Afghan national women’s wheelchair basketball team captain Nilofar Bayat poses with her husband Ramish Naik Zai in Bilbao, Spain, August 22, 2021. REUTERS/Vincent West
By Raye Mocioiu
From television screens to the national parliament, Afghan women have spent two decades battling to have their voices heard and their faces seen. In the years since the fall of the Taliban in 2001, women have made incredible strides toward equality. As of 2020, Afghanistan’s parliament had a higher percentage of women than the U.S. Congress, and women were gainfully employed as ministers, judges, soldiers, and governors.
Now, the world watches in shock and horror as the same women fight an even harder battle to keep their rights intact and ensure the safety of themselves and their families.
Across the globe, countries and organizations are doing whatever they can to help get Afghan women and families to safety, holding evacuation missions to help vulnerable families escape.
Humanitarian agencies like UNICEF are scaling up and providing emergency protection and safe spaces for women and children, staying true to their motto, “leave no child behind.” Human rights lawyers like Kimberley Motley work tirelessly to get as many people out as possible. In the midst, those who have found refuge outside of the country plead and pray for the women left behind.
Filmmaker Sahraa Karimi recounts harrowing escape from Kabul
Sahraa Karimi, an Afghan filmmaker and the first woman to head the state-run Afghan Film Organization, made the terrifying yet necessary decision to get herself, her brothers, and her nieces out of Afghanistan even though she knew there was chaos at Kabul’s airport.
“I took my family. I leave my house, I leave my car, I leave my money, I leave everything that I have,” she said.
The 36-year-old has sounded the alarm about the return of Taliban rule, saying it would throttle the film industry and women’s rights.
“They don’t support art, they don’t value culture and they will never support these kinds of things,” Karimi said. “And they are afraid of educated, independent women,” she said, adding that the Taliban wanted women to be “hidden, invisible.”
“As a human being you should have value but under Taliban rules, okay, you live, but a miserable life,” she added.
After being unable to find a taxi home, Karimi began to run through the streets, filming herself as she ran. She posted the video on Instagram, where it gained over 1.3 million views.
Karimi and her family were due to leave on a flight that was evacuating Ukrainian citizens, she said. Still, as thousands of Afghans poured into the airport hoping to escape, access to her flight was cut off, and it left without them. Karimi got back in touch with the officials helping her and was told to move away from the crowd. Hours later, officials whom she did not identify took her family to another part of the airport, where she and her family boarded a Turkish flight to Ukraine.
Athletes speak up for women’s safety
After escaping the chaos of Kabul, basketball star Nilofar Bayat said she fears the Taliban will reverse all the achievements Afghanistan has made over the past 20 years.
“I saw at [Kabul] airport how dangerous [the Taliban] are. I was crying. My husband told me, be strong, I will never leave you alone,” Bayat, 28, told Reuters.
“Being a woman in the Taliban regime means nothing, you are not part of the society.”
As she began her new life, she said of her compatriots in Afghanistan: “We pray for them to be safe. Please don’t give up.”
Women athletes have become one of the most vulnerable populations in Afghanistan, rising up against a traditional culture that had, until recently, not accepted females participating in sports. More than 75 people associated with the Afghanistan Women’s national football team, including players, officials and their families, have managed to seek refuge in Australia.
FIFPRO, the worldwide association for professional footballers, has also been heavily involved in efforts to get the athletes out.
“We are grateful to the Australian government for evacuating a large number of women footballers and athletes from Afghanistan,” FIFPRO said in a statement. “These young women, both as athletes and activists, have been in a position of danger and on behalf of their peers around the world we thank the international community for coming to their aid.”
Khalida Popal, a former Afghan women’s team captain now living in Denmark, hailed an important victory.
“The women footballers have been brave and strong in a moment of crisis and we hope they will have a better life outside Afghanistan,” she said.
Nikki Dryden, who swam for Canada at two Olympic Games, worked with an Australian lawyer to complete the visa applications for the athletes, who included two Afghan Paralympians.
“There are also many athletes still at risk in Afghanistan and every effort should be made to offer them support,” FIFPRO added.
Keeping Afghan women visible
Following the Taliban’s takeover of Afghanistan last month, some rights and aid organizations have removed pictures of female beneficiaries, staff and other local women from their websites, officials and employees said.
Mohammad Naciri, U.N. Women’s director for Asia and the Pacific, said the move to remove photographs was temporary and sought to ensure the safety of the women they work with.
Other organizations have taken the opposite approach, stating that while they understood the risks, women must remain visible in Afghan society.
“Women’s presence and their contribution should not disappear,” said Samira Hamidi, Amnesty International’s Colombo-based South Asia campaigner and an Afghan national.
“It will be very disappointing if everybody were to address this issue in a way that because women are in danger, we will shut down everything about them … That would actually promote or support what the Taliban want.”
Both Karimi and Bayat, along with many other prominent women, like actress Angelina Jolie, continue to use their respective platforms to raise awareness for others trying to flee Afghanistan. It is an incredibly complex process, one that toes the line between putting women in danger and making sure that the work done by Afghanistan’s activists is not for naught.
Angelina Jolie, Special Envoy for the UNHCR, had also previously shared her support of Karimi, who had been appointed as Director General of Afghan Film in 2019, stating in a letter, “Afghanistan is very close to my heart and I can imagine how much your appointment means to your fellow countrywomen in particular.”
Jolie took to Instagram for the first time to share a heartbreaking and yet critically important letter from an Afghan girl (whose name was redacted), sharing her fears about the loss of her rights, her dreams, and her safety.
“I was on the border of Afghanistan two weeks before 9/11, where I met Afghan refugees who had fled the Taliban,” Jolie shared in the caption of her post. “This was twenty years ago. It is sickening to watch Afghans being displaced yet again out of the fear and uncertainty that has gripped their country. To spend so much time and money, to have bloodshed and lives lost only to come to this, is a failure almost impossible to understand.
“Like others who are committed, I will not turn away. I will continue to look for ways to help. And I hope you’ll join me.”