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She's the first female tour guide in Afghanistan, but she's determined not to be the last

   March 8, 2021 10:19 PM
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by Lilit Marcus, CNN

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Afghanistan
 
(CNN) — For many people who work as tour guides, showing people around a new city involves a little bit of getting off the beaten track. But when there is no track at all, you just have to blaze one yourself. That has been the story of Fatima, the only woman working as a tour guide in Afghanistan. The 22-year-old (who asked that CNN not use her surname for safety reasons) grew up leading sheep through the countryside, and now she leads tourists through the streets of Herat, the third-largest city in Afghanistan. The making of a trailblazer The youngest of eight children, Fatima is the only one of her siblings to be unmarried and to have gotten an education. She grew up in rural Gohr Province, where she says there was no schooling available to girls, but she convinced her family to let her take lessons if she brought in enough of an income from sheep herding. When Fatima was nine, her family settled in Herat. Though she was able to get some informal education, she mostly stayed at home helping her mother. Getting an education wasn't as simple as just enrolling in the local comprehensive. When Fatima couldn't afford notebooks, she says she wrote with a stick in the sand. She practiced her English by listening to BBC radio, which she could pick up when high enough in the hills. Unlike some kids, Fatima didn't grow up dreaming of working in tourism -- not only was it not traditional for women to work, she says she didn't even know that giving tours was a job. "I thought a lot during these years, how sitting at home would not solve any problem," she says. "My brothers and sisters were forced to get married. It was so sad for me. I decided that I would not continue in their tradition. That was how I decided to work." First step: work on her English. Fatima signed up for Facebook and began joining groups for people interested in history. Tired of people who only knew Afghanistan as a place of war and conflict, she says she started writing regular posts about places in her country that foreigners might not know about. Herat is in northwestern Afghanistan, not far from the borders with Iran and Turkmenistan and has been inhabited since the fifth century BCE, making it an interesting place for a history buff to grow up. After she began writing her posts, everything changed. Fatima says started getting comments and responses from her new online friends. In 2020, one of them -- a man known as "Big Tom" -- reached out to her saying he was going to be traveling in Afghanistan and would she be interested in showing him around in Herat?

She said yes. They went to the Herat Citadel, to the National Museum and to a traditional tea house. Tom recommended her to someone else, and Fatima continued to get work by word of mouth. Eventually she came to the attention of Untamed Borders, a boutique travel agency that specializes in trips to more inaccessible areas. After meeting Fatima and traveling through the city with her, Tom recommended that the company hire her. And they did hire her in late 2020, which is how the young self-taught woman became her country's first female professional tour guide. "Having a female guide gives our guests a whole new perspective," says James Willcox, Untamed Borders' founder. "As well as being well informed as a guide, Fatima gives our guests a personal insight into her life as an Afghan woman. We try to give our guests a framework of information to give context to the experiences they have in Afghanistan, and Fatima adds to that in a big way."

Fatima's new career caused some friction in her traditional family at a time when her siblings were already challenging their father's more conservative views. She asserted her independence, telling her father: "Right now, my brothers and sisters [say] that if we are not satisfied in life it is because of you. If I have a bad life now, it's because of me." Though he has come around to Fatima's work, she says her mother has always given her blessing. "My mother is happy. She is supporting me. Right now, she is my everything."

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