The Weekly

The woman who traded a headscarf for a slouch hat

From war-torn Afghanistan to the Australian Army, Kbora Ali has taken a path no Afghan woman has been on before her. Despite the many challenges, Kbora is realising her dream, writes Beverley Hadgraft.

By Beverley Hadgraft

When Kbora Ali got her ATAR score her father, Sultan was thrilled. For an Afghan refugee, who hadn't even learned English until she came to Australia aged nine, a score of 97 points was incredible. She had three dux awards, as well.

His sacrifices had all been worth it: a year in detention cleaning toilets on Christmas Island. More years tirelessly picking oranges, never even taking a lunchbreak, until his back literally broke under the strain. But as a result, his wife and seven children were not only safe, but successful.

Two sons had gone through TAFE, four daughters were at university, still living with him in the home he'd built for them in Adelaide. Now Kbora, the youngest and cleverest of all, would follow. She could even go to medical school, he told her proudly.

Kbora remained silent. She'd secretly been planning for the job of her dreams since she was 16. She knew no other Afghan girl had ever done such a thing and that her family would be shocked, worried and even angry when she told them...

Kbora, then just 18, was about to join the Australian army.

Seeing her now in her khakis and slouch hat, smartly greeting her officer, it's hard to believe that less than a year ago, she was a shy, headscarfed teenager, ensconced in a close-knit Afghan community.

She is physically tough – she punches out 40 press-ups without difficulty - and has discovered she is mentally tough, as well.

What made her think of signing up? "It started with my oldest sister, Razia," she explains. "She wanted to join the army, but our family was so strict back then, she couldn't even discuss it, so she studied psychology instead."

The idea ignited a spark in Kbora's imagination, however, and when a female soldier came to her school for a careers talk, that spark was fanned into a flame.

"I loved her uniform, the pride in her eyes… but the thing that really attracted me was her confidence," Kbora recalls. "I always wanted to step out but found it difficult. The army has changed that."

Indeed it has. But, while no one would claim getting into the army is a picnic, Kbora's journey has been particularly difficult. For a start, she couldn't tell anyone but Razia about her application and it was Razia who helped her fill out the forms and secretly drove her to interviews, tests and to a local sports field to train.

When her acceptance was confirmed and her tickets to travel to Blamey Barracks in Kapooka, near Wagga Wagga, NSW, arrived, she was thrilled, but knew the hardest interview of all was ahead.

Her father was furious. "He told me: 'This isn't how I raised you!'" she recalls. "He didn't speak to me for several days."

Kbora was determined. She did everything to remind her dad she was his model daughter, cooking meals and cleaning the house. However, she understood his concerns.

"He didn't want me to return to that danger zone"
"He didn't want me to return to that danger zone"

Boat arrival

The Alis are Hazaras, a much-persecuted minority in Afghanistan. Sultan had made the perilous decision to flee by boat in 2000, because it was his only hope of providing his family with a better life – maybe their only hope of a life at all. Kbora was just two at the time.

Meanwhile, his wife, Shireen Gul, remained back in Afghanistan, moving to Pakistan when their situation became even more unstable, fearfully waiting for news and caring for their seven little children alone. It was seven years before they were finally reunited in Australia. In that time, the children had barely even had an education.

Now here was Kbora, wanting to become a soldier and perhaps return to the country he had fled.

"I knew he was worried what people would think – in our culture, it's important for people to have a good opinion of you," says Kbora.

"He was also scared. He didn't want me to return to that danger zone, but people need help there. We live a safe and secure life; I want to help others achieve the same."

Finally, Sultan told Kbora he respected her decision, but warned: "You're a girl. It will be very hard."

He hugged her goodbye at the airport with tears in his eyes. "It was difficult for him to let me go."

It made what happened next even more remarkable.

Within one week of starting her army training, Kbora was in hospital, beyond homesick and in total shock at what she'd signed up for. Even her army superiors were concerned.

She'd thought training would be like the movies, that she'd have fun and make new friends. "But I hadn't processed it properly."

She'd never been away from the warm embrace of home and her big sisters or considered the trauma of communal showers or a uniform that exposed her hair and legs.

