The world is watching as the Taliban takes over Afghanistan, and as Afghan women and girls once again become inevitable victims of the Taliban’s draconian policies.
I moved to Afghanistan in 2002, to set up an organization focusing on women’s rights. But I had already been working with the country since 1996, the year the Taliban last took over. They occupied Afghanistan until its so-called liberation in 2001. A few months later, I was there, setting up the Afghanistan office of a nonprofit organization called Women for Women International. I served as their country director for two years, and then moved into the United Nations. I stayed in Afghanistan until 2006. I did my doctoral research on the country while I was there. And I published a book on it in 2009.
Even after I was long gone, I never looked away. Even now I don’t look away, when looking at Afghanistan is the hardest thing to do.
During their reign, the Taliban banned girls from schools, banned televisions from homes, banned women from work — and from public life altogether. Afghan women had already built networks to survive: underground schools and safety systems, anything to protect themselves and their children. Any mother would have done the same; it is simply what mothers do. I’ve seen this time and again, in the 20 countries I’ve worked in, and right here in the U.S.
In 2001, courageous Afghan women exposed the abuses of the Taliban, using their burqas as tools of feminist activism to smuggle cameras that allowed them to take videos that alerted the world to their plight. Any country can be an Afghanistan, they said. Under the right conditions, your rights can be stripped away in a second. They’re right.
Right now, inaction simply isn’t an option. Nor is hopelessness.
In 2002, I walked the streets of Kabul, passing one woman after another, forced to beg on the side of the road.
“My child is starving,” one cried to me.
"I have a baby that I can't feed. There is no milk in my breasts," another called out as she held her malnourished child up to me.
And me? I am a child of war zones — Lebanon and Palestine — and a veteran of more than two decades of aid work in countries around the world. I know what war does to women. I know what the world does to women. And I know I’ll always have a lot of work to do, as much as I wish it were not so.
Today, I’m working to raise money and raise awareness about the situation in Afghanistan. It’s painful to see it deteriorate as it has. And Afghan women and girls deserve better. In fact, all women and girls deserve better. Right now, inaction simply isn’t an option. Nor is hopelessness.
This week, I spoke to my friend, an Afghan mother, about how she is managing the situation right now. What do mothers tell their children when things go badly? “Kids right now don’t know what is happening and are asking questions. Why can’t we go to school? Why can’t we ride our bikes anymore?” my friend tells me over the phone.
“Why are we covering our faces?” the young girls ask.
“Why are we inside all day?”
An American child also has questions.
“Why do I have to wear this mask, mama? Why can’t I go to school?”
“What does I can’t breathe mean?”
The stakes vary, but ultimately, a mother in Afghanistan as the Taliban takes over wants what an American mother wants: For her children to be safe, to be healthy, to be happy. In the end, the risks are different, but our hopes — and our inalienable human rights — are the same.
Today, Afghan mothers are telling their children not to look the Taliban in the eye.
Being a child in Afghanistan right now means learning the horrors of the past — horrors we all hoped were truly in the past. But now, these horrors have come to their doorstep. What do you tell an Afghan girl who has never seen war or violence?
My friend in Afghanistan tells me that children come up with their own solutions. They are resilient, they adapt so quickly. “But why did they have to adapt so quickly?” she laments.
“Today, Afghan mothers are telling their children not to look the Taliban in the eye. Mothers are concerned about their children’s safety, and their unknown future in a land that was only just beginning to be free. These kids, they may not be able to continue with their education. And girls, they now have the sense that they are unequal, less-than. We fought so hard to rid them of this very feeling.”
My niece is 7 years old. I work on women’s rights because I want to leave her with a better world than the one I had. She's my barometer. It’s too late for me, but her life needs to be better — more opportunities, more space, more freedom. And no fear. Even the fear of violence is a form of violence.
My Afghan friend said: “I tell my children about what is happening in the world even if it is too terrifying. The more they know, the more prepared they will be to face the world.”
And facing the world as a girl is difficult — everywhere.
An American friend of mine, whose daughter is also 7, put it well. “Admittedly when I found out I was having a girl, I sighed,” she told me. “Even in a developed country, I knew. I knew I would have to tell her to protect her body. And that whatever she wears is never an invitation. I knew I would have to tell her that sometimes — most times — life would not feel fair. ”
“At the end,” she continued, “I can’t shy away from conversations because they are difficult for me. That is doing her an injustice. She needs to be armed — with knowledge, with information, with understanding. That is what will keep her safe.”
And when Covid changed everyone’s lives, we all felt similar constraints, but the manifestations were different. My American friend told her daughter that she was lucky to be safe, sheltered in a home with good parents who love her, with things to do, with time to laugh, with toilet paper and the smell of sourdough in the oven. “I tried to keep her happy,” she says. “Being trapped for us looked like a house party. For other girls, being trapped is a prison.”
How do you explain what’s happening to girls who have grown up with freedom? And who take their freedom for granted?
Afghan girls took their freedom for granted, too. As they should. They deserve to be free — just like girls everywhere.
Yet women and girls all over the world are never allowed to take their safety for granted. It's a mistake to think things are different “here.” We know from global evidence that insecurities and disasters bring increased violence against women. We saw it after Hurricane Katrina. We saw it during our months of lockdown. And we see it now — in Afghanistan, in Haiti, everywhere. Women and girls bear the brunt of the world’s calamities. It’s the worst byproduct of insecurity — and the greatest crime of our time.
How do we respond — how do we ensure our children’s safety — when things go badly in our own hometowns and countries? When our livelihoods are threatened, when the ground falls away beneath our feet or is burned black by a wildfire? What if the Capitol attack had been more violent, had a different outcome? What awaits us, our families, in any corner of the world? When our rights and freedoms are threatened, that’s when we need each other most.
And at the end, we all want and deserve the same things.
“Now,” the American mother explains, “if I stare at my phone too long, my daughter asks, What’s the news, mama? And I tell her. I tell her about violence, about racial injustice, about Covid. And today I tell her about Afghanistan.”
And my Afghan friend, she tells her daughter: “Tonight, we wait.”