Girl from threatened minority tops university entry exam

Afghanistan’s Shamsea Alizada has had to dodge life-threatening circumstances besides mastering the tough school lessons needed to top the country’s competitive university entrance examination.

Caught between a gruesome armed insurgency, crippling poverty and social impediments, the teenage Afghan girl secured impressive 98% marks – 353 out of 360 – to take the top position this year in the exam known as the ‘Kankor’ among some 200,000 students from all over the war-ravaged country.

“I would spend up to 20 hours of my day studying for Kankor at home, school and tuition centre or travelling to and from these places,” the 17-year-old told University World News in Kabul.

Emphasising her yearning for quality higher education, Alizada said she always aimed for the top and was never deterred by the disheartening things going on around her.

According to the official results announced by the country’s National Examination Department, 197,743 students had enrolled and 173,432 eventually appeared for the Kankor. Among them were 22,220 girls.

The Afghan government has promised to provide scholarships for studies abroad to 20 of the best performers in Kankor on the national level and 102 more scholarships to the top three performers in all 34 provinces of the country.

On her future plans, Alizada said she was ready to accept the scholarships offered to her by the Afghan government to study abroad. “It would be really nice for me. I would strive to stay the best student while studying abroad and eventually return to serve my own country,” she said.

She wants to study medicine.

Undeterred by hardships

Besides her impressive grades, what made Alizada stand out was her identity as a member of Afghanistan’s persecuted ethnic and religious Shia Hazara minority who continue to face threats and attacks from the so-called Islamic State of Khorasan (ISKP) militants.

Alizada is among the few lucky students who were not present at one of the Shia Hazara’s many academic institutions, Mawoud Education Center, when a brazen suicide attack ripped through one of its lecture halls two years ago, killing dozens of students – many of them Alizada’s classmates – and wounding 60 others. The bombing was part of a series of identical bombings by the ISKP group.

“I studied there (Mawoud) for a couple of months before the attack,” she said before pausing to recall the horrific event that took her away from many of her friends. “I sincerely and dearly hope that sort of incident is never repeated in Afghanistan,” she said.

Acknowledging the persistent issues particularly faced by women in Afghanistan, she said she was never deterred by the fact that girls have to face many more challenges in Afghanistan than boys while seeking higher education.

Long struggle ahead for girls

After months of dedicated preparations for the Kankor, Alizada was left in limbo when a nationwide lockdown was imposed following the outbreak of coronavirus, delaying the university entrance exams for a then unknown period. The exams were eventually conducted last month.

A more detailed study of the nationwide results of Kankor paints a rather bleak picture in terms of girls’ education in the country. Besides the outstanding performance of Alizada, the results reveal, for instance, that only 10 girls managed to pass this university entrance examination from four relatively insecure provinces: Paktika, Samangan, Helmand and Uruzgan.

A Kabul-based educator, Shabnam Ali, told University World News that, after months of closure due to lockdown due to the coronavirus pandemic, many parents are now reluctant to allow their older girls to go to school again.

“I recently went to my village in Paktika province where fears of the Taliban are very resonant and people are thinking about not sending girls back to schools,” she said.

Backing her observation, UN figures suggest some 3.7 million children, mostly girls, are already out of school with the probability of additional and permanent dropouts because cultural norms in Afghanistan limit the role of women outside the home.

In her case, Alizada has the full support of her family and that is why she dedicates her success to her parents. “My parents have sacrificed the comfort of their life for my success,” she said. Her father, Mohammad Naseem, is a coal mine worker.

Alizada is the second girl to top Kankor in the past three years. Two years ago, Tehmeena Painda from the Afghan-Turk school in Kabul, topped the university entrance exam from among 150,000 candidates – boys and girls – to secure the top slot with 353 out of 360 marks.

This year’s Kankor results come at a time when the country stands at a crossroads with the government engaged in landmark peace talks with the Taliban for the future of the country.

Alizada was asked during a TV interview whether she would treat a Taliban militant after becoming a doctor, and she replied: “I would learn a lot during seven years of studying medicine. Treatment of an injured person is the duty of a doctor. It is possible the thinking and mentality of that militant might change and he might recognise that humans are not born to kill and injure others. My treatment of him might change his life, so why not? Definitely, I would treat him.”