With a secret home ‘lab’, woman beats Taliban ban, bags IIT degree
Hidden from prying eyes, Behishta Khairudddin ran lab experiments on borrowed beakers and her sister’s microwave oven in her home and studied chemical engineering on a computer with an unstable wi-fi connection for two years even as the Taliban retook the reins of power in Afghanistan and banned women from high school and universities.
The indomitable 26-year-old had enrolled in IIT-Madras for a master’s in chemical engineering during the tumultuous Taliban takeover of 2021. She was stuck in her province in northern Afghanistan. Isolated and confined to her home, she wrote and cleared all her semesters remotely, with IIT-Madras extending a long helping hand to the gifted Afghani woman whose name means ‘paradise’ in Persian.
Behishta is among hundreds of students who cleared their post graduation programme from one of India’s top institutes this year. As she revels in an achievement few women can even imagine in her country today, Behista lashed out at the regressive ideas of the fundamentalist regime.
“I don’t feel any regret. If you stop me, I will find another way. I feel sorry for you (Taliban) because you have the power, you have everything, but you are not using that. It’s you who should be sorry, not me,” she said in a phone interview with TOI.
Behishta almost missed admission in IIT after clearing the interview because of the diplomatic fallout when the Taliban took control of her country. “After that, I did not receive any response from ICCR (Indian Council for Cultural Relations, which provided scholarships to students from Afghanistan). My account on the portal was deactivated. I reached out to the global engagement of IIT-Madras. Professor Raghu (Raghunathan Rengasamy) was there, and I emailed that I have cleared the interview and had these issues. They gave me a scholarship and I started my studies a month later,” she said.
She worked hard, learning everything at home thousands of kilometres away from her alma mater. “I struggled for the first two semesters. Everything was new for me.” She stayed glued to the computer studying all her waking hours — resting just four-five hours at night. She said, “I learned a lot of things compared to my knowledge” acquired in Afghanistan where she did her BTech from Jawzjan University.
Education has always been a priority in Behishta’s household. “I was born in an educated and supportive family. My father is a social science graduate and my mother a doctor. My older sister is an IIT PhD student, who too is stuck in Afghanistan. My second sister studied law, and my brother studied social science. I’m the fifth child.”
Behishta speaks fluent English, a language she has taught herself online. She had all along studied in Dari or Pashto. “...I want to go to academics and not any industrial job. I can feel the need for an education system in Afghanistan. Now that I have seen the high standards of IIT-Madras, I want to bring this standard to my country,” Behishta said.