Aryana Sayeed © Reuteres/SHERZAAD ENTERTAINMENT
As the situation continues to change in Taliban-ruled Afghanistan and the humanitarian crisis deepens, women remain steadfast in their battle to have their faces seen, raising their voices for inclusion in society—a powerful statement, but a dangerous one all the same.
In the two decades since the fall of the Taliban in 2001, women have made incredible strides toward equality. As of 2020, 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. In the midst, those who have found refuge outside of the country are using their voices to share their vision of a brighter future for Afghanistan and asking everyone to remember the women left behind.
Singer Aryana Sayeed Recounts Harrowing Escape from Afghanistan
Aryana Sayeed, an Afghan singer who has used her international fame to amplify calls for women’s rights, wore an all-enveloping veil to escape her homeland as the Taliban took Kabul.
A philanthropist and Goodwill ambassador, Aryana has long supported the #WhereIsMyName campaign led by Laleh Osmany, which brought about a change in Afghan law so that women’s names could be included on identity cards.
The women’s rights activist and her fiance, Hasib Sayed, made reservations on a commercial flight the day the Taliban entered Kabul, months after American troops ended U.S. involvement in the Afghan war. Unfortunately, the overcrowded commercial flight never took off.
Fearful of being recognized by Taliban fighters, the couple left the airport and sheltered with relatives in Kabul. The next day, they heard Taliban forces were searching door-to-door in their neighbourhood. Sayeed again went to the airport, wearing a veil that revealed only her eyes and travelling with Sayed’s young cousin as if on a family outing.
“We passed through five Taliban checkpoints. One of them stopped our car,” Aryana said. “The minute he saw me and the little boy, he said, ‘Go.’”
Sayed, in a separate car, was the first to reach the U.S. military-controlled airport. Being a Canadian citizen, he was allowed in and contacted Sayeed. His relatives escorted her to the airport, and the two flew out on a U.S. military plane.
“I got lucky to get out of Afghanistan. But what about the rest of the people that are there?” Aryana said. “For the past 20 years, I mean, so many girls and so many women, they went to schools, they got educated. So many of them are school teachers, doctors … so many achievements.”
All-Girls Robotics Team Finds Refuge in Mexico
The Afghan Dreamers, an all-female robotics team founded in the eastern Afghan city of Herat, is made up of teenage girls with bright minds and even brighter hopes for the future. Their vision, as they fashioned ventilators from bike chains and car parts in the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, was to prove that women can do anything—and everything.
Before the virus outbreak, the team built robots, studied programming, and prepared for their final year of school under an initiative set up in 2015 to teach girls tech skills and instill confidence through science.
“We had to be creative when it came to sourcing material,” said team captain Somaya Faruqi last year. “Our machines are built out of a combination of a Toyota Corolla motor, chains from motorcycles, and separate pressure, heat, and humidity sensors.”
According to the United Nations, Afghanistan’s literacy rate for women remains low at about 30 percent, with many girls in rural, conservative communities unable to attend school. In Herat, the city’s university had its largest body of women pursuing computer science, topping 500.
“Many people in Afghanistan think that Afghan girls and women are weak and incapable,” shares 16-year-old Sarah in an interview with Rest of the World. “They think they cannot be good leaders or push Afghanistan towards progress and development. However, in my opinion, this belief is very wrong. Afghan women have many achievements in different fields and are successful.”
With the help of international human rights lawyer Kimberley Motley and a group of volunteers who wished to remain unnamed, many robotics team members were able to flee Afghanistan and safely resettle in Mexico and Qatar.
“It’s extraordinarily heartbreaking to see the democracy and freedom crumbling,” Kimberley shared in an interview with CBC News. “These girls want to make Afghanistan and the world proud and continue to work toward their dreams.”
The dreamers won international awards and made headlines for their open-source, low-cost ventilators, receiving guidance from experts at Harvard University and eventually gaining the support of the Ministry of Public Health and the World Health Organization.
The members of the Afghan Dreamers team share a vision of leaving Afghanistan in search of higher education in a university where their ideas are not just heard but understood and respected. They hope to return to Afghanistan and deliver what they learn to support and build a better country for the next generation.
“I learn and study because I want to build Afghanistan in the future,” Sarah says.
How We Can Use Our Voices For Good
While we may be far from the problem on a global scale, we still have the power to provide much-needed support—in a way that is respectful of the women, children, and families who need it most.
“There is a way to be supportive of women on a global scale, without isolating and judging women locally who chose to practice their faith. It is possible to be a professional soccer player, a singer, or a chemist and also be an Afghan, and also be a Muslim,” says author Shireen Ahmed for InStyle Magazine.
Too often, well-intentioned advocacy can manifest in a way that is disrespectful of a person’s right to choose and practice their faith. As Ahmed states, “presuming that a woman in Seattle who chooses to wear hijab is as oppressed as a woman in Kabul is perpetuating violence.”
While there is certainly reason to criticize the restrictive system of the Taliban and how horribly it changes the rights of Afghan women, it is important to keep that criticism focused on the systems of oppression in place—not the religion of Islam.
The first step to that kind of positive and impactful support is education. Access to social media provides countless opportunities to follow and amplify the voices, work, and initiatives of Afghan activists, leaders, journalists, artists, and researchers. As rescue and evacuation missions continue, refugees may need extra help in getting settled. In Canada, resettlement agencies are accepting donations (in the forms of clothing, furniture, money, and more) and volunteer services.
“It is possible and necessary to be an ally and supporter of Afghan women as they navigate (again) a society that will try to silence them, without condemning a culture and faith with which they identify. Supporting Afghan women in what will undoubtedly be a very difficult time requires seeing them,” Ahmed concludes. “This fight cannot be won alone.”
More Human Rights Stories:
- Children Believe Sponsors Help A Young Girl in Ghana Achieve Her Dream
- U.N., Aid Groups Appeal for Afghanistan Funding, Vow to Stay
- A Light in the Darkness Spurs Hope for Afghanistan’s Women