Opinion

Afghan Women Reflect on the Anniversary of the U.S. Withdrawal

Aug. 15, 2021, was a dark day for Afghanistan — and for Afghan women in particular. The Taliban took control of the country and, in what seemed like an instant, stripped women of their rights. Within days, professionals who had spent their lives studying, working and pursuing careers were afraid to walk the streets, safe only at home.

Since the new regime took power, it has issued dozens of bans and decrees limiting the liberty of women. It has removed women from the upper levels of government administration and banned girls from secondary education. In some areas, women can no longer appear on television dramas or get a driver’s license or travel long distances without male family members accompanying them. Cabdrivers are prohibited from picking up women who aren’t wearing hijabs; and public parks are segregated by gender.

The Ministry of Women’s Affairs was closed in September 2021 and replaced by the Ministries of Prayer and Guidance and the Promotion of Virtues and Prevention of Vice — morality police under the control of a Taliban minister. The entire cabinet is made up of men. In the government of this so-called Islamic Emirate, no women are wanted or permitted. In May, the Taliban announced that women must wear head-to-toe clothing — preferably a burqa — any time they are in public.

There have been nationwide protests, many led by women, but they are life-threatening acts. Punishments for participating in them are medieval. The Taliban, for instance, has been known to beat demonstrators and reporters with whips and cables.

For as long as I can remember, Afghan women have not had time to mourn. One disaster has succeeded another. We have lost loved ones, our homeland, our freedoms, our hopes. Now an entire nation and its youth are being denied access to education, information and a future.

But even still, the women of Afghanistan have not given in. They remain a significant — if disenfranchised — political and social force. Some are organizing protests. Some are responsible for international movements on social media. Others have started businesses, schools and information networks. In quiet, and sometimes not so quiet, ways, they are resisting. Talking to them gives me the strength to believe in the future again. We have found hope in solidarity.

In the testimonies that follow, five Afghan women reflect on the past year.

Credit…Connor Willumsen

Razia Barakzai

Ms. Barakzai helped to organize some of the first protests in Afghanistan after the fall of Kabul.

Last August, I was working at the president’s office. My job involved working on major projects, including the creation of national parks and the building of online feedback portals for complaints and petitions. August 15 was my last day. We were asked to leave the presidential palace in Kabul because the city was devolving into chaos. I saw people running for their lives. The Taliban entered the palace that same day, and there was a sense of déjà vu in the air for those who had lived through the Taliban’s first rise to power.

Soon after I organized a demonstration with several other women. The hashtag we used — #AfghanWomenExist — started to spread on social media, and many women came out to join us. Some were afraid, as our protests were often met with violence from the Taliban guards. Demonstrators were tortured and threatened with tear gas, rifle butts, batons and whips.

As a result of the danger, I decided to leave Afghanistan. I am now working to advance our movement through press conferences, articles, videos and online rallies. We even proclaimed Oct. 10, 2021, to be World Women Solidarity Day With Afghan Women, and we saw global participation, both in person and on social media.

Our movement is growing. Hundreds of activists from all over the world have come together in support of us, and we have no intention of slowing down. When Afghan women raise their voices, whether they are in Afghanistan or elsewhere, it is a sign of our unity and solidarity.

Credit…Connor Willumsen

Waslat Hasrat-Nazimi

Ms. Hasrat-Nazimi is a journalist covering Afghanistan for Deutsche Welle, a state-run international broadcasting service in Germany.

I was born in Kabul in 1988. My mother worked as a news anchor for Afghan state television, and my father studied medicine and took care of me. A man looking after his children while his wife went to work was a rarity then, as it is now. Despite growing up in an ultra-patriarchal society like Afghanistan’s (or perhaps because of it), my mother had a self-confidence that is usually reserved for Afghan men. As a kid, I would watch my mother on the evening news every night from our apartment. I remember even then that seeing her on television speaking about important things was strengthening and encouraging.

Compared to its neighboring states, Afghanistan enjoyed a relatively free press until the Taliban takeover last August. Although the country was rife with corruption and violence, the media also offered hope and made it possible for people to choose the information they absorbed. This, in turn, allowed them to form their own opinions about issues. Media, I concluded, was among the strongest pillars of the fragile Afghan democracy. This is one reason I decided to become a journalist.

