KABUL, Afghanistan – At the project site, a tiny woman wearing both a traditional hajib and a U.S. Army Corps of Engineers hardhat walks up, smiles and says, “Hello, my name is Roqia.”
Born in 1987, Roqia can easily remember when women were denied a basic education and barred from working outside the home or even to be seen in public. But she did not give up her dreams. In truth, the oppression ignited a spark in her to beat the odds.
Beat them she did. Roqia is a modest woman who stands barely five feet tall and speaks with a soft voice. But she is respected by both her American and Afghan male counterparts as the USACE Afghan electrical quality assurance engineer for the Afghan National Defense University (ANDU) in Kabul.
Once completed, the ANDU complex will house and supply classrooms for more than 3,000 Afghan National Security Force cadets. The former rug-maker is in charge of ensuring that the electrical fabric for the 500-acre complex is woven correctly.
Living with the Taliban - In the darkness of poverty, dreams ignite
At 26 years old, Roqia is an independent woman with a graduate degree in electrical engineering from Kabul Polytechnic University. However, there was a time when the dream of an education and a career were taken from her.
“I was in the third grade when the Talban invaded Herat Province where I lived,” she said. “I was only nine years old. They immediately shut down all female schools and deprived us of all our rights.”
Roqia recalled her adolescent years under the Taliban as the worse time in her life. With tears in her eyes she said, “I am a Hazara, from a tribe that the Taliban does not like. I remember the day that they came and arrested every man of my village, including the young boys. Only old women were left to defend their children and homes. My father, uncles and even my grandfather were under arrest for three months. We were only allowed to see them twice a month. After three months some were killed and some, the lucky ones, were released. The same event happened for two years.”
After more than two decades of war and the Taliban’s restrictions against work and travel, many Afghan families were forced into poverty.
“Economy problems began to affect our way of life,” Roqia said. “The place where we lived was a small rented house with two rooms -- no kitchen. My father and brothers would collect thistles from the desert and field around our house to burn so our mother could cook bread and heat our home. For food, we relied on homemade bread and tea. Sometimes we were able to find sugar and cheap rice.”
During these dark years, everyone worked in Roqia’s family, even her six-year-old brother.
“My mother worked as a tailor and would sew all night to earn money,” Roqia said. “My father, who is a school teacher, was fixing watches on the streets. My sisters, brothers and I spent our childhood weaving carpets to help our family survive. Everyone, even my six-year-old brother, was thinking how to earn money to support our family.”
Glimmer of Hope
Ironically, war took away Roqia’s hope, and war gave it back.
“Herat-Jebraeel village, where we lived, was littered with planted mines and explosives left over from the Russian occupation,” she said. “These surplus explosives were killing a lot of innocent people every day. So my father decided to request a course for mine awareness, and it was approved. I was very active at these courses, so the supervisors asked my father for permission to hire me as a teacher for girls and women.”
At the age of 10, Roqia went to work as a mine and explosive devices awareness teacher with the Afghan firm OMMAR, and later with the AMMA demining organization.
“First we only taught in our village, but later we were asked to go to other villages, too,” she said. “I traveled with my father on bicycle from village to village to make people aware of the mines and explosive devices.
“Organizations provided training aids like wooden samples of mines, brochures, notebooks and so on,” she continued. “I described the different mine models, the places that these mines could be found, their explosion radius, what they are made from and mine detector marks (white, blue and red colors on stones and flags). I taught people what to do if they saw something strange, even if it was not like the mine samples, and so on.”
Soon, she was awarded the title of “best and the youngest” teacher by the managers. This experience boosted her self-confidence and kept burning that flicker of hope for the future.
So not even the Taliban could entirely suppress the education of girls. Despite their oppression, Roqia’s sisters secretly taught classes in a dark, damp basement. “Students would not carry any books, notebooks, pen or pencil but a Qoran e Karim to class,” Roqia said. “The Taliban thought my sisters were teaching Qoran e Karim. If they had been caught they could have been killed. Once the Taliban was defeated, the female schools began to reopen.”
