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‘A Room of Her Own’: How I created a space for my empowerment in Afghanistan

Sola Mahfouz

On International Women’s Day, Sola Mahfouz calls for international solidarity between all women—Afghan, Iranian, Western—to demand women’s rights and equal spaces across societies.

I grew up in Afghanistan, where I had a physical room of my own, but I had to carve out an intellectual room of my own. Even with a room in my head, how could I make a room for myself in the world? 

In her 1929 essay, Virginia Woolf argued that a woman needs money and a room of her own to write fiction. She was defying the patriarchal norms that had denied women the same rights and opportunities as men, especially in the realm of literature.  

The room that Woolf imagined could be both a physical or a symbolic space—it is a space where a woman can be herself, without the shackles of society or the demands of others, a space where she could explore her thoughts, emotions, and imagination. 

Nearly a century later, what does that room look like for women around the world? How much progress have we made since Woolf’s era? The call for a room of one's own extends to every field: art, science, politics, and even entrepreneurship. 

This International Women’s Day, I urge all women to reflect on two questions: do they have a room of their own in whatever their desired field and area? If not, how can they create one for themselves? If they do, how can they help create a ‘room of her own’ for another woman?  

My room 

I grew up in Afghanistan, where I had a physical room of my own, but I had to carve out an intellectual room of my own. Even with a room in my head, how could I make a room for myself in the world? I am still working every day on creating a space for myself in the world as an Afghan and as a woman. 

During the day, I have been reading novels like War and Peace and thinking of themes that I will explore in my creative work. Today, I drifted into a nap. I dreamed of Kandahar, the city of my birth. I was there as the new me, educated abroad, and I visited an old house that was unfamiliar to me. There were many girls inside, laughing and talking. I joined them for tea and conversation.  

Then, I asked who among them was going to school—still aware of the Taliban’s ban on education. None of the girls raised their hands; their smiles vanished, and their eyes brimmed with tears. I started crying, too, remembering how much I wanted to learn when I was young. I hugged the girls, feeling the pain in my heart as if I were one of them. I told them to be brave and hopeful, but I woke up to my own sadness. 

The world they live in, where half of the population is silenced, oppressed, and excluded. A world where women are denied their basic rights, dignity, and opportunities. A world where women are invisible and voiceless. This is not a nightmare—this is the reality for millions of women in Afghanistan. 

As the final American soldiers departed from Afghanistan in 2021, a grim sign of women’s disappearance from public life emerged on walls and screens: the Taliban defiled or blackened murals and ads that had once honored women’s accomplishments. On television, only men remained; women presenters were gone in a flash.  

The black paint foreshadowed the horrors to come: the Taliban quickly undid the progress that Afghan women had achieved in the last 20 years and enacted over 50 decrees that deprived Afghan women of their rights and liberties, forbidding them from going to schools and colleges, working outside their homes, and traveling without a male escort. They demolished every room that women had created. 

For three years, the Taliban have barred Afghan girls above grade six from attending school. March marks the start of a new academic year, but for millions of girls, it is a cruel reminder of what they have been deprived of: the opportunity to learn, grow, and dream. They have no room of their own, neither physical nor mental. They are silenced and erased. 


But I have witnessed the courage and defiance of these women, who have risked their lives to pursue an education, assert their rights, and challenge the Taliban. I recall how, in the nineties, when the Taliban first seized power, my cousin and sister were among the few girls who dared to go to a secret school, run by a group of fearless women from a different ethnic group than ours. My mother had pleaded with them to take her daughter and niece, knowing well the power of education. 

My cousin still treasures those memories of learning and resistance. She often tells me how she once fooled a Taliban soldier who stopped her on the street and asked her where she was going. She lied and said she was going to visit a relative while hiding her books under her burqa. This story highlights how women create their own rooms of resilience, in their hearts and minds, where they see themselves as powerful. 

I was talking to my cousin in Canada when the news broke. Afghanistan had fallen to the Taliban. I felt rage and despair. How could they let this happen? How could the world watch and do nothing? My cousin tried to calm me. He said that evil does not prevail because of those who do evil but because of those who do nothing. His words stuck with me. I started to question myself. What good had I done? What good could I do? 

Since then, I have been trying to expand beyond my initial interests. I want to be a better storyteller so I can share the story of my country and make people empathize with its struggles. I am exploring how our current technological advances can help Afghan women reclaim a room of their own. I am working on having various rooms in different areas of my life that I never thought of having before, so that I can help Afghan women have a room of their own.  

Whether it is Afghan women’s rights to basic education, Iranian women’s right to freedom without morality police, or Western women’s right to have equal space in society, a world without their equal participation is a bleak society.  

We need to ask ourselves: how are we complicit in this darkness? How are we challenging it? How are we creating spaces for ourselves and empowering others to do the same?  

This International Women’s Day, let us stand in solidarity with our sisters in Afghanistan and everywhere and demand a room of our own. 

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not express the official position of the Wilson Center. 

About the Author

Sola Mahfouz

Sola Mahfouz

Global Fellow;
Co-Author, Defiant Dreams
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