Events in Afghanistan are so terrifying that every time before opening Twitter, or reading news, I take a deep breath and tell myself: “You will make it through this. Miracles happen.” But deep inside I know no miracle will rescue Afghans. The world is watching our suffering and misery and all we get are meaningless condemnations and social media posts from people far from Afghanistan who say they stand with Afghan people.
I have come to believe that “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere” doesn’t apply to Afghanistan and Afghans. Maybe the world thinks it is okay for Afghans to suffer so long as they and their countries are not impacted by the Taliban, the Islamist movement that was overthrown by a U.S.-led invasion in 2001 but has now retaken the country. I can’t help losing trust in the UN, the international community, even the words “human rights,” “social justice,” “equality.”
I was three years old when the Taliban took over most of Afghanistan in 1996. My childhood memories include hearing my parents talk about how to afford the next meal for us. I saw my mother selling her wedding ring to buy groceries. I watched my dad weave rugs deep into the night. The scars of knotting and cutting the threads are still on his fingers. I remember crying to my parents, begging them to take me to school after seeing boys from our neighborhood heading to their classrooms. They tried to tell me the schools were closed. I remember watching a Talib slap my father in front of my siblings and I because he had listened to a song on the radio. I remember my mom hiding books and magazines in the basement.
My family was lucky to survive both the 1990s civil war and the U.S. invasion. After the collapse of the Taliban, my siblings and I went to school and my mother went back to work. We all thought the nightmare was over. Like other middle-class families in Afghanistan, we were happy that we were safe and could enjoy basic rights like getting an education, working, having food to eat and a roof over our heads.
Afghan children who lived through the Taliban regime and then the rise of democracy developed a commitment to Afghanistan’s future. We were given a war-torn country with no economy, infrastructure or governmental system. We built everything from scratch. When the Taliban first fell in 2001, we had only two female news anchors. Until last week, there were hundreds of women working or various media outlets. We even had a university gender studies program, the first of its kind in Afghanistan, launched three years ago.
Afghan women fought especially hard for their rights. Some lost their lives but others kept going to make Afghanistan a better place for the next generation of Afghan girls. I was one of those women. I wanted to get an education and make a difference. That seemed possible with the Taliban out of power. From academia to politics, from the music industry to the military, women were not only present but often had leadership roles.
After completing my undergraduate degree at Kabul University, I went to America on a Fulbright scholarship to pursue graduate studies. In 2018, my commitment to gender equality in Afghanistan took me to Kandahar, my mother’s birth province, to conduct research on girls’ education.
Kandahar, one of the most conservative provinces in Afghanistan, was full of girls thirsty for education and independence. They wanted to go to university. They dreamed of being lawyers, engineers and entrepreneurs. After a focus group session with high-school students, one of them asked me, “How did you do it, how did you make it so far?” I told her about my journey, and she took notes.
When I heard the province fell to the Taliban, the first thing I thought of was those girls. They fought Afghanistan’s patriarchal culture for years so they could go to school or have a career and then, in days, lost everything they had gained.
The guilt of being away from my country and living a life millions of Afghan women can only dream made me reluctant to talk to my 17-year-old cousin who lives in Kandahar. I finally called her after her father told me that she had stopped eating and talking. What I saw on my phone screen was not my passionate and full-of-life cousin. She looked defeated and exhausted. “Can you believe it, just like that it’s all over, I am over, what I am going to do with this life?” she asked me.
It is over for her and millions of Afghan women. Those who are well known for their advocacy and work will be targeted, those who disobey Taliban rules will be killed, and those who want to go to school will instead be imprisoned in their homes.
The world is mistaken if they think they are not responsible for all this misery that Afghan women are experiencing today. Every single country that has been involved in Afghanistan in the last 45 years is responsible — including those who fund the Taliban, those now willing to recognize it and those whose goals in Afghanistan were not about Afghans themselves but their own security, power and prosperity.
The responsibility of the international community for Afghanistan must not now end at accepting more Afghan refugees. Not all Afghans have the luxury of leaving the country. Most will stay. Millions will suffer. They will need our help and support.