Reclaiming Lost Power: The Political Trajectory, Despair and Aspirations of Exiled Women Afghan Lead

Page 1

Reclaiming Lost Power: The Political Trajectory, Despair, and Aspirations of Exiled Afghan Women Leaders Mobina Akbari1, Nadina Christopoulou2, Ivy Delacion2, Jakana Thomas3, Charlemagne Gomez4, Namratha Rao5, Anita Raj5 1. 2. 3. 4. 5.

Afghan Women Parliamentarians and Leaders Network (AWPLN) Melissa Network School of Global Policy and Strategy, University of California San Diego Afghans in Crisis Network Newcomb Institute, Tulane University

Suggested Citation: Mobina Akbari, Nadina Christopoulou, Ivy Delacion, Jakana Thomas, Charlemagne Gomez, Anita Raj. Reclaiming Lost Power: The Political Trajectory, Despair, and Aspirations of Exiled Afghan Women Leaders. Newcomb Institute, Tulane University. (December 2023) Acknowledgments: We thank the female leaders who participated in this survey. We greatly appreciate that they shared their experiences and are truly humbled by their strength. We would also like to thank the following people for their contribution to this report: Jennifer Yore ((Center on Gender Equity and Health, University of California San Diego), Edwin Elizabeth Thomas (Center on Gender Equity and Health, University of California San Diego) and Becky Gipson (Newcomb Institute, Tulane University).


Contents Abstract .................................................................................................................................................. 4 Introduction ........................................................................................................................................... 5 Melissa Network: Evacuation and Support to Afghan Women Leaders..................................... 5 Method .................................................................................................................................................... 5 Results..................................................................................................................................................... 7 Rising to positions of leadership ..................................................................................................... 7 Areas of focus on women and gender equality ............................................................................. 9 Women Leaders: Challenges in their Professional Work ........................................................... 10 Leaving Afghanistan: Loss and Mourning..................................................................................... 14 What Lies Ahead: Resettlement, Goals and Aspirations ............................................................ 17 Conclusion and Recommendations ................................................................................................... 19

Members of the Afghan Women Parliamentarians and Leaders Network (AWPLN) voting for the board directorate at the Melissa Network office in Greece, April 2022 [Photographer: Mobina Akabri]


Abstract This study examines the political trajectory, careers, experiences, and difficulties of Afghanistan’s female political and judicial leaders. Interviews conducted in 2022 with 27 female Afghan leaders in exile reveal the exceptional educational and professional qualifications of women who rose in political power over the last two decades. During that time, Afghanistan’s female leaders amassed university education, political connections, and positions of power. Our interviews reveal both triumphs and devastating losses. Although female politicians helped advance women’s and human rights in the country, they were frequently met with disdain and discrimination from colleagues and community members. They also endured shocking violence and persecution during the Taliban’s takeover in 2021, which saw the retraction of women’s rights seemingly overnight. Our respondents describe their despair over leaving their homeland, livelihoods, families, and futures. We conclude by detailing their hopes for the future, including how they might contribute to Afghan politics from their positions in exile and offering practical insights about the potential for change.


Introduction On August 30, 2021, the United States (U.S) Armed Forces completed their withdrawal from Afghanistan, ending a two-decade-long war and resulting in the restoration of Taliban rule in the country. During the Taliban’s prior rule of Afghanistan, from 1996 to 2001, under Sharia Law, women were banned from formal education, paid employment, freedom of movement without a male chaperone, and involvement in politics or public speaking (1). During the period of US Armed forces in the country, these bans ended, and women could be elected to parliament, serve as judges, and lead non-governmental organizations focused on women’s rights and safety from gender-based violence. In 2005, an affirmative action law was passed in Afghanistan that guaranteed over one-fourth of seats in Parliament and over 30 provincial councils to be reserved for women, ensuring opportunity for women’s leadership (2). Sadly, these women leaders were forced to flee the country as they were known proponents of women’s rights laws and opponents to Taliban rule (3).

