Against All Odds: Jailed by the Taliban—Now Studying at RIT

Shukria Amani lifts the veil on the plight of Afghan women

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Shukria Amani is an Afghanistan woman who taught at Kabul University, was jailed by the Taliban and now considers herself “so very lucky to continue graduate studies in the United States.”

Amani now lives on “borrowed time” in Rochester, N.Y., where she is pursuing her MBA degree from the E. Philip Saunders College of Business at Rochester Institute of Technology—the university where she previously completed graduate studies on a Fulbright Scholarship following the American-led-invasion that toppled the Taliban government.

She learned of the Fulbright opportunity while working at Kabul University and was one of 20 Afghan women selected out of a pool of 2,000 applicants to pursue the 9-month non-degree program in 2005. It was her lucky break, because during the Taliban regime from 1996 to 2003, Amani was banned from her job teaching economics at that very same university.

“All the women had to leave,” Amani explains. “The Taliban demanded women stay at home, not work, and if they came out of their homes for any reason they had to wear a burka covering their entire body.”

That’s when Amani became a rebel: She covertly taught students at her home until the risk became too great for her family’s safety, then at Kabul’s Rabia Balkhi Hospital for women in a secret room from 1999 to 2000. Her life became in peril when she agreed to teach the staff of a U.S. non-government organization (NGO) headed by celebrated-American Mary MacMakin (founder of PARSA: Physiotherapy and Rehabilitation Support for Afghanistan).

“We were having lunch one day and received a surprise visit from the Taliban,” Amani recalls. “They ordered us to put our burkas on, beat Mary, and took us to Kabul Prison. Some women resisted and fought but I just cried and they didn’t touch me. Somehow the BBC News and CNN found out Mary was arrested and we were all released after four days.”

“Shukria has been through a lot of hardship, but her spirit is resilient,” says Peggy Tirrell, senior associate director of graduate business programs in the Saunders College at RIT. “She is an inspiration to all Afghan women who have experienced restrictions on their freedom and violations of their human rights.”

Now 51 years old, the unmarried Amani doesn’t know her actual birth date in a country where no records are kept. Her parents had 12 children, and Shukria was baby number 10, born five minutes after her mother delivered her identical twin sister Zohra. All she was told was that “they were born when it was cold outside,” so she picked her own birthday as Nov. 12, 1957.

Two memories still haunt Amani: Her sister Zohra was badly beaten by the Taliban for walking alone near dusk and now suffers from a totally impaired left arm. The second incident happened after the American presence when a bomb hit the Kabul marketplace.

“My hands and hair were covered with blood from shattered glass and as I started to run, I had to step around the dismembered body parts of children and shoppers I had seen alive just minutes ago,” Amani says in a quiet voice. “When you see the rockets here, here and here, then you think it’s my turn. After the Americans came we had hopes of peace but now we have suicide bombs, and before that the Taliban would hang people by their hands and feet in the square. When you see these things it makes you very, very sad.

“Oh God, I used to say to myself, please help our people in Afghanistan because they suffer so much.”

According to Tirrell, Amani worked three years time at Kabul University for the ministry of finance to save up enough money after the Fulbright to return to the United States and RIT.

“She speaks Farsi, the formal language of Afghanistan, Pashto, French, Russian and English. But nothing prepared her for RIT’s advanced business courses using Power Point, Excel and other programs,” says Tirrell. “It’s a tough program, but Shukria is doing very well.”

Amani agrees. “I had to take my homework very seriously and the professors at RIT have been very supportive during my practical training. I hope to have a co-op here in the United States.”

The big question is: Does Amani wish to return to her homeland?

“My mother died last August and I don’t have a home to go back to,” Amani says. “And I have the same fears of leaving the house to go to work and not knowing if I would return.”

“If I do go back to my country, I will take what I’ve learned at RIT and help to educate women,” Amani says with a long sigh. “But I like the United States very much and want to stay. There are happy endings here, not like in Afghanistan.”

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