In 1996, I was in grad school and desperate to start working on women’s human rights. I landed a fellowship at a human rights organization on their women’s rights team. That was the year the Taliban took over Kabul. Afghanistan was in the news, and the organization asked me to focus on the country so we could understand what was happening.
“Just temporarily,” they said. There was nothing temporary about Afghanistan.
Fast forward. In 2002, I flew to Afghanistan with $20,000 down my pants. I was 27 years old. You’ve heard the story before. I was there to set up the Afghanistan office of Women for Women International. I stayed for four years, eventually moving into the United Nations and also starting a PhD somewhere in there.
In 2007, I moved to Sierra Leone, and then to Papua New Guinea, carrying Afghanistan with me. I received my PhD in 2008 and published Gender and International Aid in Afghanistan in 2009. I went on to work in nearly twenty other countries — Haiti, Senegal, Lebanon — but Afghanistan was my first emergency, and she never left me.
In 2021, Afghanistan fell again. And I screamed it all out into another book — Freedom on the Frontlines. 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. And today we mark two years since we abandoned the country.
Abandoned Afghan women.
We were warned, though. I think about what my friend Aziza, women’s rights leader and partner from my time in Afghanistan, told me — even before the Taliban reclaimed the country.
Things are not going to get any better. We feel stuck in a vicious cycle and fear from this precarious situation. 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.
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 short-term relief, she explained, at the expense of long-term change. “We are stuck,” she said. “We warned you… history will repeat itself. But no one listened.”
I am disappointed. A lifetime of work for a cause that will now be undone. Everyone is in survival mode. We do not know what will come of this. No woman has any choice anymore. 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….
Two years later, and where are we? Afghanistan ranks lowest across almost all social indicators. Afghanistan comes in last on both the 2022 Women, Peace and Security Index and the 2023 Global Gender Gap Report, meaning the country is the world’s farthest from women’s security and equality.
Around 30 million people need vital humanitarian relief — 80% of those are women and girls. 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. Afghan women have been “erased from everything,” CNN reports.
Aziza and her Afghan sisters are still fighting, imagining a new, real freedom — one where feminism also lives.
Until then, the least we can do is not forget the country we claimed to care for so much.