Love, Life and Hope: Returning to Help the Women of Afghanistan

With the Taliban government now a year old, activist Nazila Jamshidi looks back on the challenges she faced trying to improve women’s rights during the U.S. occupation

Love, Life and Hope: Returning to Help the Women of Afghanistan
Women walk a long road, in Herat on February 15, 2022 / Wail Kosher / AFP via Getty Images

I was a teenager when my family and I arrived at the Islam Qala border crossing between Iran and Afghanistan. It was the summer of 2005 and there were eight of us: me, my mom, my younger brother, and my oldest brother with his wife and three children. We all considered ourselves to be Afghans, but most of us had never been to Afghanistan before. I was raised in Tehran and knew my parents’ homeland only through the stories I had been told growing up.

At the border crossing, buses were parked in a row, emptying their passengers, and we could see crowds of people who looked just as excited, nervous and emotional as we did. They too had fled the turmoil and war of Afghanistan in the 1980s and 1990s; they, too, were now voluntarily returning four years after the collapse of the Taliban regime and the U.S.-led invasion. A family of four — a middle-aged couple with two teenage boys — was on the same bus as us, and I heard the father waking his sons and saying, “We are on Afghan soil. We will have lunch in Herat.” His comment lit a spark of happiness in my mom’s eye. After 17 years spent living as a refugee in Tehran, she could not wait to be in Herat again.

We changed buses at the border and drove on toward our destiny. It was almost sunset when we reached Guzargah hill and the shrine of the Sufi saint Khwaja Abdullah Ansari, two miles northeast of Herat city. I remember my mom and some of the other people with us looking out, trying to locate their memories amid the mounds of rubble and destroyed houses in the distance. A woman kneeled, grabbed a handful of dirt and kissed it, weeping. A man stood with arms around his sons’ shoulders and, looking at the ruined landscape, said, “We will rebuild it.” This was just the start of my painful, beautiful reunion with Afghanistan.

For the first two years after our return, we lived in the village of Mahle-e-Babji in Injil district, where my parents were born and raised. It lay just north of Herat city, but it may as well have been on a different planet. To me, it seemed like an endless series of mud houses with domed roofs, some of them lying ruined and abandoned to the lashing wind. A grid of dirt alleys divided the houses, and crowds of young boys used to run down the narrow lanes, playing barefoot. My favorite place was an area where a stream divided the village into two parts. There, trees and fields of vegetables formed a vivid green dot amid the mud-colored landscape of the rest of the village.

Some families who returned from Iran immediately started reconstructing their houses. I liked watching the women walk by in their high heels, somehow keeping their balance despite the constant wind and the bumpy, rocky ground. Village life was still basic for them, but I could feel their sense of growing excitement. Girls of all ages could go to school back then, and female teachers had restarted work after years of being banned from their jobs. The front doors of some houses had little wooden boards bearing signs of a whole other world inside: adult literacy courses, tailoring courses, vaccination training, women-only Quran classes. It was as if women were doing everything they could to stitch together the pieces of their lives torn apart by the repressive Taliban regime, eager to create a new reality for themselves.

Soon I made friends among the villagers and began to adjust to my new life in this place where I shared only fragments of history and culture. It wasn’t easy. There were none of the distractions I had taken for granted as a teenager in Iran; electricity was lacking and there was no TV. But sometimes random girls would knock on the door of our house and ask me to help them with schoolwork, and I never hesitated to do so. I was the only girl in the village who went into town daily as I had managed to get a job as a data entry clerk with the UNHCR, the United Nations’ refugee agency, after arriving in Herat. I studied computer programming in Iran, and this was my first job, my first time as an economically independent woman. A white Land Cruiser with the U.N.’s blue markings used to pick me up and drop me off at my door five days a week. Villagers knew me as the U.N. girl and wondered how I retained a connection with this place that was so different from my upbringing.

My impressions of the village were different from the stories my mom had told me when we were back in Iran. She had regaled me with tales of the trees, the wide variety of crops, the pleasant morning breeze, and the local gardens where villagers would gather for celebrations. All of that, though, was before the Soviet invasion in 1979 and the civil war that followed. Most readers will know something about the Soviets’ brutality, but really it was the civil war among Afghans that defiled nature and sucked the life from our village. After experiencing the pride of defeating the Soviets, many locals found it uniquely painful to watch Afghans kill each other over ethnic and political rivalries.

