By Atefa Alizada and Amie Ferris-Rotman
July 7, 2021
Published in partnership with The Fuller Project, a global nonprofit newsroom reporting on issues that affect women, and Rukhshana Media, an independent Afghan news agency reporting on women
Before the Taliban started to dominate her district in western Afghanistan two years ago, Nadia was busy. When she was not teaching grown women how to read and write, traversing a patchwork of seventeen villages armed with little more than a few books, she was holding workshops for their husbands on women’s rights.
But once the Taliban killed the local governor in 2019 and got wind of Nadia’s program, they began sending death threats via religious officials and members of the local government. Once, insurgents shot at her car, narrowly missing her and injuring her husband. Another time, she and her children ran for their lives when armed men opened fire on them not far from her home. She moved her literacy courses underground, and started teaching a handful of women in her home.
But not long after President Joe Biden’s mid-April promise this year to withdraw all U.S. troops by Sept. 11, a senior local official reached out and told her to be extra careful, forcing Nadia to make a choice. She decided the risks to her life, and to her family, were no longer worth taking.
Now the 42-year-old teaches no one.
“We are threatened, we are banned from our activities, we are not authorized to work,” says Nadia, who asked to be identified by a pseudonym due to security concerns. In late April, Nadia fled her native Zendeh Jan district in western Afghanistan near the border with Iran, banking on anonymity in the bustling provincial capital city of Herat, where she now rents a house.
As the United States and its NATO allies withdraw their final troops and contractors, ending America’s longest-ever war, fears are growing about what happens to the country after. Many Afghans say they expect that the Taliban will return to power, either via a power-sharing deal with the Afghan government or through sheer force. The group already controls around half the country, ruling by its own definition of Islamic law. And there is widespread fear that if they do, the Taliban will reintroduce its notorious system of gender segregation from when the group ruled in the late 1990s, which barred girls and women from almost all work, the right to vote and access to education.
Messages of reassurance from Washington have been in short supply. The U.S. last week quietly vacated its Bagram air base, once the epicenter of the American war, without notifying the Afghan soldiers on guard, Afghan military officials said. Speaking to reporters ahead of the July 4 weekend, Biden said “The Afghans are gonna have to do it themselves.”
The plight of Afghan women and girls occupied much of the Western rhetoric around the 2001 invasion of Afghanistan, accompanying the stated aim of eradicating al-Qaeda for its role in staging the 9/11 attacks. Educating Afghan girls, a rallying cry of former first lady Laura Bush, in particular, became a U.S. focal point in Afghanistan. Soon after the U.S. invasion, tens of thousands of schoolgirls garbed in black uniforms and flowing white headscarves began attending schools across the country, symbols of tangible progress that are still touted by the international community today.