Listening to the news of what is happening in Afghanistan the past couple of weeks has been nothing short of heartbreaking. Heartbreaking for the country. Heartbreaking for women. Heartbreaking for children. I wanted to see Afghanistan move forward, flourish and succeed like many others who have been to the country and worked with some amazing people who call it home. In 2019, I travelled to Kabul as part of a ‘Thunderbird for Good’ project under the auspices of USAID as part of an initiative under ‘Promote’ called Musharikat. The ‘Promote’ project was a partnership between the Afghanistan government and USAID to secure gains made by Afghan women over the past decade while providing a new generation of Afghan women with the leadership skills to make vital contributions to Afghanistan’s development in governance, civil society, and the economy. It was a bold effort with the aim of empowering 75,000 women. The Musharikat project was designed to build a cadre of more than 5,000 activists and 300 civil society organizations from all 34 provinces to advocate more effectively for, and to advance, women’s equality and empowerment in Afghanistan.
The women of Afghanistan are incredible, I saw this first hand. They are warm, courageous women who deeply shared their plight in Afghanistan. It was a pleasure to speak with them, work with them and get to know them. I vividly remember as they told me of the sacrifices they made to work in areas such as human rights and humanitarian causes. Some had family members murdered right before their eyes because of their work and others feared for their own lives and the lives of their loved ones. Afghan women are courageous and resilient and have been so committed to changing their society for the better. When I think of them now, following the events this past month, I become tearful. I remember their infectious enthusiasm and commitment to improving their lives and the lives of their children. Their desire to have their voices heard, both for themselves and for other women. They were so alive and had so much energy in whatever area they were working in, no matter what the cost. We can never completely know the sacrifices or the pain and suffering the Afghan women had to endure because none of us ever have lived under the difficult conditions they had to live through on a daily basis.
Today, women and children are in such a perilous situation. Any woman with a connection with the United States, or other western allies, is destroying any hint of an association and shredding any documents written in English. Many are even burying cell phones. Even contacting American or International organizations for help is a risk most Afghan women are not prepared to take. The situation that Afghan women find themselves in, having worked so hard to achieve progress, is utterly dismaying. The scenes we have all witnessed from Kabul International Airport over recent weeks show the sheer desperation of people to avoid having to live under oppressive and brutal Taliban rule yet again.
Under Taliban rule, and Sharia Law, women have no rights to education, work, or freedom of movement. Despite Taliban leadership trying to project a new, more tolerant and progressive image to the world, these are just empty words. They have no intention of changing, and any limited rights they will allow women will be a significant reversal of course for all Afghan women and children from the progress they had fought long and hard for. Those women brave enough to have been politically active or who worked as a journalist, human rights activist, military personnel, or defenders of democracy in any way are likely have targets on their backs, very fearful that the Taliban will go after them. When previously in power over two decades ago, the Taliban would frequently patrol neighbourhoods and beat women indiscriminately. It was enforced law that women had to be completely covered, required to wear burqas. They were very limited as to where they could go and usually needed to be escorted by men. Women could not work and girls were prevented from going to school. It is a very real fear that this is now what women are facing in Afghanistan, that this is what they will be going back to.
On August 10th 2021, Ayda Pourasad reported a story for NPR about a doctor who, while working at her clinic in a northern Afghan city, got a very frightening telephone call. It was from a member of the Taliban who had been threatening her for months because she had given a 13-year-old bride a birth control shot. The caller said that they were entering her city soon and were coming to get her.
The medical doctor’s troubles began 8 months earlier when the 13-year-old first came to the clinic. The doctor learned that this girl was married to an older man, as his second wife, and he wanted her to become pregnant. This young girl was begging for help and did not want to become pregnant. The doctor, understanding the medical risks, gave her a contraceptive injection that would last three months. Soon after the doctor was on the receiving end of furious calls from the husband every day. Later, the doctor found out that this man was a leader of a Taliban group active outside her city. The stronger the Taliban grew, the stronger his fury grew. He later told the doctoe that since she belonged to the ethnic Hazara group, which is basically Shii’te and the Taliban Sunni, she was an infidel and therefore against Islam. The implication was that “we know what to do with you”.
On August 8th 2021, the doctor went straight to the airport with only the clothes on her back. She managed to get a flight out, shocked to see that the plane was almost entirely filled with women. She is now in a neighboring country staying with a friend and having only $400 to her name. She is mourning the loss of everything she had to leave behind, including her family and her career which took a decade to build. The angry husband is still calling her relatives demanding to know where the doctor is. The doctor will never be able to return to her home and to what she loves most, helping other women, especially those in trouble.
Despite Taliban leaders promising not to enforce the harsh restrictions seen two decades ago and saying that they would still allow women to be involved in government and to be able to work in sectors such as education and health care, the women of Afghanistan know that these are likely nothing more than token words. I struggle for words when I think of the women of Afghanistan, I can never describe the feelings they must have as they watch their country being destroyed, knowing the terrible fate they are probably facing as so many of us watch helplessly. The United States, and our allies, must back up their words of support for the women of Afghanistan with actions. This is not a partisan issue. We have all seen the horrible scenes across all media in recent weeks and we must not be found wanting now. We must evacuate those who are at high risk and support all who we can. There needs to be a political will to do so. The world is watching.