“I was born in a war” — A Young Afghan Woman Speaks Out.
“I was born in a war; I grew up in a war, and now I’m in my 30s, and I’m still experiencing a war,” was how a young Afghan woman named Shogofa opened our wide-ranging conversation about the current situation and the prospects for women and girls in her homeland.
Shogofa is safe, in the United States; her family, though, which fled when the Taliban took over in August, is still caught in the months-long limbo endured by hundreds of thousands of Afghan asylum seekers, living under inhumane conditions in an official, U.S.-approved ‘refugee camp’ in the U.A.E. that doesn’t deserve that name. (We’re using only Shogofa’s first name, for her and her family’s and colleagues’ protection.)
Shogofa speaks with her family every day, to help them feel connected, and to reassure herself that they are safe.
“My niece asks me the same question that I used to ask my mother,” she told me: “’ Why can’t I go to school?’ She’s a smart young woman, she’s first in math, her sister is a med student…” Her voice trailed off.
Both girls’ dreams were shattered, at least, temporarily, when they were forced to flee Afghanistan. In the months since, they have languished in a small, dirty room, locked in there, together with their siblings and parents, by the U.A.E. authorities, and waiting for some sign that they and the other 2,000 families detained there will soon be able to move out of this purgatory and on with their lives.
The full stop put to girls’ education simply enrages Shogofa. “We need female doctors,” she said. “We need female engineers, and lawyers, and teachers.” She looked at me, pointedly.
“Women are teaching and raising the boys and girls, too,” she stressed. “If we don’t educate women, it will affect generations! Do we want them to grow up 100-percent uneducated?”
Shogofa’s mother was a school principal. “She educated a lot of women,” Shogofa told me, adding that during the Taliban’s earlier regime, the last time girls and women lost their freedom and voice, for about four to five years, her mother educated her and her siblings at home.
Shogofa now works for Sahar, a non-profit that educates Afghan girls and partners with my own organization, WomenStrong International. Over 20 years, Sahar has built schools, created curricula, and persuaded countless fathers to allow their daughters to attend school, resulting in the education of more than 250,000 young women and the creation of a community of some 250,000 families “who had dreams for their daughters,” she said.
About half the staff, including nearly all her women colleagues, are still in Afghanistan, currently in hiding; the other half have left, but most of their families are still in the country.
“We gave girls the voice to speak up,” Shogofa reflected, “to be part of society.” Sahar trained these young women as teachers and taught them computer, job, and leadership skills, enabling them to work independently inside Afghanistan, and to earn scholarships to study abroad, in the hope that they might one day return to help build their country. “A lot of them did go back,” Shogofa said proudly.
Then she sighed.
“These 20 years, we worked so hard,” she said. “And how easily it was destroyed. So much work, so much money, to give hope and dreams to those women, all educated now — to take that away, it’s not right.”
“Women have been disappeared from society again — the same sorrow I experienced. ‘You belong in the kitchen, at home, just bring babies, cook, and clean,’ they would tell us.”
She pointed out, as many have, that it’s a perversion of Islam to suggest that girls can’t attend school. “Religion shouldn’t be an excuse to deprive girls and women of an education, she said, pointing out that “Pakistan, Indonesia, and Turkey all respect education for women.”
Although the Taliban permits girls to go to school until they’re 10, and in some urban settings girls are “allowed,” in principle, to continue to attend until 12th grade, “they have been kidnapping girls from school,” Shogofa reported, “and there is so much fear” among families, that the Taliban might harm their daughters, should they see them out in the street on their way to school.
Now the Taliban get to decide when we go to school or work,” she raged. “’ If WE want, you’ll go to school,’” is their message, leaving women and girls “no freedom of choice.”
“The international community fought for 20 years” for women’s rights, she lamented, “and now we’re at the same place where we began. The education system has collapsed,” Shagofa declared, adding that the oppression goes beyond schooling. As has been widely reported, women are being arrested for speaking out, girls are being sold into child marriage out of financial desperation, sometimes out of the calculus that if a girl is in the hands of a Talib, she will at least be safe.
This in a country where, before the Taliban takeover, according to the international women’s rights organization Medica Mondiale, only a third of girls were still in school at age 15, a full third were married before they turned 18, and 20 percent of those under 18 were already mothers.
Now, with the health care system cratered and the economy pulverized by sanctions, corruption, and incompetence, Shogofa says that women forbidden or afraid to go to work or school are feeling hopeless. “Domestic violence is huge,” she said, shaking her head in near disbelief. “Children are in starvation, and parents are selling even their own body parts, to save their children.”
“This haunts me so much,” she said; “there should be a way NOT to let the Taliban do what they’re doing right now,” she said. “We worked so hard — giving hope to young people — how long will it take to build all this again?”
The U.S. and the international community need not simply stand by and let this go on. As Heather Barr of Human Rights Watch told a gathering hosted by Georgetown University’s Institute for Women, Peace and Security on Friday, right now, the West can make a dramatic difference in the lives of Afghan women and girls, by accelerating the flow of humanitarian assistance and infrastructure investment; leveraging the possible lightening of sanctions to pressure the Taliban directly on women’s rights and human rights, including the freedom of speech and media; renewing the UN monitoring mandate in Afghanistan, and appointing a Special Rapporteur on Human Rights with sufficient resources to do her job.
To Shogofa’s mind, such support cannot come not a moment too soon.
“There is so much fear,” she said; “there’s just no hope, for women right now.”