Four Afghan women seeking asylum in the US talk about their lives now and what they have given up on.
“In Afghanistan, women are all heroes. They are dying every day, but they are never giving up.”
– Laila, who moved to the US in 2016
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Since the United States and its allies toppled the Taliban in 2001, Afghan women’s rights have brought to life the global narrative surrounding the war. Even in the midst of the devastation, there were recognizable signs of progress: Afghan girls were going to school and Afghan women were getting college degrees, taking up jobs and participating more in public life. The burqa came off, the billboards of the beauty salon went up. Women journalists fearlessly questioned Taliban leaders on TV, other women became mayors and ambassadors. Slowly, slowly, steadily, women – though mostly in urban areas – were ousted from under the conservative, democratic thumb of the Taliban.
It took just a few days for that progress to crash. Since the Taliban took back control of Afghanistan in August, each new day has brought new restrictions on women – now they can’t play game and college classes will be separated by gender – Expressing concern that the country is moving towards an increasingly repressive past.
Today, it is women who have broken from the traditional path that are most at risk. Many have gone into hiding. Hundreds have taken to the streets, protesting the regime, only to be met by the brute force of rifle butts and sticks. Others fled.
But running was nothing new. Afghan women and their families have long sought refuge in other parts of the world. Those who have fled find themselves divided between an unfamiliar future in an unfamiliar place and a past in a beloved country where careers, families and communities are left behind, out of reach.
The Times spoke to four women seeking asylum in the US. The four fled – some until recently, some not – because they were in danger back home. The heartbreak is heavy, but they are not surprised: they knew the place they had carved out for themselves in society would soon be eroded. He had already warned about this.
The women’s surnames and other identity details are being hidden as they still fear the safety of their relatives in Afghanistan. The conversation has been edited for clarity and length.
arrived in the US in February
As a TV journalist, I went to Doha, Qatar, last October to cover peace talks with the Taliban. While I was there, I interviewed Taliban spokesman Suhail Shaheen. I talked to him without covering my hair and he was very uncomfortable – it was unintentional but that encounter turned out to be big news.
After the peace talks, the Taliban began targeting and killing journalists. Some of my comrades were killed, and I was told that I was also on the Taliban hit list. The security forces told me to stay at home and stay down. Those few days hidden in Kabul were the hardest days of my life. I have never felt such fear. When it was a bit safe, I went to the French embassy to get a visa and immediately left Kabul.
The day Kabul fell at the hands of the Taliban, I shaved all my hair. I was watching at my friend’s house and I was just heartbroken and I needed to Doing Some. I saw the Taliban go into the Tolo TV studio, and I realized that the same people who killed so many of my comrades were sitting in the same studio where I worked with my comrades every day. Now the Taliban have taken over the streets of Kabul – the same streets where we, my generation, worked, protested and made music and art.
A woman’s life in Afghanistan has never been easier – not even during the last 20 years. The difference now is that their life will become more difficult. Everyone sympathizes with the women of Afghanistan, but now is the time to change your perception. The women of Afghanistan don’t need your sympathy, they need the world to take responsibility for this mess.
arrived in the US in December
Taliban killed two of my brothers because we are Shia Hazaras. When the Taliban captured Mazar-e-Sharif in 1998, I was only 3 years old, and then they killed my brother, who was only 13. They shot him in the chest and leg and left him on the road. We were not even allowed to take his dead body. Then my other brother was murdered in Takhar province in 2001. My father could not stand it, it was too much for him, and he died of a heart attack.
Something like that destroys your whole vision of humanity. It destroys your entire childhood.
Last November, I started getting anonymous phone calls incessantly. At first I thought it was not serious. But then, a few days later, I saw a car outside the building where I lived, which was strange because there was a garage in the basement of the building and parking was not allowed in front of the building. When I started walking, the car started following me. Later that day, when my work was over and I left my office, I looked at the car again. Then the next day the same thing happened again. A few days later, at 3:20 am someone knocked on the door of my apartment. Then I got scared. I told my boss and my mother. And my mom told me, “I don’t want to lose another baby, you have to go.”