She was up at 5.30 am and barely stopped until she fell into bed at 10pm, so didn't even have time to pray.

So, in floods of tears, she rang her dad. "I'm coming home," she said.

But Sultan quietly and calmly urged her to stay. "It's one issue that you went. It will be 1000 issues if you quit," he said.

"He reminded me: 'My daughter think about me. When I first came to Australia, I was alone. I didn't speak English.' He'd picked oranges because it was the only job he could get. He told me: 'If I can do it, you can do it.'"

Kbora returned to training. She did get stronger, she smiles, although the challenges never got easier.

She is slight, for a start, at 153cm, only 1cm above the minimum for a soldier. She weighs just 50kg. Her small arms meant she had to hold her rifle differently to the men; the first time she tried to climb the wall in the obstacle challenge she gazed up at it in despair.

Defying stereotypes, Muslim army recruit Kbora Ali marches to a different tune.
Defying stereotypes, Muslim army recruit Kbora Ali marches to a different tune.

"And I struggle with marching," she sighs. "I hear it all the time: 'Ali get in step or get to the back!' My stride is so much shorter than everyone else's."

But it was the pack marches she dreaded the most.

Martial arts expert

Unusually for a Muslim girl, Kbora always loved health and fitness. She'd shocked her dad previously by taking up martial arts and becoming a brown belt. She'd been in a soccer team, and had her own little gym at home. The prospect of endless exercise had been another of the attractions of army life but "every time we had pack march, I became very emotional, because I knew I would struggle."

Her pack, containing food, water, sleeping gear and clothes for 10 days was almost larger than she was.

Eight days into one march, she discovered she'd packed it wrongly and, at 25 kilos it was two crucial kilograms heavier than it should have been. When her boots got wet, the raw, weeping blisters she'd accumulated became so painful she couldn't walk.

Again her family urged her to keep going. Kbora was the first Afghan woman to do this; imagine the doors she could open for other Afghan women, Razia told her. She knew her fellow recruits were also struggling. "We all went through moments when we'd talk about going home but we gave each other support," she says.

Kbora's family came to watch her March Out parade – held at Kapooka to acknowledge the completion of the Army Recruit Training Course.

Kbora with niece Erum, mother Shireen Gul and her father, Sultan.
Kbora with niece Erum, mother Shireen Gul and her father, Sultan.

"It was so exciting to show them the drills I'd been learning. Afterwards, they all just stared at me. 'You are the same, but not the same,' Razia said. I told her nothing had changed but she laughed: 'No you've changed a lot!'"

Once she'd got over her shock, Kbora's mum hit the phone. "She's always on the phone," Kbora smiles. "She kept handing it to me. 'Your uncle from London wants to talk to you. Your uncle from here…' I didn't even know half these people, but everyone was so excited."

The entire Afghan community was excited. Kbora even made the news in Afghanistan and was bombarded with messages of congratulation.

Some Afghan women wanted to know how they, too, could join the army but others simply wanted to thank her for giving them the courage to follow their own dreams. "It's amazing the way you can touch other's lives," she says.

Today Kbora, 21 is working in an administration role at Lavarack Barracks, Townsville. She may still go to university - she likes the idea of dentistry - and, of course she wants to move up the ranks of the army.

She is writing a book about her experiences and will continue to be, as Razia predicted, the girl who opens doors, but also, perhaps, minds, as well.

She shows me photographs of herself at home, only her face showing in her traditional garb, completely unrecognisable from the make-up free girl in camouflage gear now.

Do people treat her differently seeing her in military uniform and then in her headscarf?

Recently, at Townsville airport she went to the ladies to change, putting on her headscarf ready to meet her parents at the other end.

It was as if Superman had left his phone box dressed as one of his adversaries.

"Everyone had a different look on their face," she recalls. "I thought: 'There obviously aren't many Muslims in Townsville.'

"Everyone was looking at me. I felt really self-conscious. It was amazing how it impacted. I got stopped twice for security checking."

Presumably, people thought she was the stuff of terrorism, never dreaming she is part of the organisation that defends us against it.

"You hear so much bad stuff; people get a very stereotypical view of Afghan or Muslim society," Kbora says. "I hope my story will remind them to look for the good side, as well."

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