Both Roqia and her sister continued to teach classes and opened various associations aimed at improving the lives of women. “As one of the victims of the Taliban regime, I could relate to the problems that the Afghan women experienced,” Roqia said. “So I established the Female Association, which provided a source for Afghan women to develop their knowledge and self-reliance.”
Even though Roqia grew up under the Taliban, her parents instilled in the children the belief that they should receive an education. “Thanks to the love and support from my family, I had a strong desire for learning and self-improvement. Once the coalition forces gained control of Afghanistan, I was free to continue my education openly, so I took computer and English language classes.”
During the early years, Afghanistan attracted the attention of numerous foreign and domestic organizations that created good opportunities for educational developments. One such school was the Afghan Mobile School from Iran that gave students a chance to take special tests and receive high school diplomas.
“Fortunately, I was one of the few students who could pass this test,” Roqia said with a smile.
After receiving her diploma, she took the Kankor (entrance exam) and met the requirements for electrical engineering. Not all Muslim men fit the stereotypes. “My father was my main persuader, and my husband helped me prepare for the test,” Roqia said. “I believe the main key to my success was the encouragement I received from my family.”
Like many students anywhere in the world, Roqia had to find a job to help pay for her education.
“Since I was so interested in my area of study and because of economic problems, I went to work as a novice engineer even before I finished college,” she said. “Almost a year and half before my graduation I was offered a job as an electrical engineer at a private company. It was the happiest day in my life, ever.”
After graduating from college, Roqia was hired for a job as an electrical engineer at the International Organization for Migration (IOM).
“Once I started my career, I began to believe in myself more and more every day,” she said. “I was finally able to get rid of the feeling that I couldn’t be as good as a man. For the first time, I saw men around me who really respect me and my activities, and I felt equal to a man. I continued to work for the IOM for two years, and then applied for a quality assurance (electrical) position with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, and fortunately I was hired.
Working for USACE
“I am now working on one of the most important projects in Kabul, the Afghan National Defense University, with more than 1,200 men around me,” she said. “It is a pleasure for me to work as a female engineer and prove that Afghan women can have a part in rebuilding the country with all of the dangers and limitations.”
Perry D’Amico, the USACE Construction Office representative, first met Roqia last July during a project site visit.
“I was actually conducting a site inspection on a different project when I first met Little Bit,” D’Amica said. “Little Bit” is his nickname for Roqia. “I was surprised to find an Afghan woman working on the site, and I didn't know she was helping with an electrical inspection. I was surprised to see this tiny creature wearing a USACE hardhat.”
During a site visit shortly after he met Roqia, D’Amico was concerned for Roqia’s safety. “There was this one particular day; she was in a heavy discussion with four contract workers on some electrical work that was installed improperly,” he said. “I stayed my distance just to observe how this tiny little person was going to handle the issue with four men, each one four times her size. Needless to say, I was very impressed; they finally listened and corrected their work.
“One day I asked her if she was ever afraid of working around so many men,” D’Amico added. “Before I could finish my question, she said ‘Never.’ She told me that once the workers find out she really knows what she's talking about, and she's there to help, there's no more conflict.”
D’Amico added that the seven Afghan male engineers who work with Roqia respect her and her work.
“Each of our engineers at ANDU specializes in one thing or another,” he said. “Every site visit, I have witnessed two or three of our engineers working together, inspecting completed and on-going work, with Little Bit right there in the middle of things. She is admired not only by her fellow engineers but also by the many contractors she works side-by-side with. I think women like Roqia are few and far between in Afghanistan. Hopefully others are noticing, taking notes, and are willing take the next step.”
Looking back, Roqia is proud of how far she has come since those early years under Taliban oppression. “It is almost unbelievable, for somebody whose childhood and early teenage years were wasted weaving carpets, to reach this place. To finally be an engineer.”