So I came to the US on a tourist visa in December 2020, I had no choice. It was not something I had planned for and it was not something I really wanted to do. I brought a backpack along with some clothes and my laptop, that’s it.
Back in Afghanistan, my family is currently in hiding. They left our house a day before the fall of the city of Mazar-i-Sharif. The last time I spoke to my mother was about 2 a.m. that day for five minutes, and she told me they were alive, safe and hiding somewhere and she told me not to worry . But since then, the connection is down, the internet is off, they have nothing. I’m just waiting and waiting.
I wake up every day with a heavy chest. I was once a role model for my generation, they saw me as someone who was helping to make a difference for them. And now look where I am. I have no hope of myself. I am lost – lost between borders.
moved to America in 2016
My father was a general and my mother was a housewife. When I was born, there was war in Afghanistan, so my father took us to Pakistan. I was 1 or 2 years old. I returned to Kabul when I was a teenager.
Understand the Taliban’s takeover in Afghanistan
Who are the Taliban? The Taliban emerged in 1994 amid the turmoil that followed the withdrawal of Soviet forces from Afghanistan in 1989. They used brutal public punishments, including whipping, amputations, and mass executions, to enforce their rules. Here’s more about their origin story and their records as rulers.
At Kabul University, I studied Islamic law and became a defense lawyer and legal advisor. I traveled to the provinces of Afghanistan, and I worked for the rights of women and children.
As you know, Afghan women suffer a lot from their families and there were a lot of challenging cases for me. I worked with a woman who was sexually abused by her father-in-law while her husband was in Pakistan, and she was alone. I helped him get divorced and his family followed me, injured me and stabbed me twice in my thigh with a knife.
There was a lot of danger for me in Afghanistan after that case. My husband worked with the US military – he had a construction company – and we came here because he was also in danger.
We usually go to Afghanistan once a year. But this year, because of the Taliban, I don’t think we will go any further. We talk to our family and they tell me, “Okay, we’re fine.” But really, because of me and my sisters – both of my sisters trained as journalists – my whole family is at risk.
It was the same before the Taliban, but now it is even more dangerous.
People of Afghanistan – We were born in war and we grew up in war and we are still in war. We don’t know about our future, and what happens next. Maybe it’s worse.
All these things are happening because many Afghan people are not educated. Terrorists, Mujahideen, Taliban, ISIS, their mentality does not match with that of educated people. But educated Afghans, you know, they’re so open-minded, so nice, they want everything for every single human being. With education, at least people know their rights.
I’m not giving up. I am not silent. I am organizing a protest in Washington with my friends. And we have Afghans all over the world, who are protesting in different countries. We are creating new hashtags. Oh! That is the matter.
You need to be an Afghan to understand the Afghan situation, especially that of women. Women are all heroes in Afghanistan. They are dying every day, but they are never giving up. And I am one of them.
moved to America in 2016
When the Taliban took power in 1996, I was 19 in my final year of college. In fact, he took charge the day I appeared for my final exam.
Right after college, I started working for an international non-profit organization that trained midwives, and I was really the breadwinner for my family. My father was the principal at a girls’ school – but the Taliban closed his school – and my husband was a shopkeeper. So I was supporting my family. One day as I was on my way to work, when I was pregnant with my eldest child, the Taliban beat me in the street – even though I was wearing a burqa. He asked me why I was alone without a man.
Seven years ago, when I was working with another NGO building shelters for widows in the countryside, the Taliban killed four of my coworkers because they thought my team was working for foreign forces. Is. And then I started receiving threats – the Taliban kept calling us or they would follow us when we went to the countryside for work. The NGO I worked for asked me to vacate immediately. I went home, picked up my family and left without packing anything. My eldest child…