Since the fall of the Taliban, and with the assistance of the international community, Afghan women have secured incredible gains in education, health, civil society, and government — all in a short period of time. As Afghanistan moves through a new period of transition, we must work together to help sustain and expand on these gains. In this blog series, we learn about Afghan women’s experiences – as told in their own words – and remember that we must stand Shoulder-to-Shoulder with Afghan women in their fight for equality and for the peaceful redevelopment of Afghanistan. Share these stories, and your own, on Twitter using #ShoulderToShoulder; you can also take our pledge today to stand with Afghan women.
I have been asked numerous times to share what it was it like for me as an Afghan woman during and after the Taliban. These years have been critical and eventful for me, as well as many other Afghans, but one thing has become clear during this time: Afghan women are both resourceful and resilient. We have overcome extraordinary obstacles and have become strong voices for rebuilding our society, but we cannot create sustainable change alone. We need the support of the international community, including the United States.
During Taliban rule, I lived as a refugee with my family in Peshawar, Pakistan and attended a school that was specifically designed for refugees. The funding for the school was provided by multiple sources, and the source of the funding always determined the curriculum. For instance, in the beginning, most of the funding was received from the Government of Saudi Arabia. Thus the curriculum was mainly and strictly based around religious studies and the language of Arabic. As the funding sources changed, the curriculum changed too.
I visited Afghanistan during the Taliban regime and spent two of my long summers Mazar-e-Sharif in Balkh province, located in the north. Although I was 14 years old, I was not allowed to walk outside like my younger siblings did, and none of us attended school.
Girls’ education was not allowed during the Taliban. Nevertheless, my parents hired a female teacher to come to our house to teach three of my younger sisters, ages 3, 5, and 7. The teacher could not come for the classes regularly, though, because she feared for her life.
Unlike boys, who enjoyed most or all of their day in front of their gates with their neighbors’ kids, the girls spent all of their time at home doing little to nothing. All my family members could visit famous sites, including the Blue Mosque, but my mom and I could not because we were “grown up women” who had to stay at home all the time. The main activities for girls comprised of house chores including cleaning, cooking, and washing the dishes and clothes. The only profession women and girls could learn from one another was sewing women’s clothes and weaving carpets. From these two professions, they could earn a living and contribute to the economy of their families.
At the time, if I wanted to go out of the house, I had to be accompanied by my mother, father, and/or mother and brother, and I had to wear a burka, a blue cloth that covers women from head-to-toe. To avoid wearing a burka, I spent all of my two summers at home. But, to avoid beatings from the Taliban, I had to wear a burka when traveling from Kabul to Mazar -e- Sharif. Twice, however, I fell two times because of the cumbersome covering and remained dizzy for the rest of the day.
With the fall of the Taliban regime, I returned home to Kabul with my family. I finished my last two years of school and participated in the entry exam to university to continue my higher education. This was not something I could have done in Afghanistan during the Taliban, nor in Pakistan had I stayed in Peshawar. Higher education opportunities were very limited for Afghan refugees. I passed the entry exam to Kabul University and four years later, graduated from the Journalism Faculty. Upon my graduation, I joined the work force and worked in different organizations in as a journalist.
This has been the case for a majority of the young girls living in the major cities: they graduates from schools, continued their higher education, and are now working. They are not only independent, but they also contribute to and support their families. More importantly, they are aware of their position and rights in the society. But, the situation is much different for many women living in the provinces where a majority of the international troops have already left and some international funding has stopped or been reduced considerably – cutting some projects that were designed to support women. In Afghanistan, international assistance is still crucial for the educational and economic advancement of women.
Meanwhile, the international news on Afghan women is a litany of depressing, heartbreaking stories. Terrible stories about domestic violence, a husband who has cut off his wife’s nose and ears, or acid attacks on girls’ trying to make their way to school. These are severe cases. But, there are other stories of hope, courage, and resistance. Stories about women demanding to be heard, stories about girls excelling in school, about families supporting their daughters, wives, and mothers as they make their way to becoming police officers, business owners, or whatever else they desire to be.
It is true that Afghanistan is not the best place for a woman to live. Violence against women has not ended and is nowhere close to ending. Eighty-seven percent of Afghan women experience some form of violence in their lifetime; 62 percent experience multiple forms of violence, including forced marriage and sexual violence. We are still very far from where we want to be. But, above all, with all the challenges, Afghan women still go forward and thrive in their day-to-day struggle.
Afghan women have come a long way over the last decade. We have made significant achievements, many of which would have not been possible without the generous support of the international community, especially the United States.
Before the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan in 2001, Afghan women did not exist in the public sphere. Women were restricted to their own homes and were not allowed to earn an education or to work. The Taliban banned women from going outside without a close male relative, and whipped women in public for even the tiniest infractions. There was not a single school for girls, but today, according to the Afghan Ministry of Education, out of 7 million students, 37 percent are girls, and in addition to 24 public schools and higher education institutions, there are 82 private higher education institutions across Afghanistan where both young women and men can achieve their dreams of higher education. Some, like me, can even chase their dreams of quality education in the West.
These stories of change do not always reach the US public, but the change is palpable. Now out of 170,000 teachers in Afghanistan, 30 percent are women. Women occupy 28 percent of the seats in the Afghan parliament. Women can participate in any sport – from football to cricket – and not only in Kabul. Women travel to participate in international games too. There are thousands of women doctors, nurses, pharmacists, some engineers, many politicians, police officers, soldiers, even a few pilots, civil society activists, and last but not least, many journalists.
Twelve years ago it was absolutely unimaginable for women to see themselves as news anchors; but that is not the case today. Today, there are female anchors and reporters on almost every radio and TV network. Women not only read news and host various shows, but they have no restrictions on discussing women’s issues. Afghan women have, therefore, been strongly advocating for their rights through the media.
I cannot overstate how enormous these accomplishments are in Afghanistan. Where only thirteen years ago, women were hidden from view and denied basic human dignity, today women, together with men, are leading the charge in Afghanistan for human rights, economic development, peace, and security.
But the situation is fragile. Afghan women and civil society activists have come a long way and are now able to move forward, but they need international support in order to extend their work, especially to women living in the far corners of the country. As an Afghan woman, I hope that the US continues to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with us, so every Afghan can live in a peaceful, free, and equal society. To lose what has been achieved so far for women would be a catastrophe for all.