Melissa Network: Evacuation and Support to Afghan Women Leaders On August 15, 2021, Melissa Network, a non-governmental organization supporting refugee and migrant women, worked with local and international partners to evacuate these persecuted Afghan women leaders to Greece with permission granted by the Greek government. They intended to support a critical mass of vulnerable women in influential positions –the multipliers in the context of a society in transition – thus safeguarding their capacity to remain connected and engaged throughout their diaspora trajectories. Several female activists, parliamentarians, judges, journalists, artists, scientists, and other high-level professionals were able to flee the nation as the government collapsed, and they were safely evacuated to Greece through various initiatives. Greece became a common destination for Afghan women leaders fleeing the nation (4). In addition to the safe evacuation of these women and their families, the Melissa Network continues to offer support by linking them to housing, welfare services, and schools for the children, as well as to women’s networking and advocacy efforts. Drawing upon its vast experience with women migrants and refugees, Melissa Network, whose name in Greek translates to a beehive, perceived the whole endeavor through this very metaphor: rescuing a beehive from a blazing forest and setting it on solid and safe ground to rebuild their interrupted lives and sustain their collective work. The overarching aims of this process are i) to prevent the fragmentation and atomization of the diaspora post-conflict, ii) to emphasize the roles and rights of women as political actors and change-makers, and iii) to focus on women’s resilience, profound knowledge, and national rebuilding potential. Given their role in evacuating women leaders from Afghanistan, the Melissa Network was uniquely positioned to learn about Afghan women’s experiences before and during this crisis. The organization undertook a mixed methods study with Afghan women leaders to understand the trajectory of these women, from leaders of immigration to their current and future aspirations for themselves, their families, and Afghanistan. Insights from this work provide a critical understanding of the experiences of women leaders in the context of gender inequities and political upheaval.

Method From January to June 2022, the Melissa Network conducted 31 In-Depth Interviews (IDIs) of Afghan women leaders forced out of their homeland and in the process of resettlement to share stories of their 5

professional career, their experiences fleeing Afghanistan, and their needs and hopes as refugees. This study is limited to N=27 participants, as we wanted to focus analyses on women leaders in government and the judiciary. We aimed through this work to depict the formation of active socio-political engagement of women leaders even from exile and the difficulties they face in resettlement. Melissa's staff members identified and recruited eligible women in person into this study. Each interview was conducted over the phone for 90- to 120 minutes. All interviews were conducted privately, and women participating by phone were asked to confirm they were in a private space for the discussion. Interviews were not audio-recorded. The trained interviewer, a Melissa staff member who spoke in Pashtu, Dari, and English, took detailed notes during the interview and then translated all notes into English for analysis. The IDIs asked open-ended questions to all respondents on the following issues: 1) The nature of their position and how they achieved it, including their parents’ role in their lives and support for their leadership positioning. 2) Their areas of focus for women in Afghanistan and how their interest in these areas developed. 3) Difficulties they faced in their work in Afghanistan, including violence or mistreatment. 4) Why they felt they must leave, their experiences of leaving, and what they lost by leaving. 5) What do they need for resettlement, and how do they want to continue their work in the future? Interviewers were guided to try to obtain at least three or four sentences for each question from each respondent to obtain richer information from respondents on these items. They were also asked to include responses verbatim when possible. In addition to the IDIs, we also asked a series of closed-ended questions on demographics (age, education, marital status, number of children), number of people and relationship to those who accompanied them out of Afghanistan, their professional position of leadership in Afghanistan, experiences of abuse or mistreatment while in their leadership position, and their current emotional state. We also used closed-ended questions to assess women’s experiences of disrespect, abuse, or mistreatment from colleagues and community members while in their leadership positions in Afghanistan. We asked for 11 items on harassment and abuse by colleagues in their workplace. Specifically, they were asked about the frequency of the following experiences: verbal mistreatment, sexual harassment, withholding information that affects their work performance, persistent criticism of their work, repeated reminders of their work errors, spreading of negative gossip, practical jokes at their expense, insulting or offensive personal remarks, shouting or rage at them, ignored or excluded, and hostility. Response options were never, occasionally, monthly, weekly, or more. We categorized each item as yes or no. We also asked two items on how men and women in their community viewed them, given their position. Response options were a) very respectfully, b) respectfully, c) normal, as other women, d) not so respectfully, and e) disgracefully. We categorized this as either respectful/normal or disrespectful. To assess the respondent’s current emotional state, we asked them about the frequency of the following symptoms of depression and anxiety in the past two weeks: 1) feeling nervous, anxious, or on edge, 2) not being able to stop or control worrying, 3) having little interest or pleasure in doing things, and 4) feeling down, depressed, or hopeless. Response options were not at all, several days, more than half the days (of the past two weeks), or nearly every day. Due to high reports of these symptoms, we present findings on the prevalence of the given symptom nearly daily.


The Melissa Project deidentified all translated interviews, and data were then compiled by response to questions. We present all responses descriptively.