In 2005, there was hope and the sense of a new beginning, but there was also concern that the country was being expected to move too fast, too soon. The first parliamentary elections of the new era were held that year. Some people thought they were a historic step toward social and political progress; others wondered if it was sensible to reserve nearly a quarter of the seats in the new Parliament for women after decades of conflict. Our village was safe, but elsewhere in the country there were signs that security was deteriorating. We hoped the war was over, but we knew it might not be.

We moved from our village to Herat city in 2007, and I began to embrace the vibrancy and diversity of life in its bustling streets. I was determined to build a future for myself there and had no intention of ever moving back to Tehran. Herat is one of the largest cities in Afghanistan. Most residents speak Dari with an easily identifiable accent, but Herat is multiethnic and has always been associated with a diverse artistic and literary culture. For an ambitious girl like me, it was an exciting place to be.

I was still working for the U.N., though now as part of its food and agriculture organization, the FAO. I began to get involved in projects aimed at improving gender equality and women’s rights, but it wasn’t easy. Even in the city, society was male-dominated, and I faced discrimination in my work by men from all ethnic groups: Pashtuns, Tajiks, Uzbeks and others. Some found it hard to accept me and female colleagues as their equals in the office, let alone in life. Even today, 15 years later, I can still hear the shouting of one of my Afghan male supervisors ringing in my ears.

By 2010 women’s empowerment had become a growing business for the local and international aid community. Much of the work was well-intentioned and effective, but some of it seemed a cynical and superficial way to attract funding rather than achieve meaningful change. One after the other, Afghan and foreign women would be encouraged to start an NGO with the encouragement of Western countries or the U.N. This led to a robust civil society, but it also led to women with no knowledge or experience of Afghanistan trying to impose their ideas on the country. In the end, I felt I could make a more positive contribution if I left the U.N. and worked with the Americans, who seemed to regard personal freedom as a core value.

In 2011 I joined the Regional Afghan Municipalities Program for Urban Populations, Regional Command West, a project funded by the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), which focused on improving local municipal services. As with so much of the U.S. government’s work in Afghanistan, its awkward sounding name had been turned into an acronym: RAMP UP West. This job marked a new chapter in my life. I was able to meet Afghan women throughout the west of the country and work at a grassroots level to improve gender equality. Together with other women, I felt like I was helping to awaken my generation.

Life was not as bad for women in Herat as it was in many parts of Afghanistan, but there was still deeply entrenched social inequality in rural areas of the province. This had little to do with the Taliban; rather, it was cultural. Forced marriage rates were high and access to schools was often rare. A horrifying number of young women were setting themselves on fire to escape domestic abuse. It was different in the city, however, where many educated women were aware of the important work being done by the Ministry of Women’s Affairs, the provincial chief prosecutor, Maria Bashir, and the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission. The lives of these urban women had begun to change for the better, and they had more freedom to participate in public events, mixing socially and dressing as they wished. The fact they were far from the Taliban’s southern and eastern heartlands obviously helped.

I was determined to empower women rather than victimize them; I vowed to concentrate on their courage and ability and was determined to assist in any way I could, even if it only meant getting a few more girls to participate in the monthly youth seminars I held as part of my work. I swallowed my fear and let “neyat-e-khub” — good karma — protect me as I traveled through western Afghanistan to provinces like Badghis, Farah and Ghor. I have always liked meeting new people and talking to them, so my personal interests were now part of my professional life. I loved what I was doing.

As a project donor, USAID was interested in my department’s work, and I was happy to invite some of its representatives along to various events I hosted. The only problem was the excessive security arrangements they demanded in some of the more insecure provinces. While they deemed Herat to be relatively safe, they were clearly worried when they went to Farah. Concern for their own security was understandable, but the sight of so many soldiers and military vehicles was unnerving for ordinary Afghans, and sometimes I felt like I was in the middle of a military operation. I know some Afghans reading this will say I should not have been surprised because I was just another part of the American occupation. Yet that is never how I saw myself, and it’s not how I see myself now. I was a civilian and an independent woman, doing my bit to try and help the country of my ancestors. I was grateful to be employed by people willing to invest in my work for the benefit of Afghans.

One program I designed and implemented hired and trained 85 young interns — girls and boys — who went to work in local government or for private organizations. We taught them skills they would not have learned elsewhere: finance, human resource management, report writing, public speaking. The program was full of love, life and hope. Some of the girls worked in municipal departments that had never hired female staff before. For the first couple of months, they were made to use the men’s restrooms because there were no other facilities. The interns all had fighting spirits, and they would attend their training with energy and enthusiasm, even when they were fasting for Ramadan in the height of summer. But it was also at around this time that the security situation started to deteriorate badly. I became accustomed to an endless stream of news reports about explosions and killings until, eventually, death almost touched someone close to me.

