to the school, she was twenty-five years old with no college degree because of the Taliban gap in women’s education. She felt proud of herself for having gone back to college and thanked God for giving her the father He did. But she would not be able to continue either her education or her work after marriage. Shabir and his family would never allow their daughter-in-law to work.

Shabir was one of her relatives. He was in the family business and was relatively rich for Afghanistan. Every one was surprised when two weeks ago Shabir’s family asked for her hand for their youngest son. One of the first things Shabir’s mother said was, “Child, let me make something clear. I know you are currently working in some kind of school, but in our families women do not work. Our men are able to take care of them.” Maryam’s mother immediately said, “Of course, Bibi Shirin Jaan, a woman needs to adjust to her in-law’s rules. Since your family is Masha Allah and is well off, Maryam has no need nor desire to work.” Maryam looked up but did not say anything despite wanting to say that a woman is not only in need of food, accommodation and clothing but also in need of an identity in her society. She has a desire to help and to achieve. It was obvious that all the family members were very happy for the marriage proposal. She as a “perfect” Afghan woman who was supposed to go along with the happiness of her family. But somehow it did not feel right. ” I should be happy, I will marry one of the richest people among my relatives, but why am I not?” she asked. “God, am I stupid or what?”

All of a sudden, she remembered that it was class time and she had better hurry up. She went down the stairs to the class. The class was on the right hand of the hall. It had a wooden, blue door. The walls were colored white. There was a big black board attached to the front wall. As she opened the door, Sana, who was wearing her black and white uniform called loudly, “Stand up.” All the students stood and Maryam asked them to “Sit down please.” She asked the girls to put their hands on the table so she could check for nail polish, which was banned for students of all ages. She went around the class checking. “Sailai, you are wearing nail polish again,” she said.

” I am sorry teacher Jaan, I forgot to clean it. It was my sister’s wedding yesterday,” she said, rolling her eyes and looking around.

” I thought you were the eldest of your siblings Sailai,” said Maryam.

” That is true but God Jaan gave my sister a month ago and my mother forgot to tell you.”

” And the baby is getting married at age 10 months! Stop lying, Sailai”.

“Sorry, Teacher Jaan!”

Maryam was mad at her and at the same time wanted to hug her. Sailai looked so cute with her scarf tight around her fat face, and with her round, black eyes. Maryam looked at her, but no harsh words came from her mouth. She had never loved anyone as she did these little students. Maryam went to the front of the class. She wrote some fractions on the black board and asked who wanted to do them. The students raised their hands and Maryam asked Sana to come and do the first one. Sana was always on time, did her homework, controlled the class and never complained. She was just a perfect student. Sometimes, Maryam thought, “Poor kid, she will miss being a kid sometime.” As always, Sana got her answer right.

While the students were working on their class work, except for Sailai who was playing with a ball, Maryam looked at the roof. There was nothing new about the roof, but she could not take her eyes off it. She thought about her mother. She was a great mother and a great wife. She gave all her life for her family. But this was not what Maryam wanted to do. She wanted to help the children in their education. She also wanted to be the great teacher and member of the society. She heard a voice inside her like the voice of God and all of a sudden she knew it was God’s call for her to continue the path of educating the future leaders of her country. She looked at the students, who had their faces down and who were counting with their small fingers. “There is no way I am going to leave them alone,” Maryam said to herself.

That day she went back home like a fighter, like someone who had a destiny to achieve. She had turned into someone who would not accept defeat for an answer. She knew her parents would not be happy, but she would convince them. “My father will support me. He will understand,” she thought. Maryam also knew that at age 27, she was too old for marriage in Afghan society and this might well have been her last chance of getting married. None of this mattered. The only thing that mattered was that she was doing something for her people. After that Monday, she spent every hour of every day, every minute of every hour and every second of every minute with the dream of building Afghanistan with a pen.

By Meena


6 responses to “Heroine

  1. Dear Meena,
    Maryam is a true heroine. She is making a choice that will change her whole life, and it’s a brave choice. Thank you for writing about her.
    Susan Breen

  2. Meena,
    Nice work describing the difficult choices Afghan women must make.

  3. This piece brought tears to my eyes. You write so fluidly and beautifully about Maryam and her desire to be a teacher in the face of adversity. I’d love to know a little more…perhaps not in this piece, but as an addendum. I feel from your piece as if I know her and want to know what happened in the end.

    I am a teacher and have taught in several countries in the world and I have never had to sacrifice anything to do so — quite the opposite. Your piece made me realize that a simple vocation can be an act of courage. It makes me want to go to my next job every day grateful for every morning.

    I agree with another commenter in a previous piece that we often complain about small things in the West. Early morning classes, unruly students, too much work, not enough sleep. When I feel the urge to complain, I will think of Maryam and be grateful.

    Thank you.

  4. This is a beautifully written story that clearly describes what a true heroine is. I love the idea of “building Afghanistan with a pen” too. Great work!

  5. Dear all,
    Thank you very much for your kind comments. I hope to take the voice of Afghan women to the world.

  6. “Building Afghanistan with a pen” is exactly what it sounds like you, Meena, have begun to do. Know that women everywhere are proud of their sister for being so strong, and for telling stories like this one that must be told for others to know.

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