Results Participants (N=27) were Ministers of Parliament (n=17), Judges (n=5), Senators (n=2), and other government officials (3). They ranged in age from 31 to 64 (median age 44 years). They represented 15 provinces across Afghanistan. (See Figure 1.) Most were married (81%); 14.8% were never married, and 3.7% were previously but not currently married. Most were mothers (81%), and the median number of children per mother was 4. All Figure 1 Map of Afghanistan Provinces women had a college degree; 63% had a law degree. All women had people who accompanied them out of Afghanistan; the median number of people accompanying them was five. Women elected officials varied in their backgrounds. Some women were teachers, school administrators, or university professors before entering politics. Others came from non-governmental organizations working on issues of gender equality, human rights, and disaster relief, often via funding and support from international partners. Women who served as Ministers of Parliament and Senators often entered politics through family connections. However, some did not have these connections and were selected by community elders due to their positions as school administrators or other community leadership roles and entered politics in Provincial Councils. The judges included in these interviews worked in family courts, appellate courts, and the Supreme Court. They included members of the High Commission against Human Trafficking and the Department of Punishment and Violence against Women.

Rising to positions of leadership Women leaders typically came from families with financial means and good social positioning, where at least one parent, typically the father, had received formal higher education. In this context, education was encouraged and supported. “My father was a military general, my mother was a religiously trained woman, and my brother was a military doctor. I came from an educated family, and my parents pushed me to be educated. My father helped me, and my brother convinced me to be MP” (MP, 54 yr) “I was born in an educated family. My father was a government employee, my mother completed elementary school. My father encouraged me to be educated along with my brothers and sister” (Senator, 56 yr)


In Afghanistan, women elected officials, judges, and leaders of NGOs were educated at the bachelor’s level or greater, despite girl education being non-normative and, at times, illegal. Some of the women were educated outside of Afghanistan because their families were in political exile, and they were able to have access to schools in these other countries. Family support for their education and the use of that education professionally was shared as the necessary first step toward their path to leadership and a key motivator in their drive to be impactful leaders. It was my father who encouraged me and all my brothers and sister to be educated. When I improved (in my academics) day by day, my family was proud of me. But my father passed away. He was my strongest supporter and advisor. (Senator, 56 yr) My mother was a home religious teacher, and she used to teach the Quran to the children in our community. My father wasn’t educated, but...he hired a home teacher for us. He wanted us to be educated…My mother tried a lot (for my education) because my father had died. It was my goal to be a politician, and I have worked hard to serve the people. (MP, 57 yr) She (my mother) had a strong desire for me to go to the university so that one day, I could make her dream come true by becoming a judge. My mother was completely illiterate, but she was very intelligent and interested in education and learning. (Judge, 40 yr) Women also described how their participation in education and their parents’ support for it influenced others in their families and communities to support girls' education. We were living in a very small village. Because there wasn’t any school, my father decided to move from the village to the big cities for the education of me and my brothers and sisters. He was the elder of the community, and it was not common during that time for girls to go to school… The people criticized my father that he allowed his daughter to go to school. He responded in a very calm and nice way, and the other people became motivated to send their daughter to school. Now, I can say my father did not just open the door to school for me; he also opened this door to so many girls in that period. Once I was educated, I became a professor at the university. He was proud of me, as was my mother. One of my wisest advisors in my life was my father. (MP, 52 yr) My father went against the tradition of the society (to let me pursue my education). He accepted all the risks and allowed me to go to Kabul and stay in a dormitory away from home. After a while, as I was approaching my graduation, my relatives also sent their daughters. Soon, a large number of girls from our province had come to study at the university Kabul. (Senator, 64 yr) They also described how the support from their parents resulted in their breaking barriers and becoming the first women judges and politicians in their communities or regions. My parents worked hard and supported me from my childhood until I got to the judiciary and became a judge. Before me, there was no female judge in the Faryab province or in the Faryab community. Female judging was not valued…The only person who encouraged me to become a judge was my mother, then my father. When I became a judge, they were proud of me, and still today, they support me. (Judge, 31 yr) 8

Twenty years before, when the Taliban fell in the first round (2001), I became an active female rights activist. My father helped me to be elected representative of **** district people of Herat province. He was a community elder, and he had much influence because of his government job. (MP, 52 yr) Since I was a student in 9th grade, I was interested in politics. I would stand in front of political rallies with (a poster with) the slogan asking for people’s rights. It was my own interest to become a politician, but my parents pushed me to be educated. As a military general, my father monitored me a lot to be one step forward more than the others. He facilitated my education and opened the ground for my (political) opportunities. I became one of the 5 top women in ****. My brother also believed in me, so they pushed me to work hard and become an MP. (MP, 54 yr) These efforts from parents and other family members, including in-laws, included hands-on support in political campaigns for the Parliamentarians. My parents were proud of me; they supported me financially and were very involved in my campaign during the election. (MP, 43 yr) My family nominated me for parliament. They printed my pictures and put banners up on the streets and in other places during the parliament candidates’ campaign time. So, all the management was arranged by my mother, who still supports me from far away. They were proud of me and happy with my progress. (MP, 54 yr) My mother and father were the ones who encouraged me to turn to politics. During the three terms of my work as an MP and member of the provincial council, my father-in-law and mother-in-law also supported me. My parents supported me and encouraged me to gain people's trust. (MP, 46 yr) These leaders were primarily married and were mothers. Their husbands also typically had an education, social positioning, and financial security. For women who did not feel support for their education and career from their parents, husbands were critical supports for them in this direction. Husband support for continued education would be essential for these women, as many married young. My parents were both illiterate. I was married at the age of fifteen, and my husband supported my education plan. (MP, 45 yr) My father was educated, and my mother was illiterate. They supported me in going to school, but I got married when I was just 17. At that time, I wasn’t a school graduate and was still very young. All my education and work experiences from then on were supported by my husband… My parents did not agree with my work and continuing education… (people said) “Your husband is a weak man. He allowed his wife to work outside the home and show her face to other men.” (MP, 57 yr)

