Afghanistan One Year Later — and the story of one Afghan woman
One year ago today — on August 15, 2021 — Afghanistan fell to the Taliban. Again.
We all know the story of how Afghanistan, after two decades of aid and military support, unfathomable amounts of money, numerous elections, and many feeble attempts at peace, returned in 2021 to where it had been in 2001 — under the suffocating rule of a regime known as the Taliban.
I will, however, tell the story from the perspective of women, the ones who have been — and continue to be — most affected by this story. Here, we will begin with a so-called peace deal that betrayed women, bargaining their rights away. A deal made between men, all with blood on their hands. It is a story that, for Afghan women, came full circle.
Last year, as Afghanistan was falling, I reached out to my friend Aziza, women’s rights leader and partner from my time in Afghanistan. I asked how she was, and how the women’s movement would fare. The full conversation was published in my 2022 book, Freedom on the Frontlines.
On 11 June 2021, Aziza wrote:
Things are not going to get any better. We feel stuck in a vicious cycle and fear from this precarious situation. Aid has ended and NGOs have long been closed. We will not have achieved what we had hoped. What we set out to do. What we started to do. And now we have to adapt to whatever that may come in order to survive.
On 16 June, I published a piece on CNN arguing that the US rhetoric of liberation that animated their invasion nearly 20 years ago had fallen short of its goal. This built on an argument I made in my 2008 doctoral thesis and later in my 2009 book, Gender and International Aid in Afghanistan. There, and again here, I argued that the status of Afghan women was used as the barometer to assess social change, and that the promise of freedom had fallen short.
The $780 million the US spent to promote women’s rights in Afghanistan was about to go to waste, I explained, as the hasty withdrawal of US troops would likely lead to greater human rights violations, more school closures and increased violence against women. The voices I heard from Afghanistan were fearful. Women’s rights were hanging in the balance. Again.
Two decades of investment in women undoubtedly did achieve many goals: schools reopened for girls, giving them access to education, including university. Women had access to employment. They worked, flew planes, joined the military, became government ministers, and more.
But gains were patchy. Progress was perpetually met by major backlashes, a resurgence of a fundamentalist order, and more violence against women. Rural women still lived in Taliban-controlled areas, under severe restrictions. They did not benefit from these improvements. Opportunities for work, health care, or education never reached them.
On 22 June, Aziza told me this:
We could have predicted this. Patriarchy is so embedded in the culture and roots. There is need for gender awareness, education, and prolonged efforts to change what generations of men in power have created. The work that was done during the last two decades was not enough to change the fundamentals. It provided a short-term relief to what women had suffered during Taliban, but it could get worse when there is no more intervention.
On 24 June, I was invited to speak on CNN, building from my article. I was asked how serious things were for Afghan women. Very serious, I explained. At that point we had already heard of greater human rights violations, more school closures, increased violence against women. It was just getting started — things would get worse.
At that time, despite gains made, two-thirds of girls remained out of school, 70 percent of Afghan women and girls still could not read or write, and more than 80 percent of Afghan women and girls experienced abuse. Most of this took place in the home. Women’s security in the home is a reflection of the security in the country. If women cannot be safe at home, they’re not safe at all. And if women are not safe, then no one is safe. This, I have long argued, should be the barometer by which the entire intervention is judged.
Afghan women are incredibly strong. They have always demonstrated that strength, along with incredible courage and resilience. They always had strong voices and the ability to use them. But, are we listening? They have powerful voices, but they have no microphone. Did we do all we could to amplify their voices as they articulated their own needs? Did we even meet those needs?
On 10 August, US intelligence warned that it would take 30–90 days for the Taliban to topple the government and occupy Kabul. The city fell five days later.
Aziza wrote to me, explaining that progress made through international intervention was patchy — and only for the urban elite. Rural women’s lives hardly changed. If anything, Aziza explained, “financial aid may have fed their families, but the patriarchy remained.” And, she added, “today they are under the same abuse — or even worse.”
On 15 August 2021, the Taliban reached Kabul.
I wrote to Aziza. She said:
The situation is uncertain. We are stuck as there is no way to get out. [We] were silenced when the government was negotiating with the Taliban. We women warned the government that if Taliban came, history will repeat itself, but no one listened to us.
The next day, President Biden delivered a speech justifying the withdrawal. That day, thousands of civilians swarmed Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul, running across the tarmac, clinging to airplanes, desperate to escape.
I wrote to Aziza. As a women’s rights activist, as a well-known figure, as someone who had been outspoken against the Taliban, shouldn’t she try to leave, I asked? True to her spirit, her anger for all Afghan women trumped her fear for her own life.
The Americans showed women how freedom looks when they came in 2001, they introduced us to their Western democracy, freedom of speech, freedoms to go to school, and to understand our rights. After 20 years, the new generation of women are now journalists, artists, entrepreneurs and human rights activists. Little did they know that they would be abandoned by the same people who helped them progress. Now what? Just drop it all and leave them to the barbaric Taliban? The question then rises: why all the efforts in the first place? Why were these women empowered only to see their fate in hands of Taliban? Women are questioning the rhetoric of the Americans, and the world.
