This term Oxford has welcomed the first Afghan woman to study at the University.
21-year-old Shaharzad Akbar is studying for a Master’s in Development Studies after receiving the prestigious Weidenfeld Scholarship.
Akbar’s route to Oxford was far from conventional. She studied Philosophy at Kabul University and then transferred to Smith College, Massachusetts in the United States. However, her education before university was disjointed due to the war. Akbar’s family moved often and she attended school in Pakistan for some time. As a result, she was mainly home-schooled.
Akbar said, “I remember reading about Oxford University when I was a child.” She names Benazir Bhutto as her role model, saying, “She went to Oxford, but I never thought I would end up here. It is truly a dream come true.”
She is one of 29 students who have received the Weidenfeld Scholarship. The programme is mainly open to students from transition and emerging economies in Eastern Europe, the Middle East, North Africa and Central Asia.
A spokesperson for the University said of the programme; “The scholars are encouraged to reflect on the nature of a ‘good society’ and explore how they can work towards this goal in their own field.” Scholars are expected “to return to their country of origin in due course and play a significant leadership role in public life in their own countries or internationally.”
Speaking on education in Afghanistan, Akbar described how it is improving, even since she first attended university in Kabul in 2005. She says things were different then, “very political” and students had “very few options”.
There are now more private institutions appearing in Afghanistan, though many of them also have limited options for study usually restricted to economics and accounting.
While she praised the increasing opportunities to study abroad for Afghan students in countries like India and the arrival of international teachers in Afghanistan, she pointed out there are still many problems with schooling in Afghanistan, chiefly due to issues with security.
Many schools, especially girls’ schools, are burned down or destroyed and there have been incidents of teachers and students being attacked. Akbar’s mother is a primary school teacher and notes that many students are working in insecure areas and are often not able to concentrate in school. Even in safer regions, problems can arise when teachers are under-qualified or there is a lack of resources.
Jonny Medland, OUSU VP for Access and Academic Affairs said, “Shaharzad Akbar has an amazing story, and it’s great that someone from her background is now a student at Oxford. An inability to find funding is one of the major obstacles to graduate study at the university, and a priority for OUSU this year is working with the university and government to improve the scholarships which are available to graduates. Scholarships targeted at talented students from developing countries are particularly important, and the award of this scholarship is a very good example of why such funding is crucial.”
Akbar described her experience at Oxford so far as “great” and said she particularly enjoys having “access to so many resources.” She also appreciates the array of different events on offer at Oxford.
She is interested in working in community-based development, possibly in areas such as reproductive health, education and women’s rights.
Akbar began her studies in October. She has said of coming to Oxford, “My family are very proud, I am the first to go to university, but all of this would not have been possible without the support of so many people.”