My life story might be summed up like this: I’ve travelled from one of the worst countries in the world for women to one of the best countries. I am an Afghan refugee in Norway. Adaptation is a process, and comparing these two countries would be totally unfair but I would like to share my insights into what it feels like to be an independent woman in both countries.
As I write, I find myself on the shores of the Skagerrak strait in southern Norway. I’m on a typical cabin holiday, sitting by the water and feeling the fresh breeze playing with my curly, crazy hair at six in the morning. If I were in Afghanistan, this could only be a dream – not just because Afghanistan is landlocked, but because it is not safe enough for a woman to feel the 6am breeze by herself without the company of a man.
In 2014, I was a student at Kabul university and employed part-time. I decided to refresh my English, so I enrolled in a 6am class at a nearby coaching centre. A taxi driver would drop me off at the classes, but one day in December he apologised to me, saying that he couldn’t defrost his taxi that early in the morning, so I decided to go by myself.
A week later a man attacked me in the street – it felt like he was going to kidnap me, but his aim was only to harass. I ran after him, and he was eventually caught by private security guards who were working at a nearby house. In Afghan culture, disrespecting a woman is not acceptable. After that, I had to abandon my class – without getting the diploma.
I come from a liberal and educated family in Afghanistan. Nothing was more important for them than my becoming an independent woman. This was especially the case for my mother, who was also educated and independent. I believed that I was independent enough until I landed in Norway. In Afghanistan, a women being independent means she can educate herself well enough to be able to work and pay her own bills. She takes care of so-called female household tasks and children, as well as working outside the home. I was trained to be an independent woman in Afghanistan, but it turns out that independence in Norway means something utterly different.
After I got my residence permit, I was taken to an empty room in Oslo. I had hardly ever shopped for furniture before, and I did not even know how to measure up for curtains or how to use a drill. In Afghanistan, all the heavy jobs were supposedly men’s tasks: from gardening, grocery and furniture shopping to fixing things, technical matters and painting. In addition, men had to provide for their entire family, as most women in employment– including me – were hardly willing to split household expenses equally with the man of the household.
After a while, I found out that there is no gender for household tasks in Norway. I met Norwegian women who had built their own cabins or parts of houses. They could paint, do carpentry, cut grass and still carry out the main responsibilities of raising a child – and they split the household expenses with their partners. And of course, most Norwegian men can cook and parent a child, too.
In Norway, an independent woman is self-governing in all matters. I’m adapting to that new meaning of independence, and it feels much better to live this way. We should teach the younger generation that the road to genuine independence depends on learning that women can do whatever men do.
Hasina Shirzad is an Afghan refugee and a university student in Norway.