On 17 August, the Taliban stated that it will respect women’s rights as long as it is “within Islamic law.” Violence continued. The airport remained a scene of desperation.
That day, Aziza said:
The government has fallen now. Everyone is told to stay home. I am quarantined like the rest.
And later that day, together with Aziza, I drafted a call to action and posted this:
Afghanistan has been taken over by the Taliban, and Afghan women’s lives are at risk. They will lose the freedom they’ve gained in these last two decades — access to school, work, and all aspects of public life. Afghan women activists are under threat. I’m helping to get one woman out, she’s a known activist and women’s rights defender. I worked with her when I lived in Afghanistan (2002–2006). She has been advocating for Afghan women for 50 years as a member of Parliament in the 1970s and as a leader of various women’s rights organizations. Her work has taken her all around Afghanistan and Pakistan (where she was a refugee for many years). And she has spoken about Afghan women’s rights around the world. While working on the very complicated process of getting her out — we need to raise money to help cover her costs. This includes travel to a third country, refugee case processing, waiting time (up to fourteen months), and basic living expenses. ANYTHING HELPS. We aren’t releasing any additional information about her for her protection, but please contact me if you have questions/leads/ideas.
Indeed, those leads and ideas came, thanks to the strength of the international feminist network. I pursued all of these, under the direction of Aziza.
They aren’t letting people leave the country. Women have not gone outside — they don’t have proper outfit to go outside! [They] fear being beaten if they go without bourka.
People are using their past experience to anticipate things this time. And right now we have nothing. At least the older women remember this — the young ones never saw it. There is no school and girls are traumatized with what is happening. It is a waiting game. Women are in fear. People of Afghanistan feel abandoned and left alone with their worst nightmare.
The world should raise their voices so Taliban understand that they won’t be able to carry on with their crimes like the past. The international community let Afghanistan down. They left people in the dark about their peace negotiations or their plan to exit. It all happened overnight. We moved back in time. Twenty years of constructing a new Afghanistan is reversed in one week!
On 18 August, I asked how she was.
I am ok. I have not left the house in five days. I have enough food for one month. I hope it will be enough.
And the next day:
We remember you, Lina. Your time in Afghanistan. Those were the golden days. Everything changed after.
On 20 August, I checked in again. She responded:
I am in a safe house, out of imminent danger. At least for a short time.
I gave her the options I had found to get her out of the country, mostly to neighboring countries.
If I go, I will need to stay longer than expected. There will be visas and paperwork and legal challenges. I don’t speak the language. I cannot work. I will be alone. Will I be able to return? Will I be able to get out?
On 22 August, she sent this update:
Things are getting worse. Taliban have access to biometric database so they can identify people. I have changed my name on my social media accounts.
And two days later:
I heard the news that they want all evacuations to be done by end of this month. No news for me. I am getting worried. They may close the roads to the airport. Only those who are approved to get to the airport and escorted by a foreigner can go in.
I asked if she was safe, at least?
Yes, right now I am safe. Flights are ending, we hear. Banks are closed and we cannot get our money out. My passport is stuck in the office for renewal. I cannot get out if I do not have it.
Please tell me how I can help you, I asked.
I am a survivor, Lina. I am strong. I will take care of myself until there is a way out. I know what I need to do — the new passport, a visa to move to a third country. Now everything is still closed. Once they reopen, I will look for a route. I will find a way out.
On 28 August, I posted this update:
For those who donated and who are concerned about the Afghan woman activist, she remains stuck in Kabul. Recent events have made her exit even more challenging. The family thanks those who have already donated. We are still collecting donations — money will be used to secure safe passage and to cover transit costs. Further updates as we have them. Until then … we can only hope.
The next day, she wrote to me:
I begin to be fearful. So much uncertainty. I fear I may stay here longer than expected….
On 31 August, I received this:
I am disappointed. A lifetime of work for a cause that will now be undone.
It was now September, and the news continued to worsen. Are you safe, I asked?
I feel safe for now, but for how long we don’t know. No women are on the streets unless they are essential workers like doctors or nurses who are summoned to go back to work. They have no choice. No woman has any choice anymore.
On 2 September, she said that many women activists had left, or were in hiding.
They are keeping a low profile. There are no gatherings. They have even deleted their social media. Burned their certificates. Erased their work. Their history.
On 3 September I checked in again.
Everyone is in survival mode. We do not know what will come of this.
On 4 September, Afghan women started to fight back. They marched in Kabul, demanding their rights. The Taliban responded with whips and lashes. I checked in with Aziza.
Some women especially the younger generation have actually stepped out of homes taking the risk and doing protests! There are women-led uprisings all over the city!
On that day, and for the days that followed, her tone had regained its power.