Areas of focus on women and gender equality Respondents described investing in women’s issues, civil rights and human rights, good governance, including peace and justice, economic security, health and welfare, and the law. We highlight key areas of focus in Table 1. 9

Table 1. Areas of Focus for Women Leaders Women’s issues Civil Rights and Human Rights • Girls’ education • Women and children’s rights • Women’s economic • People with disabilities empowerment • Internally displaced people • Gender-based violence: partner (IDPs) violence, sexual violence, • Connecting notion of rights trafficking with Islam • Child, early, and forced marriage • Women in prison Economic security Health and Welfare • Income generating activities • Education • Vocational training • Healthcare • Agriculture • Maternal mortality • Family planning

Good Governance • Peace and Security • Mediation & conflict resolution • Effect of long-term warfare • Counter terrorism • Counter corruption • Infrastructure • Environment • Smuggling, Drugs, Arms Law • Inheritance law • Civil law • Criminal law • Inheritance law

Women Leaders: Challenges in their Professional Work Women, especially female politicians, described a variety of difficulties in undertaking their work in Afghanistan, including a lack of respect from male colleagues in their workplaces. Figure 2 illustrates the negative experiences that our respondents faced as members of parliament, judges, senators, and other government officials. An overwhelming majority endured verbal abuse, were gossiped about, ignored, or faced overt hostility in their interactions with colleagues. Many reported feeling undermined by their colleagues through persistent criticism and being denied pertinent information that affected their job performance. In many cases, abuse from colleagues went far beyond disrespect and included physical and sexual threats and abuse. Below is a subset of reflections on their ill-treatment. When I got the new directorate position in ****, male staff members did not accept me, a young woman, coming and becoming the director - it wasn't acceptable (to them); it was a threat. (Judge, 44 yr) The strongest woman in front of the Afghan people was like a mosquito. I faced a lot of abuse, threats, and danger during my positions, which I held for the last 28 years. Even inside of parliament, when I wanted to raise my voice… the male MPs were against my ideas and ignored me many, many times inside the (jirga). (MP, 57 yr)) I faced psychological violence from men who didn’t want a young girl to come to the parliament and express her voice and from women who didn’t want a young girl to become their representative…the problems and abuses, the violence, start from inside the parliament and outside the parliament, with government officials like the minister. When I wanted to solve my client's problem with a government minister, they didn’t like that...threatening by phone and letter from the security department alarm every day was in progress. (MP, 30 yr)


Kabul, Afghanistan on August 23, 2018 - Flags fly over the Afghan parliament building near the capital city [Source: NATO].


Fig 2. Experiences of Disrespect or Abuse from Colleagues 100.0%


96.3% 92.6%







80.0% 70.0% 63.0% 59.3%

60.0% 50.0% 40.0% 33.3% 30.0% 20.0% 10.0% 0.0% Colleagues at Colleagues at work verbally work sexual mistreating you harassing you

Colleagues at Persistent Repeated Colleagues Practical jokes Having Being shouted Being ignored Being ignored work criticism of reminders of spreading carried out by colleagues issue at or being a or excluded at or facing a withholding your work and your errors or gossip and people at work insulting or target of work hostile reaction information effort from mistakes by rumours about that you do not offensive spontaneous when you which affect colleagues your colleagues you get along with remarks made rage by your approach your your about your colleagues colleagues in performance person, the workplace attitudes or your private life


