In early August, after devoting herself for more than 12 years to various aspects of women’s rights, K, whose full name will not be shared for her protection, and her family fled her home in Balkh province in northern Afghanistan. The Taliban had seized Mazar-i-Sharif, the provincial capital. A district governor in the same province, Salima Mazari, a fierce politician in her own right, took up arms to fight the Taliban, but was recently captured by the militant group, and her whereabouts are currently unknown.

K and her family, including her two young children, are in hiding at a friend’s house in Kabul, a city that she believed would be safer and more prepared to resist the Taliban than the less equipped provincial towns. But to her horror, within days of their arrival, the Taliban seized the country’s capital. I spoke with her on August 20, just five days after Kabul fell to the Taliban. K was overwhelmed with emotions of fear, despair, and betrayal, and emphasized the need for the “world to hear our cries.” As a mother, she was particularly afraid for the future of her country and the safety and security of her young children.

Unlike many of her colleagues, K has remained in Afghanistan, and has spent the last few days on the phone reassuring her trainees back in Balkh that she has not forgotten about them. She told me, “We [my fellow women activists and I] are extremely worried about the future of Afghanistan, and we want to reassure our fellow Afghans that we are here for them, making their voices heard for the world. This is our moral responsibility.”

—Mona Tajali

Mona Tajali: With the recent takeover of Afghanistan by the Taliban, what worries you the most?

K: Together with countless other women’s rights activists, I have spent the last two decades investing in our home, our society, our children, and the girls of this country who face many obstacles. All of the advancements we have made are in danger of being reversed overnight. How can we remain hopeful when all that we have worked for is now under threat?

As someone who has led various women’s rights initiatives, I am worried for myself, but also for the women who worked for us throughout the years. Their lives are in danger since many of them served as trainers with international organizations, working alongside male trainers. I fear that the Taliban’s conservative ideology will not tolerate such activities.

I recently heard the Taliban spokesperson, Zabihullah Mujahid, say that women can resume their professions as in the past and can continue in their public activities without fear. However, we know that while Taliban prioritize only certain female professions, such as teachers and nurses, we fear that women who worked for NGOs or the private sector will face reprisals.

Kabul is not representative of the rest of the country. Since the world’s eyes are focused on Kabul, maybe here women will be able to still present the news or enter the health clinics they worked in previously. But we are hearing reports from the provinces in which all NGO offices have been closed. My colleagues from Balkh informed me that they have been ordered by the Taliban not to leave their homes without a burqa or a male guardian. These are the same women who led their own organizations and made careers for themselves, enabling some of them to singlehandedly support their families.   

A friend told me that store owners have been told not to sell to women who come and shop without either a male guardian or a male child above 12 years old.

Such treatment of women is naturally worrying, and clearly demonstrates that the Taliban have not changed and plan to rule according to the same strict interpretation of Islam they professed 20 years ago.

MT: How are you and your family coping? How are your colleagues coping?

K: I do not dare leave my home. My daughter, who is too young to really comprehend what is happening, asks me who the Taliban are. Today she asked me, “If they see us, will they kill us?” My son, who is only 7, wonders why I am no longer going to work. Seeing their worried faces, all I can do is tell them that the Taliban will not harm us, but in my mind, I am not certain.

It is a very painful moment for all us. I cannot turn off my phone for even one second, since I am constantly called by my trainees in the province where I used to work, to ask me if I have left Afghanistan. I let them know that with the closure of our office in Balkh, I was relocated to Kabul, but I reassure them that I have not left Afghanistan and that I am still here looking for ways to support them. It is such a relief for them to know that they have not been forgotten, the same way that it is a relief for us when we hear that the international media has not forgotten about us and is interested in hearing from us.

Many of our trainees are women and girls who want to learn about their rights and ways to sustain themselves and their families by enrolling in our literacy and sewing courses. With the support of a Canadian organization, in our eight-month courses, we provide each trainee with a sewing machine, iron, and other necessary equipment, plus the equivalent of about $2 per day for the cost of their transportation. For the West, this money might seem like a very small amount, but for the women, this is a considerable amount, which many save to spend on their children’s school supplies.

You can imagine for women who have so little, such trainings are vital. But since the closure of our office about three months ago, they no longer have access to these courses and all that they accompanied, including a sense of community and sisterhood among the women. I wish I could tell our trainees that our program will resume.

MT: What would you ask of the international community?

K: Civil society in Afghanistan was very hopeful of all the work that was taking place in the area of human and women’s rights. However, President Biden declared in a speech that, despite all of the work we have done, Afghans themselves are not doing enough for their own country. This statement made many of us lose hope, while it also implied that the work that my colleagues and I were doing and all that we achieved for women’s rights was invisible and insignificant. Those of us who have devoted years to rebuilding this country cannot afford to be silent as to what really is at stake in Afghanistan.  

