Nang Attal: Teaching Afghan Girls to Write… in His Kitchen

Nangyalai Attal is a UN Youth Courage Award Recipient, and an advocate for global education. His inspiring StoryCorps recording session for “Muslim American Journeys” can be heard via the audio player at the bottom of the page.


I was born in the Khawat Valley, 60 miles south of Kabul,  Afghanistan. I went from being a shepherd to a Fulbright Scholar.

Despite growing up in the midst of civil war, I graduated from Kabul Education University with a degree in English, and have completed a Master’s Degree at Golden Gate University in San Francisco while working as a Visiting Researcher at UC Berkeley.

My commitment to promoting girls’ education in Afghanistan was recognized by the United Nations when I received a Youth Courage Award at the #UpForSchool launch in New York.

In rural Afghanistan, where I grew up, only boys went to school. When I was about 13 years old I became aware that there was no school for girls and I began to ask why. My mother used to teach the girls in our neighborhood religious stories orally, so they would learn. She asked me to teach them to write and we began teaching the girls together in our kitchen. It all started there.

I have two sisters and five brothers. My older sister graduated from high school this year and would like to become a doctor. My younger sister is now in 7th grade and continues to do well in school. I will support them to make sure that they receive the education they desire. With my mother’s encouragement, we created the first “classroom” for local girls in our family’s kitchen using bits of charred wood to write lessons on the walls.

My high school was more than five miles away and I had to walk fast so I wouldn’t be late. I would normally cry because I was the smallest kid. I remember one of my teachers telling me that they would make me wings so I could fly to school. He never made me the wings, but I ended up flying further away than he likely ever expected.

I still dream about flying. I received an education – the best wings you could ever hope for if you want to achieve your dreams.

Education has given me a lot but most importantly it has given me a peaceful heart and a happy family. I can say that by Afghan standards, we are a middle-class family. Our parents were illiterate but all my sisters and brothers are educated. Growing up in the countryside, women are enslaved by terrible tribal codes, some of them brutal. I have seen cases that make you want to stand up and give women freedom through education.

Equal education matters everywhere. We are a wealthy country and if we do not have educated women who can equally benefit from this wealth then we have lost an opportunity to create a just and equal society in Afghanistan. Educated women can help us ensure a shared prosperous future.

Winning the Youth Courage award through The Office of the UN Special Envoy For Global Education changed my life. The news went viral on social media in Afghanistan. I was asked by a famous TV channel to put a message together for the people of Afghanistan, where I asked family and brothers support to stand up for their sisters’ education. It made the issue more visible.

On social media there are some people who attack me as a promoter of Western education. In fact, there have been a few occasions when I kept a low profile for security reasons. Just recently an activist for girls’ education in the eastern province of Nangrhara was killed in a bomb attack. My take on it is that there will always be radicals but we can’t let this stop us. I want to bring about international support for girls’ education. It is not an Afghan issue, it’s a global issue. I know that by becoming a Global Youth Ambassador we can campaign as a network and raise more support.

Eventually, I will be going back to Afghanistan. I would love to work for an organization such as the United Nations. In the meantime, my dream is to potentially establish a small volunteer organization that can help educate disabled girls.

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