Women were on the streets with placards and chanting, “Long live the women of Afghanistan.” “I will sing freedom over and over,” one read. Women were detained, beaten and told to go home, and to respect the new regime. Afghan women refused to respect a regime that denied them inclusion and rights. Protests grew to 500 women. The Taliban responded with more brute force. Afghan women remained on the streets, calling on the international community and those who advocated for women’s rights: where are you when we need you?
On 10 September, Aziza wrote:
I must leave. I might die if I stay. But what happens if I leave? If all the women with voices, with strength, with experience leave the country, how will the rest fight this war for them? Who will lead the women’s uprisings when the women leaders are gone?
Afghan women said they knew this would happen. But under such circumstances, feminist fires cannot be put out. Even more women leaders emerge, fueled by the will to survive.
One week later, Aziza wrote:
The situation for women is deteriorating. There is no place for women in this government. Taliban have resumed schools and universities classes for men only. All girls starting from elementary to higher education have to stay at home. At the time most of the well-known women activists are either in hiding or have left the country. I have no contact with any of them. The women I stood side by side with for years. Women who used to be the sole income earner in their families have lost their jobs. Around 3000 women civil servants are unemployed, those who used to work at the Former Ministry of Women Affairs. The ministry has been abolished and replaced with the Ministry of Virtue and Vice. There is no room for women to work there. But those women, they are the ones on the streets doing protests against Taliban.
And then a few days later, on 20 September, Aziza explained that women were the victims of clandestine politics between the government, the US, and the Taliban. She continued:
They decided our fate and our lives. With nothing to look forward to, we are told to just deal with it, to try to live. But trying to live is different from living….
I wrote to Aziza again and again. What can I do, I kept asking? She responded:
We will rise again, on our own terms. We have done so before.
Aziza emphasized that the global women’s movement must do better in support of Afghan women, to help them transform the systems that continue to hold them back. We must channel more direct funding for frontline women’s groups, and advocate to ensure that women are included everywhere.
On 6 October 2021, Aziza sent me this:
I am fine — do not worry about me! There are bigger things I want to say. This is much bigger than me. Don’t let the world forget Afghan women. Don’t let the Taliban decide their fate. My whole life has been this one thing, this one story, this one fight. A woman should have the right to an education, the right to work alongside men, the right to be in politics. Afghan mothers, we have lived through generations. We have seen this before. We have lived through all the wars, but we are the real fighters in Afghanistan. And today we will lead the path to success for the next generation.
Afghan women are the face and the force of their country’s future. The research says the same; a country’s chances of peace, prosperity, and progress rest not on the fiscal or legislative but on the way in which it treats its women. Women’s rights in Afghanistan — or anywhere — are not a light switch to be flicked on or off based on who is in power. They are permanent and non-negotiable — in Afghanistan and everywhere.
I will listen to Aziza, and to women like her. Afghan women have agency and have always fought for their rights — they continue to do so now, one year later, even as we hardly speak of them.
Today, one year later, Afghanistan ranks lowest across almost all social indicators. Afghanistan comes in last on both the 2021 Women, Peace and Security Index and the 2022 Global Gender Gap Report, meaning the country is the world’s farthest from women’s security and equality.
Around 24 million people need vital humanitarian relief, and more than 90 percent of Afghans are food insecure. Extreme poverty has forced many Afghan families to resort to extreme measures for survival including selling their girls as child brides. Women cannot travel without a guardian, and most have been banned from the workplace. Girls’ education has taken the greatest hit, and this generation of girls have now been stripped of their right to education, a loss that will be felt for generations.
My campaign to support Aziza continues. She was not able to get out of Afghanistan until April 2022, eight months after the Taliban assumed power and started to erase women. Aziza took great risks to reach Pakistan, where she remained for two months. There, she underwent an urgent medical procedure while also repeatedly trying to secure a visa to Europe. Aziza reached Germany in mid-June and is now with her daughters. The funds that were raised paid for her airfare, visa costs, and other travel expenses as well as her medical expenses in Pakistan. She is now using what remains to pay legal fees in Germany so that she may remain with her family. My book and articles are being used as references to strengthen her case for asylum. They demonstrate what the situation is like for Afghan women, and what Aziza herself would experience if she is forced to return.
The struggle is long, but we will keep fighting for her safety.
For those who wish to support Aziza, funding is channeled through her daughter Sarah here.
Aziza tells me she is safe, but her heart is still in Afghanistan.
The situation for women gets worse every day, she explained.
Women who are stranded can’t travel alone or leave the country. Women have to cover their faces in public. Women can’t go to school or university. We have regressed back and it is as if no progress has been made in the past 2 decades. It is extremely disappointing. Devastating.
At the same time, she knows that she is among the fortunate ones who has a chance to find freedom.
She, along with her Afghan sisters, will continue to imagine a new world, one where both freedom and feminism are possible. A world that is not about occupation, but about collaboration. A world that doesn’t import “liberation,” but rather builds on existing agency to form a new freedom.
In the end, who will define that freedom? Afghan women.