Much of the Western media coverage is focused on the evacuation of journalists and members of the international community from Afghanistan. But if these observers leave, then who will hear us? Who will be able to truly see what is happening to us?

My plea to the international community is to support us by enabling reporting from within Afghanistan. I ask international observers, journalists, and humanitarian organizations to document what is happening in the country with Taliban’s takeover. I also ask them to not just report from the major cities like Kabul, but to also go to outlying provinces to provide reports on women’s rights and their access to education, employment, human rights there and to publicize the situation there.

The international community, including bodies such as the International Criminal Court (ICC), have a moral obligation to document our situation. They should provide us with resources to build peace and reconciliation, rather than abandoning us to our fate at such a critical time.

I constantly hear reports of Taliban’s attempts to reverse women’s rights, particularly in remote areas of Afghanistan, but I am fearful that these will stop being reflected in the international media or that the UN will simply decide to turn a blind eye to them.

Those of us who are familiar with provinces can attest to the fact that the Taliban have not moderated their position with regard to women. We know that, for instance, the burqa is being made mandatory for girls 6th grade and above. The Taliban, over the past months, have been mandating restrictions in villages, towns, and provinces. It is simply a matter of time before larger cities see such restrictions. Therefore, it is critical to report on them now, before they become widespread and normalized.

We also hope that humanitarian aid to Afghanistan will continue. Countless organizations and training programs depend on such aid to continue to provide their services. Millions of women and girls in Afghanistan depend on them to be able to survive, both trainers and our trainees.

Recognizing that the international community has not forgotten us and continues to support us will help many of us NGO workers to come out of hiding and continue our efforts in rebuilding this war-torn country. This is what we know best, so please continue to support our work.

MT: Did you notice any improvements in women’s rights or women’s perceptions of their own rights throughout your decade-long activism in this area?

K: Yes, I did. When I first got involved in women’s rights, I worked as a trainer in rural areas of Afghanistan, aiming to make women aware of their basic rights, such as their right to education, employment, access health care, choose their husband, and even select the color of their clothing. Many of them were not aware of these rights, and more had no formal education and could not read or write.

For instance, in the early years of my activism when I was completing a research report on women’s maternal health and access to clinics, nearly all the women I interviewed would only count their sons. They did not consider it important to even mention their daughters or to acquire IDs for them. Many women did not see much value in birthing daughters, since they left home upon marriage and were not there to take care of their parents in old age. However, this perception has changed drastically. Within the past three years or so, when I completed the same survey, they mention how many daughters and sons they have, while also paying much more attention to the importance of opportunities, such as schools or health clinics, for their daughters.

Today, they see the benefits of having educated daughters who can read and write. Daughters can become doctors, nurses, or engineers. Many women do not feel comfortable, for instance, seeking medical help if the only health-care provider in their village is a male. This understanding alone has encouraged many to see the value in educating their daughters and with the expectation that they will then be better able to contribute to society.

Women of Afghanistan have seen so much in their lives, and they are ready to improve their own situations and that of their children. It is our worry that all that we have worked so hard to accomplish these past decades is now at risk of being lost.

MT: We hear reports that there is support for the Taliban, particularly in remote areas and provincial towns. However, from what you are telling me it seems that many women, including those from impoverished areas, are also fearful of the Taliban and what their rise to power may mean for women’s hard-won rights. In your estimation, to what extent does the Taliban have support and among the general public?

K: Our people expected so much more from the republican era and the democratization that it promised. They hoped that a republican government would solve their problems and address their needs. Unfortunately, with the widespread corruption and the unfair distribution of resources across the country, many believe that neither the government nor the Taliban truly care for them. For example, we know that Afghanistan’s natural resources were sold in corrupt ways with no benefit to the average Afghan. This resentment toward the government was also felt among many of our educated youth, who despite their hard work, could not gain government employment because less qualified individuals who had either ethnic or financial connections received preferential treatment in securing such positions.

The high levels of corruption in the government did help the Taliban gain some support in areas that they had some control over the past years. For example, in the more remote provinces, in cases of theft or similar minor crimes, the Taliban’s justice system could act more effectively than the local police. While I am not supporting the Taliban’s practices, their so-called courts led by their elders would hold hearings to find the violator, and then force the thief to return the stolen goods, outcomes that were not possible with a corrupt local police force that was receptive to bribes because of poverty and other problems.

People who are less educated and have limited access to resources only see what is close to them and more immediate, without thinking so much about the long-term implications of a group like the Taliban coming to power. They are not considering the possibility that this will be the same group that will force men to grow beards, and chastise them for not praying as soon as the call to prayer is heard.

Unfortunately, Afghanistan suffers from a weak economy, and in the past decades, both the government and the international community failed to unite the country and were unable to deliver economic benefits to various sections of society. As a result I am not hopeful that a unified popular movement to resist the Taliban will form, at least immediately.