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After the Fall

Alum News

Afghan alums continue to show resilience in the face of Taliban rule

Photograph by Derek Shapton. Mina Zahine


Published December 5, 2023

In August 2021, U.S. and NATO forces abruptly ended their 20-year occupation of Afghanistan, paving the way for the return of the nation’s previous rulers, the Taliban. As during their previous time in power, from 1996 to 2001, the Taliban has imposed their harsh interpretation of Islamic law, resulting in gender apartheid. 

Of the edicts issued by the Taliban, over two-thirds explicitly target women and girls, dismantling their rights and effectively erasing them from public life. Girls cannot pursue education beyond the sixth grade, making Afghanistan the only country in the world where girls and young women are forbidden from attending secondary school and higher education institutions. Women have been banned from parks, gyms, salons, and public bathing houses. Access to routine and emergency health care has been severely curtailed, and limited opportunities to work outside of health and education have all but disappeared.

Days after the fated U.S. withdrawal, I reached out to Afghan members of the Smith community to see how they were faring. Two years later, I reconnected with some of them to better understand how they were processing what has unfolded in the country they fiercely love. 

“The challenge I set for myself every day is to try to find some hope.”

The first conversation I had with human rights activist Shaharzad Akbar ’09 back in 2021 was from a hotel in Istanbul. A weeklong respite from her work as chair of Afghanistan’s Independent Human Rights Commission quickly shifted into an escape from a regime known the world over for its brutality and subjugation. “When I got on my flight, everything was normal,” she said at the time. “Then I came online a few hours later in Turkey and learned that the president had fled and Kabul had been taken over. It moved unbelievably quickly.”

 I started with the question I posed to everyone with whom I spoke: Are you OK? Speaking quietly, so as to not awaken her then-2-year-old son, she said: “I’m between being numb and exhausted. But that’s how it is for now. That’s how it’s going to be for a while. None of us are OK.”

Today, Akbar is a visiting scholar at Oxford University—where she was once the institution’s first Afghan woman graduate—and she leads Rawadari, an international nongovernmental organization (NGO) that supports human rights in Afghanistan. 

“I have made peace with the fact that I can’t be physically in Afghanistan right now. My firstborn son? He has just turned 4. He had two of his birthdays in Afghanistan and, now, two of his birthdays outside. He has memories and sometimes says, ‘Let’s go back.’ We tell him, ‘We will go. Not now, but we will go.’

“There are so many factors outside my control, but I am not letting the uncertainty paralyze me because this is one of the most difficult moments in the contemporary history of my country. It’s not just because of the Taliban. In some ways, the American government particularly and many other governments are also responsible. It wasn’t completely unpredictable that, for instance, the Taliban would ban women from working. Considering that the international community knew this was coming, you would think that they would have some foresight—that Western governments who claim human rights are so important to them would have designed a strategy to ensure a coordinated response to at least try to pressure the Taliban to go back on some of their bans.

“But we have not seen any coordinated response, not even within the U.N. itself. They are not upholding their own principles of gender equality, but continuing with business as usual. And, in doing so, they are sending a message to the Taliban that even if they make things worse, we will adapt. We’ll take it as the new normal. That has been extremely difficult to watch.

“The challenge I set for myself every day is to try to find some hope. Any instance of broader solidarity for a better future—anyone still paying attention—also gives me some hope that this may not be the end of our story. The women inside are fighting, [despite] the levels of threats and intimidation and torture they have experienced and, unfortunately, will continue to experience. If they don’t give up, no one else should. We have a responsibility to do something about the situation, not just try to forget because it’s so overwhelming and bleak. My hope is that we will feed the light that these women carry and expand that light through our work.”

Shaharzad Akbar ’09. Photograph by Kiana Hayeri

“Afghanistan’s history has always been about change.”

My outreach to Simin Royesh ’21 started in early September 2021, just after she and her family had been evacuated from Afghanistan. “I am currently in a military camp in Doha with my family,” she wrote after my initial inquiry. “We have been told to be on call for our flight any minute or day.” 

