Afghan women made major advances in the last 20 years. Relief efforts are desperate to make sure they’re not left behind.

By Anne Branigin | Originally published: The Lily

This story has been updated.

To professor Bahar Jalali, the American University of Afghanistan was an oasis.

The university in Kabul was home to Jalali’s gender studies class — started in 2015, it was the first of its kind in the country, according to Jalali, who’s now an adjunct professor at the University of Maryland.

Half of her students were young men, the other women, she said. Together, they debated gender, feminism, toxic masculinity, forced marriages and mental health. For years, Jalali had a front-row seat to these good-natured debates. An Afghan American, Jalali was struck by the way her female students defied “Orientalist stereotypes of the poor, oppressed Muslim woman.”

They were sophisticated in their thinking — “so clever” and “so spirited,” Jalali said.

The students were also business owners, fashion designers, aspiring diplomats and public servants, she continued. Some were the first in their families to attend a university. After graduating, many became economically independent, she said.

“They weren’t naive little girls who kept their heads down and were shy,” Jalali said. “They were confident. They were strong. These were women who were ready to conquer the world — and they did.”

Speaking on the phone from her home in Maryland on Monday night, Jalali said she was overcome with an immense sense of loss. Gripped by news of the Taliban sweep through Afghanistan in the wake of a complete U.S. withdrawal from the country, she has slept little in the last week.

“I’m someone who’s seen a lot of trauma,” said Jalali, who survived a terrorist attack on the university during her time teaching in Afghanistan. “This has hit me harder than anything ever in my life.”

In the last week, images of chaos and panic coming out of the country have dominated news headlines and social media feeds. As swarms of Afghans rush to secure safe passage out of the country, fearing what may come from Taliban leadership, people and organizations have rallied to support those seen as particularly vulnerable to the group: Afghan women and girls.

The International Women’s Media Foundation called for donations to help female journalists in the country seek safety and refuge. The grass-roots organization Women for Afghan Women said it has evacuated its centers and paused operations to help support and resettle Afghan women and their families.

“As we speak to you now, right now, the devastating crisis in Afghanistan has forced nearly 400,000 Afghans — including thousands of our clients, staff and their families — to flee their homes, towns and provinces seeking safer refuge,” the organization wrote.

On Tuesday, the Taliban promised not to discriminate against women. Spokesman Zabiullah Mujahid said women will be allowed to work within the confines of sharia law, but he emphasized that how that will work in practice will need to be determined.

Some experts were skeptical of the remarks, noting there have been reports of discrimination in Taliban-held areas and that the group’s promises were only partial. Many have also pointed out the severe laws the group enforced from 1996 to 2001, when it ruled most of the country: Women were forced to wear burqas that covered the entire face and body; those who went unaccompanied in public places faced beatings; girls couldn’t attend school.

As the events unfold, individuals in Afghanistan and beyond have been trying to facilitate flights and travel for those trying to get out of the country.

Among them is Kimberley Motley, a U.S. human rights lawyer who has worked in Afghanistan for the past 13 years.

Over the last week, Motley, who’s based in Charlotte, has been receiving frantic calls and videos sent by friends and clients in the country. Motley said she is trying to get as many people out as she can, including an all-girls Afghan robotics team she worked with in the past.

The team, founded by a friend of Motley’s, hails from Herat and includes 25 girls between the ages of 12 and 18, as well as their mentors. To many in the country and abroad, the girls on the team symbolized the new Afghanistan and all its promise — so much so that their faces were painted on a wall outside the U.S. Embassy in Kabul.

Motley views the girls’ achievements as contradicting President Biden’s recent comments that Afghans on the government side were “not willing to fight” for their country.

“That’s so insulting to say, especially for women,” she added.

She noted that women have become lawyers, doctors and teachers since 2001; they ran for office and became judges.

“How dare anyone think that they’re not willing to fight just because [they’re] not going on a battlefield,” Motley said.

