Shamsia Alizada’s success came as the Afghan government holds power-sharing talks with the Taliban that have raised concerns about women’s rights
By Stefanie Glinski
KABUL, Sept 29 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - An Afghan teenager who topped the university entrance exams after narrowly escaping an Islamic State attack has set her sights on becoming the country's first female president.
Shamsia Alizada, the daughter of an Afghan coal miner, came first out of more than 170,000 students, winning widespread praise in a country where girls were once banned from going to school.
Her success came in spite of a personal tragedy two years ago when an Islamic State militant suicide attack in west Kabul killed dozens, including fellow students at the exam preparation class she was supposed to go to.
She had changed her plans at the last minute to attend another event.
"I was lucky," she said quietly in an interview with the Thomson Reuters Foundation in a coffee shop in Kabul, her hands tightly wrapped around a glass of warm green tea as she spoke of wanting to work towards a brighter future for her troubled country.
"Medicine will help me do that, but I'd like to strive further to work for the women of Afghanistan," added Alizada, who now plans to study at the University of Kabul.
She hopes to become a brain surgeon, but is also considering a diplomatic career, she said, adding, "one day, I'd even like to be the first female president."
Alizada's success comes at a pivotal time for the country, whose government this month began power-sharing talks with the Taliban Islamist militant group that ruled the country until its overthrow in 2001.
Women's rights have improved dramatically since those days, when the group banned women from going out to work and girls from attending school, and many fear their hard-won gains could now be at risk.
The Taliban say they have changed and will let girls be educated, but fears remain that women's rights will deteriorate if the group regains influence.
About 2.2 million girls are still out of school and less than 30% of women in Afghanistan are literate, according to United Nations agencies.
Alizada attributes her success in part to supportive parents who treated her as equal to her two brothers - something she said was rare in Afghanistan, where girls "often lag behind".
'OPPORTUNITIES TO RISE'
Born shortly after the US-led invasion, she is part of an ambitious, young post-Taliban generation, growing up with opportunities that her own family didn't enjoy.
"My mother was in Kabul during the war and escaped to Ghazni," Shamsea explained, referring to the family's native province south of the capital.
When she took her exams at the university campus, she said, she was nervous but excited.
"I wanted to do well. My parents had always supported me to study hard and I had waited for this day for years. I didn't want to disappoint them," she said.
As she waits for university classes to start, Alizada said she was spending her free time taking walks with her friends in the neighbourhood or reading poetry.
Her older brother is studying engineering in India and she said she hoped to also win a scholarship to study in Britain, the United States or Canada.
But her ambitions are not just personal.
"Ten years from now, I'm not only hoping to practise medicine, I'm hoping that women across Afghanistan – in both big cities and small villages – will have opportunities to rise and to change the future of this country," she said.
"I want to help make this happen."
(Reporting by Stefanie Glinski, Editing by Claire Cozens. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers the lives of people around the world who struggle to live freely or fairly. Visit http://news.trust.org)
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