Respondents also faced condemnation and the risk of losing their position from male community members and leaders and even from their own constituents. Again, these qualitative findings correspond to quantitative data showing that 48% of respondents (data not shown) report feeling disrespected by male and female community members due to their leadership positions. When I was appointed the Director of ****, men started to threaten the previous director… about the reason why a woman should come into this position… The previous director that I replaced… collected 1000 people and distributed 500 Afghans (money) to each of them. They were called in front of the governor's office of the province and said that we don't want this woman (MP, 48 yr) Spreading negative gossip was a lot. Even the eldest of the community and the mosque, the Mullah, was talking about me at the mosque at that time. “She is a woman. Don’t vote for her. If you vote for her, all her sins will be shared with you. In the future, Allah will never forget you if you vote for her.” (MP, 43 yr) I faced psychological violence from men who didn’t want a young girl to come to the parliament and express her voice and from women who didn’t want a young girl to become their representative… they didn’t want a positive mind. (MP, 30 yr) Physical threats and attacks, sometimes resulting in deaths, were common and were often linked to the Taliban. Our respondents appear to recognize that by accepting their positions of power, they also assumed great risks. If a woman wants to be in a leadership position in Afghanistan, she must accept all the risks, challenges, and difficulties in this country of horror. I have many experiences of threats, phone calls from people who did not believe women should be in power, from the Taliban, and unknown people. (Senator, 56 yr) During work, there were many threats and problems. They attacked my car twice. Once my son was in it, he was injured and was in the hospital for several days. I was threatened by phone, messages, and even face-to-face a lot. It was really not easy to become a candidate and get votes. (MP, 46 yr) When I look back sometimes, I think it was just a film scene, not real life. My (political) life started with daily threats… All the people were Talib, even in the presidential government. Being a woman is a matter of honor in our society, and they abused me a lot... My brother was killed because of me by the Taliban. They sent a letter during the night to my house that said, “Leave the parliament. Otherwise, we will kill, one by one, your family members and you as well.” Another brother was beaten by the Taliban. Being a woman politician in Afghanistan has not come to me by chance or by luck; it required a lot of suffering and sacrificing. Covid-19 was dangerous for the people, but the Taliban is much more dangerous than Covid-19. (MP, 43 yr) I was one of the targeted people by the Taliban during these past years. On the gate of Baglan, my picture with the security commander of the province was put at the top by the Taliban… Many times, I was attacked by the Taliban. Once my driver, my guard… was killed by the Taliban… Two of my younger sisters were killed by the Taliban because they were going to school… My father and my mother were 13

killed by the Taliban. My younger brother and two of my brothers-in-law were killed by the Taliban. Just because of me and my position and my religion, because I am a Hazara minority. (MP, 45 yr) Even in the face of threats and attacks, these elected officials continued their work and advanced in position. I did have lots of threats during my work, but I never gave up. Although there were phone threats… (and) letter bombs, and the biggest one that injured me. I was under treatment for three months in one of the hospitals in India. (MP, 52 yr) When I was very young, I was a defender and part of a political party. I experienced even being fired and exiled once when I was young. During those years, I worked non-stop. I faced many threats during my work as a Commissioner of ****. When I was a senator, the Taliban named me as a threat. Every day, the warning came to me from the national security department… They (the Taliban) asked me to give up my position or else… These threats happened to me many times, but I kept going forward and farther up. (Senator, 64 yr)

Leaving Afghanistan: Loss and Mourning Women leaders already targeted by the Taliban faced great risk if they stayed in Afghanistan once the Taliban took over Kabul in August 2021. Women described attacks on parliament leading up to the reinstatement of Taliban rule, as well as increasing threats of violence to them when the courts for women ended and when Parliament was disbanded as of August 15, 2021.

A child looks at the aircraft as he is strolled toward his flight during an evacuation at Hamid Karzai International Airport, Kabul, Afghanistan, Aug. 24, 2021 [Source: U.S. Marine Corps photo by Sgt. Samuel Ruiz].


