Zahra, the Unbounded One

"Hello Dear Sohini Jana.

It is Zahra Hakimi from Kabul Afghanistan. I am one of Ayepo's members and I remember the session that we had online about leadership process. Since I have read the story of a young girl Hina Shikhani, I am very thankful that you have shared it and I could read. I have realized you share effective stories of ladies. I would like to share my story of different steps of my life and the success that I have gotten. I would be thankful you can share it.

Thanks," I came across this message on my messenger one evening, about a week after I had published Hina's story. My heart beamed as I realized that inspiration is indeed infectious and stories that we connect with, can bring the best of reflections from our own lives into focus as we gather the courage to share our individual journeys. Here was a 16 year old who I had mentored over one session, consciously deciding that her voice mattered. And such a voice coming in from the repressive cultural setting of present day Afghanistan is not to be taken lightly. I decided to call her the very next day.

The following evening, as per our mutually decided upon "Dialogue time",I settled in with a cup of tea and with Zahra on call, ready to invite in yet another dose of inspiration into my life. Whatever I was expecting as a story barely even scratches the surface when it comes to the personality that unfolded in front of me over the following one hour. Zahra taught me the wisdom of holding on to the experience of unboundedness which is lived in moments of intuitive awakening to the consciousness of being truly alive, but is barely ever considered as the inner compass to live out one's full potential.16 year old Zahra taught me how everything that we do, should ideally come from that space of unboundedness, that sense of abundance of life force energy that we have all been gifted with. The energetic bundle of life and aspirations began her story with her intention clearly communicated at the very outset. " Miss Jana, I want my story to inspire other young women like me to understand that we should fight for our right to engage in activities that we like to do which can include activities like sports and other outdoor stuff. I want my story to help change mindsets of girls so that they can understand that we should listen to our hearts and not accept limitations imposed without a reason."

I could tell that her insight came from her personal assessment of the situation in her context. I probed, "Tell me more Zahra. What makes you think this way?"

Zahra took a long breath and launched straight into her story. Our story begins when she was only 13.

"Three years ago, I was riding my cycle( bike) like any other day. While riding I remember getting criticism by pedestrians who commented on how girls shouldn't be allowed to ride bikes. It hit me hard. I had never connected the two things you know: being a girl and riding a bike. I was young and was struggling to understand why girls were not supposed to ride bikes. The last I checked, I was actually good at it and enjoyed it. I decided to not let it go."

I nudged her a little. "What do you mean by not letting it go? What did you do Zahra ?"

I could tell from her tone as she spoke that a small triumphant smile was rippling across her face as she narrated about her next step.

"I connected with and met girls who liked to exercise and cycle in order to get them to come together and cycle together. You see when many girls would cycle together, there will emerge a culture of such activities which will eventually encourage people to think differently. I love sports. I am an athlete and I am sure I am not the only one amongst girls who love sports. We should all come together and stand our ground. Alone we are bound to fail. But together, we can initiate change." In presenting solutions, Zahra probably had no clue that she was echoing sociologists from the Renesslear Polytechnic Institute on the 10% estimate as tipping point for social change. This young woman had understood at 13 years of age that confronting cultural stereotypes alone would only be exhausting.Instead, she had started lobbying early on with other like minded young girls to set into motion the change she wanted to see in her immediate surroundings. I was beyond impressed. I was in awe.

"I am an artist, an athlete and an activist." Zahra announced. "I am also a mentor to other students in my community. We do a lot of social work."

"Can you tell me more about your work Zahra?"

"Sure! So, we have these two groups called Caressing Hands and Galaxy Painter. I will share the Facebook pages with you. Caressing Hands brings together students to support street children and the poor. We all volunteer to help out those who are less privileged than us. Through Galaxy Painter group, we are a group of artists who try to showcase how peace can be achieved through art. I am also very passionate about the cause of girls' education and campaign for the same whenever I can."

"That's very interesting Zahra! Tell me more." I invited her to open up more.

"It was in the year 2017 that the sport of snowboarding came to Kabul. I was excited. I worked hard and went on to become part of the team by 2019. I was one of the first female team members for this sport. We had a team of 8 boys and 3 girls. We went to Bamiyan to compete. It was the winter festival. We won the first position at the game. My parents were so proud!" She beamed.

I was even interviewed by TV channels!" she added excitedly on an afterthought.

"That was a defining moment for me you know. I grew in self belief. My parents all of a sudden felt that I was different. I had a message to share with my community that could enable other young girls to feel what me and my family were feeling right then."

Zahra took a long breath again, it sounded like a sigh of happiness.

"I wish to also specifically mention this organization that I had been a part of for over a year. It is called Free to Run. They have their activities in Iraq and Afghanistan. They empower women through sports in these areas. I had volunteered with the organization over that one year when I was a member. In terms of sports and athletic activities, I have also gone for mountaineering, trekking and camping in Badakshan and won fourth position in Half Marathon in Kabul in 2019. I feel most alive when I am doing sports activities.I wish to continue the same my whole life."

"That's wonderful Zahra! You make a great leader you know." I confessed with admiration.

"Thanks. I think so too because that is what I want. I want to lead change, help other girls change their mindsets and also I want to be good in studies. It is important. I wish to study abroad one day when I apply for college. These days I am reading good books during quarantine because I can't do my sports activities. I am also learning how to cook and help out my mother at home. I believe that a leader should know how to do everything in a balanced way and have a purpose to lead with. For me it is about creativity and feeling empowered through sports. I hope I will have more opportunities to take these ideas forward."

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