Afghan Women Are Fighting for Our Rights—Join Us

·11 min read

In July my younger sister and I booked last-minute tickets to fly from our homes in D.C. to our mother’s home in Kabul, Afghanistan. We wanted to see our family because, ever since the U.S. announced its withdrawal last spring and the Taliban accelerated its takeover, our window to visit the country safely was shrinking. With the Taliban on the offensive, I knew this could be one of my last opportunities.

During my week there, we shared meals together, all seven of my siblings in the same room for the first time in nine years. We took a little road trip to the Panjshir Valley, outside Kabul, picnicking and enjoying the gorgeous landscape. I texted my stateside husband pictures and told him I hoped to bring our future kids to Afghanistan—to show them that their mother is not just from war and conflict but also from beauty, culture, good food, clear waters, proud mountains, and generous people.

But between savoring the spreads of cheese, bread, and dumplings and the precious time alongside my family, I also spent the week witnessing how much the situation for women was deteriorating. Many women were dressing more conservatively, with longer dresses and bigger headscarves. When I did go out—which wasn't that often—you could feel the fear and intensity in the air. After 20 years, the Taliban was returning to power.

Noorjahan Akbar and her family
Noorjahan Akbar and her family
RADA AKBAR

When I was six years old, my family escaped to Pakistan because the Taliban took over our country and hanged the former president’s body from a traffic light. We left everything behind and lived in poverty. We returned to Afghanistan after the Taliban was overthrown in 2001. For my mother, the idea of being forced out of her home and starting over terrified her even more than the escalating situation.

“When will you leave?” I asked her during my visit this summer. “Not until the rest of my kids leave,” she replied in Farsi. Of my siblings living in Afghanistan, I had three sisters—Rada, an artist, and Shaharzad and Fatima, who both worked for different nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) focused on human rights issues. My brother Ibrahim was employed by the Afghan government. Our youngest brother, Zabihullah, had recently graduated high school. Afghanistan was home.

On July 31, 2021, I flew from Kabul back to the U.S. as the Taliban was advancing and capturing the provinces. Its soldiers were going door-to-door, hunting down artists like my sister, human rights defenders like my other sisters, and Afghan government workers like my brother. But my family was in Kabul, and the Afghan government said it would defend the capital city. President Ghani went on TV and told us not to be afraid. He said he would stay in Afghanistan until his last breath. This false hope gave us the feeling that my siblings had more time. They wanted to stay and keep working to help defend our country and free our children and women. They didn’t have weapons, but they believed in the power of their voices, their art, their advocacy.

From my D.C. home office 7,000 miles away, my mindset shifted from how my loved ones and other activists would remain in Afghanistan to how they could get out.

Less than two weeks later, news broke that President Ghani had fled the country and the Taliban had seized Kabul. My remaining family was among the millions who would no longer be safe. We knew that was it. We are everything the Taliban wants to destroy. From my D.C. home office 7,000 miles away, my mindset shifted from how my loved ones and other activists would remain in Afghanistan to how they could get out.

My tiny nonprofit, Free Women Writers, and a sister organization, Femena, started sending money to women in Afghanistan trapped in dangerous situations, many who had fled from their homes to be safe from the Taliban. We started a GoFundMe and sent funds for food, safe housing, and other basic needs. But then Western Union and MoneyGram stopped transferring money to Afghanistan, and we couldn't get resources to those in need. So we had to get creative. For one guesthouse, for example, we sent money to the owner’s son in Europe. On August 15, Free Women Writers had about $6,000 in our bank account. By August 23, we had $300 left.

We’ve lived through suicide attacks and slaughterings and years of leaving home in the morning unsure whether we’d make it back alive. This was a completely new terror.

Meanwhile, the situation in Kabul continued to deteriorate. A day before the Taliban took the city, on August 14, my mother and siblings grabbed what bags they could carry—clothes, shoes, and a few things one needs to start over—and went into hiding at a friend’s house that was closer to the airport. The Taliban shut down all commercial flights. So even as we scrambled to apply for visas for family, friends, and women’s-rights advocates to leave Afghanistan for any country that would let them in, there were no tickets to book. Evacuation on the heavily guarded military flights were the best hope. Afghan civilians and foreigners rushed to try to get to the gates. It was a complex maze of shifting entry points, some controlled by the Taliban, others supposedly safe.

Some of the most vulnerable women—journalists, women on TV, women who worked in the attorney general’s office—were reduced to checking Twitter to try to find ways to escape. A few headed for Pakistan and Iran by foot and car in desperation. We’ve lived through suicide attacks and slaughterings and years of leaving home in the morning unsure whether we’d make it back alive. This was a completely new terror.

Noorjahan Akbar with her mother
Noorjahan Akbar with her mother
Courtesy of Noorjahan Akbar

My family's first attempt to fly out of Afghanistan was on Monday, August 16. My oldest sister had previously worked for a German NGO a few years ago, so through a contact of hers, we made arrangements to try to get my family out. It was a lot of waiting for emails and WhatsApps to come through with instructions. My family was trying to preserve their batteries, so they’d just use one person’s phone at a time while my sister Fatima, who speaks English, coordinated everything.