Three times, I got out of certain death alive. Once, inside parliament, when it was attacked by the Taliban and several people were killed. I made it out alive. The second time, on the way to parliament, a rocket was fired. Fortunately, I saved myself and escaped. The third time, the Taliban again attacked the parliament… again, I came out alive. (Legislative parliamentary adviser, 51 yr) The hardest day was when the Taliban entered Kabul province. I was at the bank with one of my constituents to get their passport. There was a bad noise. Everyone said the Taliban had come. Immediately, I went home and got ready to go to the airport to leave for Turkey. It was a terrible situation. (MP, 57 yr) I received a lot of official letters and threatening phone calls from the Taliban and, more recently, from ISIS and unknown people. The position which I held was the court for the elimination of violence against women. The Taliban and other men were all the time against the women’s cases and had a lot of problems with the work and activities of this directorate. (Judge, 40 yr) The Taliban took my job as a (judge) from me and made me stay at home, even though their armed forces were trying to kill me. As a woman, I can say the cases of violence against women increased. I am one of those women who faced outbreaks of violence from the Taliban. They did not allow me to be in my homeland as a person. (Judge, 40 yr) Women leaders described the pain of having to leave their positions and their work and their guilt and frustration that they could not continue their mission of supporting Afghanistan. My country collapsed. I have lost my position. I have lost the achievements of my whole life. I have lost my future, and the worst was that during my evacuation from the Kabul airport, my daughters and my sons had their visas, but their eight-month-old infants didn't. I was on the terminal side, and my family was on the other side. They were coming… but the Taliban in the airport didn’t allow it. It was a tragic time. I will never forget… it looks like a film or cinema scene. (MP, 57 yr) The hardest thing was that I lost my job and position. Even on the day of the fall of Faryab province, I went to my office and signed in my attendance. My job was my priority that day. I went to my office in the most difficult of conditions. My heart aches so much that I can no longer serve my homeland and my people as a judge… I lost my beautiful homeland of Afghanistan, and it fell into the hands of a terrorist group. (Judge, 31 yr) They also expressed a kind of survivor’s guilt for those who were left behind, many of whom continued to reach out to them for help. The hardest thing, which I still think about, is my people. They trusted me and voted for me… I many, many times received and learned from the people. Everyone called me, “Your life was more important than ours, that you left before everyone?” (MP, 57 yr)


The hardest thing is that people ask me to support them, not to sell their children, but I can't do anything. Nothing is more painful than waking up in the morning and seeing the message “Help me.” (MP, 43 yr) They described sadness for the loss of Afghanistan, not only because they were leaving the country but also because it was overtaken by a regime they did not feel was good for the nation. Further, they had to leave their family behind in the process. I saw our three-color flag brought down by the Taliban, and their own was replaced. Under this (new) flag, Afghanistan lost thousands and thousands of young soldiers to Pakistan (ISI), but very easily, in the blink of an eye or in the passing of a night, everything changed. It was hard and not acceptable. (MP, 45 yr) The hardest thing that I lost was my homeland. It was my family's commitment to Afghanistan that we would never leave, but I couldn't keep my promise and commit to staying. It was a huge decision I took to leave the country. (MP, 34 yr) Even breathing has been difficult for us in such a situation. The organization that evacuated me was very helpful. Now I am here just with my body, but my soul is in Afghanistan, with my family members left behind. (Senator, 56 yr) When I left Afghanistan, I was not myself at all. I was like a soulless body because I lost everything. My duty was very sacred to me, and I was lost except for my life. I became away from my family, my friends, and my homeland. (Judge, 31 yr) Respondents were particularly sad about leaving their parents; some even had to leave their children. After some days, I saw my mother and my father. Both were very old and very sick. They came with some juices and some snacks for my children. It was the last tears of my father and mother. They said, “Maybe you will leave the country, and it may be our last chance to see each other.” I had spent my whole life with my people (working). I hadn't any chance to see my parents and be with them… still, it hurts, and I suffer. (MP, 34 yr) I will never forget my mother's tears. The hardest is that now my mother and three sisters have been in a relative's house for more than nine months just because of me. I saved my life but couldn’t do anything for them. (Judge, 34 yr) The tragedy of my life was at the Uzbekistan border. My 5-year-old daughter kept my hand. She was crying at this part of the border, and I was crying on the other side of the border. The Taliban did not allow me to take her because she didn't have a passport or visa. (MP, 48 yr) Quantitative data on depression and anxiety symptoms correspond to qualitative data on difficulties faced during this transition and the loss and mourning faced by these women leaders. Over half of the respondents reported feeling down, depressed, or hopeless (55.6%) and not able to stop or control worry (59.3%) (See Fig. 3).


Figure 3. Depressed or Anxious Every Day in Past 2 Weeks Feeling down, depressed, or hopeless


Little interest or pleasure in doing things


Not being able to stop or control worrying


Feeling nervous, anxious or on edge

40.70% 0%






What Lies Ahead: Resettlement, Goals and Aspirations Respondents described their fears about resettlement in a new country, especially in terms of language barriers and difficulties in understanding the new systems in that country, such as the school system. They hoped for resource support from host governments to help them get their footing, and they also wanted opportunities to learn the language of the host country to be able to work there. I don’t know where we will go and how we can start everything from zero. Still, I am thinking I have the power of doing things, but I don’t know how I will start back. Maybe our support, politically and financially, could help us when we resettle, and we could find our lost power to begin again. (MP, 52 yr) I really want to use my past and new experiences that I got during these past eight months (of political turmoil) for the women of Afghanistan, but I don't know if it is possible or not. I will resettle in a country where I don't know the language, the culture, or anything else. I feel very helpless and have lost my hope. I need support to move ahead. (MP, 43 yr) Many women spoke of their desire to formally re-educate themselves in the host country as part of rebuilding their lives and returning to their previous professions but in the new country. Many reported their low comfort and confidence with the English language. Even those who did speak English showed hesitation in using it and preferred to address media, politicians, etc., in their native language so as not to compromise the level of communication and to retain the linguistic level they had attained as well as the nuances and relevant status. For the same reasons, the importance of language learning was also emphasized for their children, especially their daughters. I hope to find the ability to try my power again by starting college and earning modern Canadian knowledge. I want to serve myself again as a servant of the people. I want to be a helpful and valuable person in the community of living. (Leader in the Ministry of Women's Affairs, 43 yr)