After completing the first round of each internship program, I would hold a graduation ceremony in the host city. I made sure I always attended the ceremony to share the special moment with the interns. In November 2012, I was chatting on the phone to my friend Ali, who worked for another USAID program, before one of these ceremonies was due to start in Farah. Both of us were in town for the event, and I was giving Ali the address for the venue when I heard a loud explosion over the phone.

“Ali, are you there? Are you OK?” I asked.

He didn’t answer. I kept asking, each time getting more scared that he had been hurt. He still didn’t answer. I walked out of the room I was in, went to the bathroom, curled up on the floor and cried.

After a while, I tried to compose myself and hoped that his neyat-e-khub had protected him. The ceremony room was almost full by the time I took my place next to a person who worked for USAID. I asked him if Ali was alive and he told me he had survived but was badly hurt. He was now in a public hospital in Farah and would soon be taken to a clinic on a U.S. military base. The ceremony went as planned, and I watched like a proud mother as the interns stood before their families and friends, holding their graduation certificates. But I felt a pang in my heart at the thought of Ali lying severely injured in hospital. In the end, he had multiple surgeries over three days and managed to fight for his life.

Nowhere felt safe anymore, even Herat, a city that was still relatively untouched by the Taliban’s influence. A number of business owners and politicians had been kidnapped by criminals who demanded ransom payments for their release. The police were too weak to do anything, which eroded the government’s legitimacy in the eyes of the people. This only added to the restlessness I was beginning to feel.

I enjoyed being out in the field, where I felt a stronger connection with my country and my people, more than I enjoyed being in the office, where I felt like a stranger even among my colleagues. We Afghans spent too much time competing with each other and trying to get compliments from our American bosses, rather than working to create an environment that would benefit the people we were supposed to serve: ordinary Afghans. The better English speakers among us were singled out for praise, while the Americans loved to brag about their own achievements even as the situation in the country went from bad to worse. I actually think our ability to speak English was valued more than the passion, care and sincerity we showed for our work. Job interviews were conducted in English regardless of who was being interviewed; normal work meetings became something for fluent English speakers only — the rest of us were made to feel embarrassed for speaking in broken, halting sentences.

In the summer of 2014, I moved from Herat to Kabul to work with the Red Cross and Red Crescent. Almost every conference, meeting, training course and workshop I attended in the capital was held in English, even if most of the people in the room could barely speak the language. Soon, English words began to replace Dari and Pashto in routine conversations between Afghans. We were made to feel ashamed of who we were, and we contributed to that by trying too hard to be people we were not. Afghans chatted in English together in cafes and restaurants, as if that signaled their modernity and open-mindedness. On one occasion during a visit to the presidential palace, I heard an Afghan-American woman who worked there saying she was in the country to help address the lack of international language skills among the female population. It was absurd. Why did she think the presidential palace was the right place to fulfill her apparently noble aims, rather than at one of the grassroots English language centers that hardworking Afghans all across the country ran for little or no reward? To be rebuilt and allowed to thrive, the country needed schools, institutions and clear leadership, not a few English words.

I had moved to Kabul to gain access to more places in the country. In Herat I was able to travel around western Afghanistan, but I wanted to travel to the north, south and east as well. In my role as a gender and diversity manager for the Red Cross and Red Crescent I was at least able to do this. I was growing increasingly worried about the way the war was unfolding, but I was still determined to make the effort to seek out parts of Afghanistan that were full of aspiration and hope. At times, the smell of death, corruption and superficiality was suffocating. Ordinary people couldn’t get government officials to help them without paying bribes. The Westerners and Afghans who made the greatest show of wanting to help out of patriotic duty were often the worst culprits, with only a shallow understanding of Afghanistan’s history, culture and needs.

My house was in the neighborhood of Shahr-e-Naw, on Flower Street, where the best florists in town worked. Just across the road was a hospital run by the Italian charity Emergency. Whenever there was a suicide attack in the city, I used to see desperate Afghans arriving at the hospital to look for family members. But there was a special kind of resilience to be found among the florists, where people would come to buy flowers to celebrate love and friendship. I liked to post photos on social media of their bouquets, heart shaped balloons and cars decorated for weddings to show some of the beauty that was still left in my homeland.

