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spacer spacer spacer spacer spacer May 21, 2009

Against all odds: From Taliban prisoner to graduate student


Shukria Amani will never forget her experiences growing up in Afghanistan, and she uses those memories to keep her motivated and inspired during her studies.

A. Sue Weisler

Shukria Amani is an Afghanistan woman who taught at Kabul University, was jailed by the Taliban and now lives on “borrowed time” at RIT to earn an M.B.A. from the E. Philip Saunders College of Business—where she previously completed graduate studies on a Fulbright Scholarship following the American-led-invasion that toppled the Taliban government.

Amani speaks Farsi, the formal language of Afghanistan, Pashto, French, Russian, and English, and learned of the Fulbright opportunity while working at Kabul University. She 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, 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 imperiled when she agreed to teach the staff of a U.S. non-government organization 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.”

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 twin sister was badly beaten by the Taliban for walking alone near dusk and now suffers from a totally impaired left arm. The second incident happened when a bomb hit the Kabul marketplace.

“My hands and hair were covered with blood from shattered glass and 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.”

Since her mother’s death last August, Amani doesn’t wish to return to her homeland and is diligently seeking a co-op here after graduation. “If I do have to 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.”

Marcia Morphy

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