When I go to Canada, I want to study for a master's degree and continue my education so that I can have a good job there. I wish that my academic documents will be accepted (for graduate education). (Judge, 40 yr) I want to start (re-)learning law (in the host country) … to follow my own position (as a judge). (Judge, 41 yr) I need to improve my knowledge (of the language and educational system in the host country) to be in university. Then, I want to work in humanitarian action and activities, even if it is volunteer work. (MP, 31 yr) Women also described their desire to support their children to receive a good education in the host country, especially because of their concerns regarding their ability to regain their jobs there. I really don’t have any idea how I can get back the power of working again. I have no language familiarity (and) at this stage of life, it is not easy to learn. I really wish my children to become educated and continue to higher education so they can be what they want to be. (MP, 57 yr) I have a sick husband, and all my children depend on me. I need to settle and find my way. And my daughter should start her education. By learning the language, maybe in the future, I can stand on my own power again, but nowadays, I can't say. I can do something. I want the government of Canada to support our children's education and support them settling as a newcomer. (MP, 52 yr) Respondents also passionately spoke of wanting to continue their work for the women of Afghanistan, and despite their many fears and concerns related to resettlement, spoke with strength about their capacities to continue their efforts for the country and, for some, with the goal of returning. They showed remarkable resilience in a challenging situation. My first decision was just to learn the language. Now, I don’t know anything; I feel like a blind person. I want to learn the law in Canada… I will try to lobby for my people again at the international level. I want the high-level governments of nations to support Afghan women. Still, I believe I have the power to work after passing through so many difficulties. (MP, 57 yr) I want to improve my language skills and learn the new modern system of life (in the host country). I will try to find support from international friends (organizations), and I want one more time to be a servant of my people, especially the women… When Afghanistan is free, I want to return, having achieved more knowledge (for my people). (MP, 54 yr) They also described, as part of their connection with the Melissa Network, their desire for support for the network of Afghan women leaders forced into exile, as these women will be vitally important for rebuilding a more gender-inclusive Afghanistan when that opportunity comes. And they reminded us that we, as researchers, have an obligation to share this work with the goal of building that support.


We lost everything in Afghanistan. Our people are living in poverty. The women cannot work, and girls cannot go to school either. So, I want to raise my voice because of my people. I want to stay stronger, even more than in the past. I want our network to be supported by our international friends for our work as a defender of women's rights. (MP, 48 yr) I want to work hard again. I want to work in the field of education and the field of human rights for the people of Afghanistan. I wish to provide financial aid and scholarships for the people of Afghanistan who were left behind. My expectation from those friends doing this research is that they should not forget us and should continue to be supportive of us in the future. (Legislative Parliamentary Advisor, 51 yr) The only thing we ask international organizations and host governments to do for us is to register our Afghan Women Parliamentarian and Leaders Network (AWPLN) so that it is improved, recognized, and supported. We need sustained government support for Afghan women in exile… (We) just need some supporters so that we can be on our feet and stand again. (MP, 46 yr)

Conclusion and Recommendations A key takeaway from our study is that Afghan women who rose to leadership positions often did so against great odds and assuming significant risks. The women in our sample generally enjoyed the encouragement of male and female relatives, who helped them attain formal education, provided financial support, and offered them social connections that acted as springboards for their political careers. Some also relied on the support and stability of their spouses. Despite strong social support networks, Afghan women faced adversity in their ascent to leadership and when they attained their positions. Most of our interviewees recalled suffering abuse from both male and female colleagues and community members while performing their duties. Many endured verbal abuse and were undermined and sidelined. A third of those sampled admitted facing sexual harassment, while some endured physical threats and attacks. The respondents describe the Taliban takeover as a time of intense violence and tumult, especially for women. Our interviewees were stripped of their jobs, denied the right to carry out their sworn duties, and deprived of their human rights. The persistent threats and mounting violence against women ultimately forced our respondents into exile. Even though they recognize the peril they were able to escape, many of our respondents are pained by their choice to leave their homeland. They allude to preserving their lives at the expense of their souls. In fleeing Afghanistan, they were forced to abandon family members, their professional achievements, and the future they envisioned for their country. As a result, more than half of the respondents reported experiencing daily bouts of intense worry and regular feelings of despair or depression. They convey feelings of survivor’s guilt about being in a position to leave and lament the improbability of being able to improve conditions for ordinary Afghans, including the constituents who supported and elected them. Despite these feelings of grief and hopelessness, many of our respondents aspire to return to their careers as human rights defenders and defenders of women’s rights in Afghanistan or in exile. They have a potentially important role to play in Afghanistan’s future. Our female Afghan respondents have enjoyed experiences that, under the current political regime, will not be accessible to women or girls currently living in Afghanistan. Experts have asserted that the Taliban has stripped away 20 years of progress on women’s rights (3). Similar to their first period of rule (1996- 2001), the Taliban has prevented female educational 19