By 2015 I had been lucky enough to visit many other countries, including some in the West, but Afghanistan was the only place I felt I belonged. It gave me an identity, made me economically and socially independent, provided me with a solid reason to work, learn and stay alive. Even surrounded by so many problems, I made sure I did not miss any small opportunities for happiness. I made a lot of new Afghan friends in the provinces I went to, though they sometimes joked that they couldn’t understand my Herati accent. Herat was still my favorite city in Afghanistan, but I found reasons for joy everywhere I went.

The two years I spent living in Kabul coincided with the first two years of President Ashraf Ghani’s government, and I remember the hope young Afghans in high schools and universities felt when he was elected. He was an intelligent man who talked with ambition about human rights, economic reforms and the integrity of political office, but the situation only changed for the worse under his presidency. Security deteriorated and protesters began to take to the streets in increasing numbers. Farkhunda Malikzada, a 27-year-old Afghan woman, was lynched and killed by a mob in broad daylight in central Kabul after being falsely accused of desecrating the Quran. I started to feel scared of everything and scared for everyone. When I moved around the city I felt a knot in my heart, like I was being chased by death. I had several narrow escapes. Once, on Dec. 11, 2014, I had just been to watch a performance at a small theater in a French school in Kabul when it was attacked by a suicide bomber.

In 2016 I decided to leave Afghanistan because of the growing insecurity, but I wanted to take one last trip back to Herat, a city that had embraced me like a kind mother. I went to the Rotary Club there, which was full of Heratis who shared my commitment to community service and social justice. I also visited the girls’ schools where I used to work as part of my job with RAMP UP West. The kids were as vibrant and full of energy as ever. The most memorable part of my trip, however, was the visit I made to the women’s prison in the city. Female inmates in Afghanistan are effectively stripped of their dignity and human rights as soon they step into jail. Many of them spent years behind bars for so-called moral crimes, which in reality were often cultural misdemeanors. Some might have angered a family member by walking in a park with their boyfriend, refusing a forced marriage or trying to leave a physically abusive husband. There was just one prison for women in Herat, and it was relatively clean and well organized, though the smell of the place was heavy and unpleasant in the summer. Inmates had access to a volleyball court, a small library with a few books, a computer lab, a beauty salon and bathrooms. Some had children living with them in prison, some were pregnant and others were single young women. On Thursdays their male relatives could visit them in the yard to sit and chat, but some of the women never received any visitors — their families had washed their hands of them.

When I lived in Herat one aspect of my work involved providing the inmates with vocational training and trying to pressure the government into creating better living conditions for them. I also used to emphasize the need for the wardens to treat everyone with respect. But I had never been satisfied with my efforts. No matter how much work I did, I could never completely protect the human rights of these women because many of them should never have been in prison in the first place. I knew there had to be a way to prevent women from spending years in jail for mere moral crimes, but I also knew that would require institutional and cultural change. Afghanistan’s justice system was built and run by men, and much of it seemed designed not to protect women but to subjugate them.

Privately, I struggled with my guilt. How could I leave Afghanistan when there was still so much work for me to do? Yet I had confidence in my generation of Afghans, faith that one day I would come back and find a better country. Deep down, I knew it was time for me to go, but I wasn’t saying goodbye forever. Every time I traveled to a province for work my mom would burst into tears, worried about my safety. For years I had carried on regardless, but now the insecurity was too much. I had recently gotten married, and I could not continue taking these risks.

I knew how lucky I was to have other options, to be able to make the choice to leave a war without being a refugee. I had been given a Special Immigrant Visa for the U.S. and left Afghanistan in 2016, still haunted by guilt. I could not even bring my mother with me, the person who had stood by my side and shared in my vision for a better future for the country. After settling in the U.S. with my husband, I studied at college in Virginia. I wanted to pursue a career in education that would one day help me make more substantial changes in Afghanistan. I went on to study at Georgetown and Columbia universities and continued to tell myself that all of this was in aid of my life’s mission to work for, and with, Afghan women. But who knows when I will be able to return to Herat or Kabul now?

It is a year since the Taliban retook power, and the images I see coming from Afghanistan are of desperate women lining up for humanitarian aid; I hear of girls who once had bright futures and are now banned from going to school and forced to cover their faces in public. Fear and pain have replaced the hope I had in my heart in 2005. My mother, who was so happy to be in Herat after 17 years of living as a refugee, is again in exile. I cannot say for sure if I will ever fulfill my dream of going back to Afghanistan, but I won’t give up. I hope that someday I can stand on the top of Guzargah hill, look out over Herat and tell a young couple standing by my side: “We will rebuild it.”

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