The airport was pure chaos. The contact who was supposedly coming to pick them up never came. It was hard to tell who was an Afghan soldier and who was Taliban, until the Taliban started whipping Afghans who got close to the gate. Closer to the gate, they told me, American and Afghan soldiers were shoving and pushing people away, firing in the air, and using tear gas. Thousands of people were desperately trying to barrel through the crowds and get inside. The shootings kept getting louder and closer together.

“You’re so close. You’ve risked your life. Push. Push,” I messaged my sister.

My family's second attempt to get out was on Thursday, August 19. In the middle of the night, they returned to the airport—this time just with backpacks and a promise that an American soldier would come to meet them. Swarms of people tried to push to the entrance as soldiers were shooting in the air over their heads to keep the crowds back. “You’re so close. You’ve risked your life. Push. push,” I messaged my sister. Over gunshots, I begged them to stay in line. They were tear-gassed. My mother was on the ground, with my little brothers on top of her, to keep her from getting stomped on. My sister messaged me: “I’d rather for my mom to die at home in peace.”

Some relief came when my sister Rada, who had managed to get onto a French evacuation flight, WhatsApped us a photo of her hotel room. The tightness I’d been feeling in my chest let up for just a moment.

Noorjahan Akbar at a protest against violence against women in Kabul in 2013
Noorjahan Akbar at a protest against violence against women in Kabul in 2013
Courtesy of Noorjahan Akbar

The third attempt: Monday, August 23. One of my sister’s employers, a children’s rights NGO, arranged a convoy to help their network get out. The organization hired a security company and cars, and we’d gotten their names on the flight lists. Still, getting into the airport and through gates that were constantly opening and closing seemed impossible. After hours of waiting, my sister told me that their car was leaving the airport and would have to try again tomorrow. But then my brother sent another text: “Noor, this is really strange, but they are turning the car around again.” They waited for another hour or so. Then he finally WhatsApped me—my family had made it inside. On Tuesday August 25, they landed in Frankfurt.

We’re not sure what’s next, or where home will be. When I called them, they told me they’d found an Afghan store not far from their Airbnb and bought bread, cardamom, and green tea—their first purchases in the new country. You can’t take Afghanistan out of the family.

My family is privileged. Largely because of our jobs, we had contacts from different organizations and nations trying to help us make sense of what gates were open and to provide letters to get them through security checkpoints and navigate the chaos in the middle of the night. My sister could communicate in English. They were on evacuation flight lists. Your average Afghan family doesn’t have that. And even with all that, my mother and siblings got tear-gassed, trampled, and turned away.

I can’t hope for peace. It’s too painful. My heart is broken, and I struggle to find the words.

My family is safe. And I got through the ordeal thanks in large part to the people I work with at the Young Center for Immigrant Children’s Rights and my close friends who sent food and support in every way they could. But my activist friends and thousands of other human rights defenders, journalists, artists, lawyers, and judges remain trapped under the control of a hateful terrorist group. Women in particular are in serious danger. I want the world to know what's happening. On Monday, August 30, the final United States evacuation flight took off from Hamid Karzai International Airport. Hundreds of thousands got out, and hundreds died in the process. Those are the numbers we hear. But most of the nation’s 35 million people are still in Afghanistan.

As an Afghan woman, I will never forget the radio speech then FLOTUS Laura Bush gave in November 2001. I remember her naming the oppression we faced under the Taliban and fellow terrorists. I remember how the invasion of my country was justified under the banner of joining together “to ensure that dignity and opportunity will be secured for all the women and children.” The abandonment of Afghan women in particular over the past several weeks and months is enraging and devastating.

Today Afghan women have to live with the Taliban again. And the Taliban’s recent attempts to rebrand are seemingly empty. During the last few weeks, there have been reports of women being turned away from universities and hospital jobs, and women and children who have been beaten—and worse. Journalists have reported facing detainment and torture. Protestors have been killed.

Afghanistan is a country the size of Texas that global superpowers have been trying to control for their own benefit for far longer than I’ve been alive. We have been victims of a global war between superpowers since 1979. Now the U.S. special representative for Afghanistan reconciliation, Zalmay Khalilzad, the mastermind behind the U.S.-Taliban agreement, says Afghanistan is the responsibility of Afghans. This slogan—“your country, your responsibility”—where was that in 1979, when the U.S. armed religious extremists to fight the Soviets? Or in 2001, when the U.S. used women’s rights as a tool to invade?

I don’t know whether I’ll ever be able to return to the beautiful mountains. I can’t hope for peace. It’s too painful. My heart is broken, and I struggle to find the words.

But this is what I can do: I can tell you what letting religious extremists and terrorists take over governments does to communities. And whether or not we can live in our country right now, I can tell you the women of Afghanistan are strong, powerful, and unrelenting. We will send our girls to school and fight for freedom of press and speech. We will fight for all our rights as human beings and not be content with the lowest standard of rights imposed on us by racism and terrorism. We've been saying #NoToTaliban for the past two decades. Now is not the time to leave us alone in the fight against a monster we didn't create alone. We need to uplift the voices of those still on the ground. Join us.

Originally Appeared on Glamour

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