Sara Wahedi, chief executive of the Afghan tech start-up Ehtesab, has also been fielding calls around-the-clock trying to facilitate passage outside of the country, particularly for women and children.

Wahedi, 26, was born in Afghanistan but spent much of her life in Canada before returning to Kabul at the age of 21. Much of the last two years, between the pandemic and the resurgence of the Taliban, has felt like a bad dream, she said — one she and her family are waiting to wake up from.

“The rapid encroachment of the Taliban doesn’t feel real. Nothing feels real,” Wahedi said. She’s currently en route to New York City, where she’s set to begin classes at Columbia University.

“If people don’t get on these flights, I don’t know how I could keep going on,” she continued. “I have never felt this fearful in my life. Everything is crumbling so fast.”

Wahedi said she’s been moved by the outpouring of support from across the world on social media, where people have been reaching out, volunteering donations and offering up their homes to refugees. The outreach has been a stark contrast, she said, to what international aid organizations and governments have offered to Afghan people since the crisis began.

Like many other Afghans, she’s not sure how things collapsed so quickly, but those details don’t matter to her and others like her right now, she said. Much remains uncertain in the country: Banks are closed, and those frantically trying to meet visa requirements for foreign travel are struggling. There are no notaries to help complete paperwork, no places to scan copies of identifying documents.

There have been conflicting reports about what the Taliban plans to do in the coming days and weeks. On Twitter, Afghan women said they were being turned away by the Taliban at Herat University; only male students and professors were allowed in.

Wahedi and others are apprehensive about what the Taliban will do next. Afghanistan has one of the youngest populations in the world, and many have little or no recollection of what it was like to live under Taliban rule. But she doesn’t see a reason to trust the Taliban. Earlier this year, she noted, the group violated a cease-fire with the Afghan government (the Taliban denied it had done so).

Like Jalali and Motley, Wahedi sees the advancement of Afghan women in the last 20 years as one of the country’s biggest successes. According to one report, the U.S. government alone funneled $787.4 million toward programs primarily for Afghan women and girls.

Wahedi saw the effects of this investment up-close: When she started her tech company in Afghanistan, nearly 60 percent of applicants were women — from interface designers to engineers. “Whatever opportunity [women] have had, they have taken,” she added.

She wonders what all of that money and opportunity was for if the rest of the world now plans to leave Afghan women behind. She pointed out that more female leaders in government called to be part of the peace talks brokered earlier this year. She wonders: Where was the international community’s concern for women when only a few Afghan women were at that table?

“What is diplomacy supposed to do if you cannot protect these gains, these freedoms? What was the point in any of this?” Wahedi asked. A failure to protect these gains would be an indictment against the United States and peacekeeping organizations like the United Nations, she said.

On Wednesday, the United States joined 20 nations and the European Union calling for the protection of women and girls in Afghanistan.

“We are deeply worried about Afghan women and girls, their rights to education, work and freedom of movement,” the joint statement read. “We call on those in positions of power and authority across Afghanistan to guarantee their protection.”

Wahedi said Afghan women need an end to the “copy-paste diplomatic scripts.” She wants the Taliban to be held accountable with sanctions if it rolls back freedoms for women and other vulnerable populations, like ethnic and religious minorities.

Wahedi also called for a “proper withdrawal” with adequate protections for whoever wants to leave the country. To her, the absence of security and peacekeeping forces at the airports has been particularly conspicuous. For women and children to find refuge, she said, clear plans are needed for transporting Afghans safely to airports from their homes.

Most of all, Wahedi worries about what will happen when the eyes of the world are no longer on Afghanistan: What will the Taliban do when the cameras leave?

“It just feels like a Pandora’s box, to be honest,” she said.

Jalali, however, is hopeful that 20 years of progress for women and girls won’t be so easily erased.

“I don’t see this new generation of Afghan women cowering down to the Taliban,” Jalali said. “Afghanistan today is not the same country it was in 2001.”