By the time Rabia Zahir was only ten years old, she had already lived in six different countries and through two wars. Born in 1983 in Kabul, Afghanistan, she moved with her family to India when she was five to escape the Afghan civil war. Shortly after their arrival, her father was appointed the Afghani ambassador to Kuwait, and the family followed him to Kuwait City.
Then came the first Gulf War. "I distinctly remember the beginning of the war," she says. "We were going to a picnic lunch that we had every Friday. All of a sudden, my sister came running out and said that she had seen helicopters with Iraqi flags on their bellies." Zahir's family rushed inside to watch the news and learned that the Iraqi army had invaded.
Although she and her family were never threatened with violence, it was still a difficult period for Zahir. "I remember having no electricity or water for months."
She also remembers the Iraqi army's burning of Kuwait's oil fields. "The sky went black for many days. It was like nighttime throughout the entire day."
Soon after the war ended, Zahir's father was appointed ambassador to Italy, and the family moved again. However, an increasing number of warlords began vying for the presidential appointment, and her father resigned after only eleven months. The family relocated once again--this time to northwest Pakistan, close to their still-unstable native country.
Zahir attended school in Pakistan for ten years and intended to become a doctor. But when she was nineteen, her father died, and Pakistan became unsafe for her and her family. "Because of the paternal culture," she says, "it is very difficult to live alone in Pakistan without a male member in the family." A family without a father or other male relative is looked down on and viewed as vulnerable, she explains. They received threatening phone calls and letters, and their house was repeatedly burgled.
These difficulties, coupled with financial trouble and serious concerns about the feasibility of living in Pakistan, forced Zahir to abandon her medical studies for computer science, which was less expensive and required less schooling. Soon after, however, Afghanistan regained some stability, and the family took advantage of the opportunity to return home to Kabul.
She worked in Kabul for about a year. Then, one day, she received an e-mail message from her cousin about an organization called the Initiative to Educate Afghan Women that was looking for women interested in higher education. "I was intrigued," she recalls, "so I sent my rÈsumÈ to them." Six months and a handful of interviews later, she was accepted into the program. She began filling out papers for Duke shortly thereafter.
A freshman, Zahir plans to use her time at Duke as a launching pad for Afghan politics, which have been historically closed to women. "This might sound slightly unreasonable," she says, "but my ultimate dream is to be the president of Afghanistan. I am setting high goals for myself because I believe that if you are in politics, you can make more changes in less time."
She says that she also feels a sense of responsibility to her country. She comes from a family of leaders and wishes to continue that legacy.
And, she says, she believes that in her lifetime Afghanistan will elect a female president. "I'm willing to wait," she says. "I think that Afghanistan will be ready one day, at least by the time I'm sixty."
Rabia Zahir, political ambitions
January 31, 2006