attainment; education beyond the primary level is inaccessible to Afghan girls and women. Under this regime, women are unlikely to ever be extended opportunities to pursue higher education, closing an important avenue to political advancement. Beyond limits to their education, women are also largely excluded from civil service (outside of health and education), public office, and the judiciary, as well as many other forms of employment. In replacing the erstwhile Ministry for Women’s Affairs with the Ministry for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice—now charged with policing women’s morality and enforcing the Taliban’s oppressive rules— the Taliban ended another potential path to women’s political influence and advancement. The resettlement and protection of exiled Afghan women leaders gives voice to a generation of women who were able to climb to positions of leadership and deepen women’s rights and freedoms in the country. These women can serve as a beacon of hope for women and girls that remain in Afghanistan by showing what was once possible and what may be possible again. These women inspired their peers to pursue education at a time when teaching girls was still stigmatized. Even in exile, they can continue to be an inspiration to Afghans who envision a different future for their country’s women and girls. Our respondents plan to pursue their education in their host countries to facilitate their work as human rights defenders and NGO and humanitarian workers. They aim to “find [their] lost power to start again.” Several of our respondents implored the international community to remember and continue to support their work advancing women’s rights. Encouraging the efforts of Afghan women in exile can create a deep bench of women ready and able to enter the political arena should circumstances in Afghanistan change. While the prospect for change in Afghanistan appears bleak, the international community should continue to push the Taliban for improvements in human rights. Countries, especially Afghan allies (e.g., Pakistan, China), and religious scholars should continue to lobby the Taliban to reopen schools, as it is the primary avenue by which they were able to break into politics and begin to improve Afghanistan’s human and women’s rights. Educational attainment, even during adolescence, was a precursor for political interest and participation among the Afghan women leaders we interviewed. Educating girls can boost their self-efficacy so they feel empowered to seize upon political openings when they arise. Political openings for women may be possible. Research shows that some of the most drastic improvements in women’s political rights around the world have followed intense periods of political conflict (5). Additionally, studies reveal that some authoritarian countries are willing to extend women’s rights as a concession to opposition parties (6), sometimes more readily than developing democratic states (7,8), and even in Muslim-majority states. These findings offer some cause for optimism. Visible and sustained opposition to the Taliban may encourage some reforms, even if such change takes time.


References 1.

“Women in Afghanistan: The Back Story.” Amnesty International UK, Accessed 18 Sept. 2023. 2. “Quota System Helping Afghan Women in Politics.” Deutsche Welle, 31 Dec. 2010, Accessed 18 Sept. 2023. 3. Donkin, Tom. “Finding Afghanistan’s Exiled Women MPs.” BBC News, BBC, 10 Dec. 2021, 4. “Afghanistan: UN Experts Say 20 Years of Progress for Women and Girls’ Rights Erased since Taliban Takeover.” 8 Mar. 2023, Accessed 18 Sept. 2023. 5. Tripp, Aili Mari. Women and power in post-conflict Africa. Cambridge University Press, 2015. 6. Donno, Daniela, and Anne-Kathrin Kreft. "Authoritarian institutions and women’s rights." Comparative Political Studies 52.5 (2019): 720-753. 7. Donno, Daniela, Sara Fox, and Joshua Kaasik. "International incentives for women’s rights in dictatorships." Comparative Political Studies 55.3 (2022): 451-492. 8. Forester, Summer. "Seeking Legitimacy: Why Arab Autocracies Adopt Women’s Rights: by Aili Mari Tripp, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2019, 334 pp.,£ 22.99 (paperback), ISBN 978-1-10844284-8." (2020): 793-795.

At an AWPLN meeting held at the old Greece parliament, April 2022 [Photographer: Mobina Akabri].


Turn static files into dynamic content formats.

Create a flipbook
Issuu converts static files into: digital portfolios, online yearbooks, online catalogs, digital photo albums and more. Sign up and create your flipbook.