OSLO, -- The girl who represents Afghan hopes for a peaceful, stable, and prosperous future hides herself from public attention in her hometown.
Whenever Fatemah Qaderyan, 16, steps out of her house in Afghanistan’s western city of Herat, she wears an all-enveloping veil.
As the head of Afghanistan’s internationally applauded teenage robotics team, Qaderyan represents a new generation of Afghans determined to overcome the country’s recent history of division, violence, and oppression against women. But, in Herat, she has to watch out for herself because of threats by hard-line Islamic extremists.
“We will do everything we can for the future of our country,” she told RFE/RL’s Gandhara website.
Qaderyan is participating in the Oslo Freedom Forum, which brings together activists from Cuba, Venezuela, China, and Russia. Dubbed as one of the biggest gatherings of human rights activists in the world, the forum is a global platform for dissidents of all stripes.
She sees education as the path to equality and freedom for Afghan women. With the help of Afghan entrepreneur Roya Mahboob, she became part of the Digital Citizen Fund, which aims to empower women and children with the latest technological tools by enrolling students for courses in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics.
Qaderyan says her country’s social, economic, and political challenges can be solved with the help of the latest technology and modern education. “Now we know what getting an education means, and we will not stop,” she told the audience at Oslo’s oldest theater, Det Norske Teatret.
In Afghanistan, Islamist militant groups oppose girls’ education. They have destroyed hundreds of schools during the past 15 years and impede children, particularly girls, from getting an education in the regions they control. Patriarchy, poverty, corruption, regional strongmen, and conservative customs pose additional barriers.
“Girls in my country are not allowed to be curious,” she said.
Qaderyan and her all-female robotics team attracted global attention when they were twice denied visas to participate in a robotics competition in the United States last July. But after they made it to the contest in Washington, D.C., they won a medal. The six-member team was awarded a silver medal for "courageous achievement," which noted their “can-do attitude” under daunting circumstances.
The team received a hero’s welcome when they returned home. “Their success shows that Afghan girls, despite the challenges, can be good inspirations in the field of knowledge and technology,” President Ashraf Ghani said in a congratulatory message.
But her jubilation over the achievement was short-lived. In August, Fatemah’s father, Mohammed Asef Qaderyan, was killed in an attack claimed by the Islamic State militants. The, 54-year-old was among the 36 Shi’ite worshippers killed in an attack targeting a Herat mosque.
The tragedy, however, did not stop her journey. In December, Qaderyan and her robotics team brought home a top prize from Robotex, Europe's largest robotics festival. “That was the happiest moment of my life. We were all overjoyed,” she said.
She says her dedication to knowledge and learning is helping her fill the void left by the death of her father. “It is education and my thrust for knowledge that still empower me to stay strong,” she said. “My father showed me this way. I will follow it until I attain my goals.”
Qaderyan now wants to change the image of her country from a place where women are oppressed and even lynched to one where women can contribute as equal citizens.
“My team and I know the danger in the water. There are sharks. But we know there are pearls, too,” she said. “And we will swim in the deepest waters to harvest them.”
Her generation, however, has to overcome many obstacles. Domestic violence in Afghan homes is common. A report by the United States of Peace think tank noted that at least 87 percent of Afghan women have experienced domestic abuse at least once. Most women in Afghanistan are economically and socially dependent on male family members, and this patriarchal control prevents women from attaining equality and rights.
Qaderyan says digital literacy specially targeting women could precipitate the radical changes needed for their empowerment. “It is only possible if women are financially independent, and that’s only possible if they have access to education,” she said.
Seventeen years after the U.S.-led military intervention in Afghanistan ousted the hard-line Taliban regime, an estimated two-thirds of Afghan girls do not attend school. Qaderyan says providing Afghan girls with education will change the country’s destiny.
“If every girl is educated, nobody can stop Afghanistan from becoming a developed and a peaceful nation,” she said.
Kiyya Baloch is a freelance journalist who reports on the insurgency, militancy, and sectarian violence in Balochistan.