Page last updated at 12:50 GMT, Tuesday, 23 March 2010

Marriage, prison or death?

Nel Hedayat
Nel came to the UK when she was six

Raised in London but born in Afghanistan, Nel Hedayat, 21, always wondered what her life would be like if she'd grown up there. Then she had the chance to find out.

Growing up in north London, identity was never really a big issue. I always felt I was free to be who I wanted to be, surrounded by a world where difference and eccentricity were the norm.

I arrived in Britain at the age of six, after my family fled Afghanistan and the ever-growing persecution and abuse of the mujahideen.

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I have asked my mother what made her flee her home, to leave everything she knew behind and run into a future that was unknowable and frightening. She says she could see no future for her two daughters growing up in a society that was already beginning to alienate and subordinate women. For our sake we fled.

In a way, my history began when I arrived in the UK. Here there are records, photos, home videos, friends and school. But I always knew I was a little different because of my background and as I grew up I was always faced with the fact that I was first generation Afghan-British.

Because of this, who I was, and what I did, was unwritten. I had to create my own culture, my own path and my own future because there was nothing to go by beforehand.

I found myself trying to reconcile my Afghan identity and my British one and somehow synthesize something new, an indentity that was a mixture of these two contrasting worlds. Trying to do what is right, but not knowing what right was, often made me confused and angry.

Ambiguous identity

It was only in my late teens that I really became aware of the other side of my identity. As long as I could remember, there were whispers of family, friends and acquaintances, women who were beaten, subjugated, even murdered during the time of the Taliban.

I knew that life was not easy out there, especially for women, as it was always in the news. It made me want to find out for myself what my life could have been like if my family had chosen to stay in Kabul.

Also, most importantly, I wanted to meet my family there. My Aunty Marzia, the most courageous women I know, and her family had stayed in Kabul throughout the torment of the Taliban and I wanted to know more about them, their struggle and their life.

Woman in a burka in Kabul
Many women still wear burkas

I met with women who had been so defeated by a patriarchal society, they thought of themselves as second-class citizens. I found a world of extreme violence against them, where they were traded like animals - not treated as human beings. Girls were in prison for trying to escape abusive marriages. I cried with these women, tried to understand them and to comfort them.

I came face to face with the horrors of domestic abuse in one hospital. I met a woman who'd been exchanged for bad blood, a custom where feuding families swap daughters to try and settle their dispute. Her life had become so unbearable she had tried to burn herself alive.

She'd simply had enough and wanted to die. I'd had enough too and wanted out, to go home to London there and then. But I also met women who were actively seeking change, working and educating themselves and encouraging other women to do likewise. Women in positions of power and influence and saw how they risk their lives everyday for what they believe in.

I spent time with my cousin, one of only a handful of female lecturers at Kabul University. I was in awe of her and other women's strength, determination and indefatigable effort and hope for a better future for themselves and their daughters. But even my cousin accepts that her marriage will be arranged.


I came back to the UK knowing that I had changed. I was humbled by my experience, but there was an ever stronger feeling of thankfulness to my mother, who had saved me from such suffering.

I had grown up confused about my ambiguous identity. I returned still a bit confused but confident, knowing that I would do the best that I could for myself and for all the amazing women that I had met.

I will tell their stories with pride, and encourage anyone in my position to go there and find out for themselves and understand that they are blessed and in a position to help the girls in Afghanistan. In that way, they will, as I did, forge a connection between their UK life and their Afghan heritage.

It may be a juxtaposition to say my experience in Afghanistan was positive and harrowing, but it was. I was shocked, then appalled and then struck by the strength and determination of women. They inspired me and I hope their struggle will inspire others.

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