In a recent survey of more than 500 women journalists in Afghanistan, 60 percent reported having lost their jobs since the Taliban came to power, and 87 percent reported experiencing gender discrimination during that time.

I don’t know what the future will bring, but things cannot continue this way. My hope for every girl in Afghanistan is that they can find a source of inspiration like my mother — one who will help pave the way for them to grow into strong women.

Credit…Connor Willumsen

Fereshteh Forough

Ms. Forough is the founder and director of Code to Inspire, a coding school for women in Herat, Afghanistan.

Hailing from Herat, a city in western Afghanistan, my parents fled to Iran as refugees after the Soviet invasion. I moved back to Afghanistan in 2002, a year after the fall of the Taliban and the U.S. invasion, to attend Herat University.

In 2015 I founded Code to Inspire, a coding school for women and girls that uses technology, education and outreach to provide women in Afghanistan with leverage in their fight for equality. The results have been astonishing. Many of our graduates have found work in their communities and some are even earning more than men working in similar jobs. The ability to make money gives women greater influence at home and in a society like Afghanistan’s. As soon as women bring money into their households, their voices begin to be heard.

The school is still operating, though most of the classes have moved online. Going forward, my top priority is to ensure that my students can get jobs that bring them money and stability. But giving them face time with each other is important too. When they show up at school every day and see other women like them, they know they are not alone.

There’s a Rumi quote I think of often that feels relevant to what is happening in Afghanistan right now: “Where there is ruin, there is hope for a treasure.”

When I look back at Afghanistan’s history — decades of war, conflict, and oppression — and compare it to today, as these events repeat themselves, all I see is ruin. Ruined lives and women locked away. But when you dig in ruins, there is always the possibility of finding something valuable.

To me, the girls of Afghanistan are our treasure. If I can give them the tools they need to be the best they can be, Afghanistan still has a chance to grow. Both in technology and in peace-building, they are leaders. I still believe we will overcome our current challenges, and I’m trying my best to continue the work we’re doing.

Credit…Connor Willumsen

Aryana Sayeed

Ms. Sayeed isa singer, television personality and women’s rights activist.

For over 40 years the people of my country have dealt with an ongoing war, which grew out of a clash between those who long for progress and those extremely conservative-minded portions of the population that are stuck in the Dark Ages. While the new Taliban regime made claims about being more open-minded about the rights of women and the basic human rights of the Afghan people, its actions have proven otherwise.

At the time of writing, the Taliban has prevented girls from attending school after grade six. They have forced almost all women who worked for the previous government — and those who worked for private companies — to stay home. They are sucking the life out of the country. They have even begun to ban music.

I am heartbroken to think of the young girls in Afghanistan today who dream of being singers or dancers, or the girls who want to pursue their studies and become doctors, engineers or pilots.

A new generation is slowly coming to terms with the reality that they may not be able to pursue the life they expected. Girls and women who had started to feel like normal human beings are being forced to become prisoners in their homes again. Men and women, young and old, are all living in a state of fear and trauma, with poverty and unemployment soaring. Many of our people, including me, now believe only a miracle can save us.

Credit…Connor Willumsen

Fatima Gailani

Ms. Gailani is a political leader and women’s rights activist who previously served as president of the Afghan Red Crescent Society.

I was one of four women who participated in the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan 2020 peace negotiations in Doha, Qatar. During those talks, I saw how hope for peace had faded and the power of the Taliban over the country. But even now I am not convinced that negotiations are hopeless.

People like to dismiss politics, but over the past 40 years I have seen that — without a political solution — we always lose. Watching the country collapse and fall under Taliban control was very difficult. It was a pure act of force.

In my lifetime, I have witnessed the communists take power. I have witnessed the mujahedeen take power. I have now witnessed the Taliban take power. All of these attempts at government have ultimately failed because they haven’t had the support of the people.

In order to form a true Afghan government, the Afghan people have to be involved. I envision a government where everyone has a real say, where the government is shaped by the people themselves. If the Taliban will not listen to the Afghan people, if they do not see reality, they will lose. The only way forward is through unity. Our country needs to be repaired. We need to come together.

Nahid Shahalimi is an Afghan activist, filmmaker and author and the editor of the forthcoming collection “We Are Still Here: Afghan Women on Courage, Freedom, and the Fight to Be Heard.”

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