“Don’t abandon us!” That’s the message I’m getting from brave, educated Afghan women – as the Pentagon advances the date for the final troop withdrawal from Afghanistan to mid-July.
There is a last minute Pentagon scramble to plan for evacuating 18,000 translators who worked with the U.S. military, but it’s still unclear whether this will happen.
But little thought seems to have been given to the fate of thousands of Afghan women who have been educated and taken up jobs in the past two decades since the Taliban was defeated – or to the fate of millions of girl students. Over one third of Afghanistan’s nine million school children are now female, but those numbers are shrinking as the Taliban shuts down girls’ education in rural areas. Meantime, hardline Islamists attack and bomb girls’ schools.
A conversation with two brilliant Afghan female university students reminds one of how hard so many Afghan girls have struggled for an education. These gains, about which U.S. officials brag, could disappear overnight if the Taliban takes power.
The students are deeply worried, but have ideas about how Americans can still help.
“Don’t give up on us,” urges Yasameen Mohammadi, a graduate of Bucknell University in Lewisburg, Pa., who is starting a master’s degree at University of Pennsylvania.
She was born a refugee after her parents fled Taliban rule in the 1990s. When her family returned to Afghanistan in 2005, her father chose the poor Dasht e Barchi neighborhood of Kabul, because he wanted to send Mohammadi to the unique Marefat School. The school was founded by another returned refugee, the visionary Aziz Royesh, who sought to give equal educational opportunities to girls.
“My dad would always say ‘I’m ready to sell my eye for your education,’” Mohammadi recalls. “Marefat really gave me motivation, and our teachers were hopeful for the future. I grew up at a time when girls were treated like human beings.”
I visited the Marefat school in 2010 and was deeply moved by the steely determination and optimism of female high school students. (Most are from the Shiite Hazara minority whom the Taliban persecutes as infidels.) Their open confidence was a far cry from my 1999 visit to Kabul under the Taliban when girls’ education was banned and girls snuck into secret schools.
Mohammadi was helped by the New-Jersey based Afghan Girls Financial Assistance Fund (AGFAF) to attend high school and college in America,and now wants to create educational projects for people in war zones. With AGFAF’s help and fundraising, she built the first library for the blind at the Kabul School for the Blind.
“Part of me is very scared and worried about a Taliban takeover,” she says, “but looking at friends and cousins at home and seeing how far they have come … I can’t wrap my head around it, how the Taliban are so savage and closed-minded. People who fought for an education, I don’t know how they can fight back.”
Qamarnisa Ayoub is also struggling to imagine Afghanistan’s future. She hopes to return to Kabul as a doctor. (“My dad wanted me to be Minister of Health,” she recalls.) With AFGAF’s help she attended Wagner College in New York City and is now a student researcher at the Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston.
But her high school, the Sayed Ul-Shuhada school, was bombed this month, targeting girls who were leaving classes and killing around 90 students. “The school was badly damaged,” she says, and students are still dying. It’s harder for them to convince parents to let them attend.”
The school will never run out of students, Ayoub says, because so many parents still want to educate their daughters. (When she attended, the girls attended classes in tents and only received their own building three years ago.)
“But many teachers are fearful of returning. Ayoub is working with AGFAF to raise money to help purchase 16-20 security cameras and hire 5-7 private guards, along with rebuilding classrooms.”
Mercifully, the Andeshagah library she built at the school in summer 2017 under AGFAF’s supervision, which was used for adult literacy, computer classes, and a learning center, was not wrecked..
The contrast between girls’ gains over the past two decades and what may lie ahead is staggering. Her two nieces still bike to school and play soccer, which she wasn’t permitted to do when she was in high school. “There is going to be a dramatic change if the Taliban come back,” she says, “and all these opportunities will go away.”
So how can Americans help Afghan girls and women fight back?
Make the U.S. government hold the Taliban accountable, urges Ayoub. “They can’t just hope the Taliban will allow women to exercise their human rights.” She also hopes ordinary Americans will help Afghan civil society activists to continue building and improving schools.
Mohammadi urges Americans to continue supporting educational opportunities for Afghan women and minorities, and to connect local U.S. schools to Afghan schools with cultural exchanges.
“One hundred percent God forbid, but if the day comes when the Taliban takes over,” she adds, she hopes Americans will help develop distance learning projects for Afghan girls and women. Her final request: “Please keep an eye on the fate of women and minorities and let the wider world know what is happening.”
For Americans who want to start helping now, AGFAF (agfaf.org) and the Bamyan Foundation, which gives scholarships to Marefat and other schools (bamyanfoundation.org) are a good place to start.