Royesh went back to Afghanistan right after graduating from Smith, she later wrote me from the U.S. military base in Quantico, Virginia, “because I wanted to be a part of the new forces working toward bettering the living situation of many Afghans. Life in Afghanistan was not perfect … but at least I knew there was a place where I could always run to at my lowest and heal my broken soul. … I have lost that safe space.”

Now, Royesh is finding a sense of security in San Francisco. 

“This is my first time having relatives in the U.S. I’m no longer considered an international student or anything of that sort. My family seems to be all settled down. My mom has started to learn English, and my siblings are doing much better. I know it’s super difficult for them considering all the cultural differences—not knowing anybody here, not having the support system that they had back home. Still, they’re making the best out of it, and that makes me happy.

“Also, I’m going to be very honest: Anytime I think about Afghanistan, I feel miserable and helpless because there is so much going wrong and I can’t do anything. For the first year and a half, all I did was isolate myself from everything that was happening there because I needed to take care of my family before everything else. I’m glad I did that, but now my family’s in a better place and I carry survivor’s guilt. Sometimes I’m in a gathering with my co-workers and everything is going fine. Then I remember that in my country there are girls who do not even have access to basic education, and all of a sudden I feel horrible about myself. Everything starts to clash. I can’t do anything back at home, and it drowns me in so much pain. I feel horrible about where I am. 

“Then there’s also a glimpse of hope because Afghanistan’s history has always been about change. My father is 50 years old. During his life, he has seen peace, he has seen war, and he has fought war. When he talks about his life, my siblings and I see that the whole situation of Afghanistan is way more complex than what we comprehend. We have never had stability in our entire history. As much as that is a terrible concept for a country, that also becomes a beam of hope for me, saying, ‘Oh, it’s not going to last for long. Eventually, something nice will happen.’”

Mina Zahine ’15. Photograph by Derek Shapton

“Afghan women haven’t let the Taliban defeat them.”

In 2021, Mina Zahine ’15 told me she had a sense of forewarning about the withdrawal. “In the fall of 2019, things really started to take a turn for the worse. We knew where this was headed because the U.S. was negotiating with the Taliban, and Afghans weren’t part of the negotiations. My brothers had a visa [to Canada], and I remember my dad very clearly saying to me, ‘I want you to go and stay because I’m not sure how much longer I can protect you.’” 

Zahine is still in Canada, now completing a master’s degree at the Munk School of Global Affairs and Public Policy at the University of Toronto.

“I feel blessed to be in Canada and have the opportunity to go to school, as that’s not something that Afghan women can do back home, but the last two years have been rough. I was reckoning with losing my country to the Taliban and applying for graduate school at the same time as helping my mom and my brother navigate the immigration system here. Still, I was able to do it. These years have taught me that I can do anything I set my mind to. And I get that strength from my people. 

“Afghanistan has been there before, and we were able to get out of it. It’s going to be really tough, and things might get worse before they get better, but we can do it again. And this time around, it’s different. We have this new generation that grew up differently, with 20 years of democracy and possibilities. 

“My mom and my aunt—my mom’s sister—founded an NGO for Afghan women in the 1990s when they were still in Pakistan [and the Taliban was last in power]. The other day, I found out that my female cousin is now the director of that NGO. The realization that the little girl I grew up with is now the head of an NGO supporting Afghan women is the best feeling. Afghan women, including my cousin, have been quietly rebelling against the Taliban. They might not go into the office every single day, but they haven’t let the Taliban defeat them. They’re making it work.” 

Pain and suffering are intergenerational, Zahine says. But what her reflection—and those of Akbar and Royesh—shows is that what also runs through the lineages of Afghans is resilience. 

Preeti Simran Sethi ’92 is an award-winning journalist and scholar, a Rosalynn Carter mental health journalism fellow, and a 2009 recipient of the Smith College Medal.