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Blind Afghan Journalism Students Challenge Stereotypes

Lina and Lida listening intently during a recent journalism class.
Lina and Lida listening intently during a recent journalism class.

The students watched the professor strut from one side of the room to the other, giving his lecture. Only Lina and Lida were not watching the professor; they were listening intently, and occasionally staring at the whiteboard, even though there was nothing written on it.

Among the girls, Lina and Lida were unusual as they didn't wear makeup, jewelry, or nail polish. Instead of taking notes, they recorded the lecture.

Lina and Lida, who were both born without sight, are both freshmen at the Journalism School of Kabul University. They were admitted into the program after graduating from the city’s high school for the blind last year. They surprised many by passing the competitive entrance exam.

Lina, 21, aims to host TV and radio programs.

"I took the entrance exam specifically designed for the blind. I made journalism my first choice," she said. “My first goal is to become self-sufficient, and serve my family and country. I want to serve people with disabilities and voice their pains."

She knows very well that she faces more hurdles than most of her classmates. “Journalism is all about pictures and this is something of a challenge for us,” she said.

Lina is still hopeful. Fourteen years ago, girls and women didn’t have the right to education or employment, but since 2001 they’ve more access to education and employment, while people with disabilities are also gaining new opportunities.

Like everybody else, they have to read books and articles assigned by their professor. "We buy the books and articles our professors assign. With help from our family members, we turn them into recordings and listen to them," Lina said.

The two friends are required to take an oral exam instead of writing papers and articles - the usual method for grading in Afghanistan.

Safia Rahim, a professor at Kabul University's Journalism School, is impressed with her blind students.

"Unlike the rest, they do their studies enthusiastically, since they picked journalism with a mission in mind," she said. "Lina and Lida got better grades than some of their classmates with no disability, since they pay full attention to our lectures."

Lina and Lida have been friends for several years now. Both live in Kabul's Khairkhana neighborhood and say they are able to manage the ten-kilometer commute to Kabul University. "We’re able to find our way even if we don’t have someone accompanying us. In school, we studied mobility to find our way," Lina said.

Their success story is unusual. Blind people face major challenges in accessing education in Afghanistan: There’s no higher education institution specifically built for the blind. The Afghan Ministry of Higher Education has developed a special exam for the blind, allowing them to join higher education institutions.

Blindness can also be a social stigma in Afghanistan, a country where people with disabilities are not respected as much as others. Shah Payrai, a teacher for seniors at Kabul’s high school for the blind, said that when walking in the street some people call them Qori (eds: Qori is a derogatory term for the blind).

Shah Payrai lost her sight at just six months old when a rocket hit her home in Kabul during the 1990s civil war. "On my way from home to school and back, children call us Qori and blind, and harass us. It hurt me so much that I stopped going to school for a while."

Abdul Rahman, another teacher at the school, lost his eyesight to a mine explosion during Taliban rule. He was thirteen. He says that, despite some progress, they don’t have as many education opportunities. "We don’t have enough books, braille, braillers or computers."

There are no accurate statistics on the number of blind people in Afghanistan, though World Health Organization estimates suggest the condition affects around 400,000 people.

Rafiqullah Qayumi, deputy project manager for Eye Project at the Afghan Ministry of Public Health, says blindness is a major problem.

"Two percent of the Afghan population is blind. There are 400,000 blind and 1.7 million people with vision problems."