On Aug. 15, 2021, at 11:30 a.m., Hasina Safi left after a meeting with Afghanistan’s first lady, Rula Ghani, in the opulent grounds of the presidential palace. They had discussed how to help the women who had been internally displaced by the Taliban. At 2 p.m., she was set to distribute hundreds of hygiene packs to the women flooding the streets of Kabul ahead of the Taliban’s advance. But she never made it to the second meeting. As soon as she got to the parking lot, the head of security approached her.
“They’re here,” he said. “The Taliban has reached Kabul.”
For the previous two weeks, she had known that the Taliban’s arrival was only a matter of time. Yet their return to Kabul felt surreal. As minister of women’s affairs at the time, she asked her team to take her to her office, which on a normal day was a 10-minute drive from the palace. On that day, it took over 45 minutes to cover that distance. The road was blocked with a sea of cars, crowds of people running and families in tears.
She heard a loud thud and then gunfire. The air was thick with smoke, and fires burned on the pavement. She thought of her kids; her two daughters were at school. Did she make a mistake by not escaping while there was still time? That question would go on to haunt her for months to come.
Safi’s ministry no longer exists. It has been replaced by the Ministry for Prevention of Vice and Promotion of Virtue — a strict moral police that enforces the Taliban’s interpretation of Sharia law.
Afghan women have been forced back into an abyss, with no jobs for working women. Millions of Afghan girls are still not allowed back in secondary school. A recent Amnesty International report documented an uptick in arrests and forced disappearances of women protesters in the country in the past year.
The chaotic and desperate scenes on the streets of Kabul on that very first day of the Taliban’s return were just a prologue to the humanitarian catastrophe that unfolded in the weeks ahead. More than 120,000 people had been airlifted from Kabul airport by Aug. 31. Desperate Afghans flocked to the airport, clinging to rescue planes for their lives as the world watched. Since the Taliban seized control, the country has descended into an unprecedented economic and humanitarian crisis. According to the United Nations, it will be dealing with universal poverty, with 97% of Afghans impoverished by the end of this year. International aid has been held back, and the U.N. fears that nearly half of the country faces acute food insecurity, with 9 million Afghans facing famine.
In the days leading up to the Taliban’s victory, Safi sank into deep denial. She had spent more than half of her life in exile and she did not want to leave again. She thought she could continue working even if the Taliban returned. “Until that day, I thought things would work out fine, that the Taliban had changed,” she told New Lines from a suburban hotel in Kingston, England, which has been her home for the last year. Safi thought that the Taliban would be “different” this time. She believed that as she was the women’s affairs minister, they may ask for her suggestions on what needs to be done. “But that never happened; instead they shut down the women’s affairs ministry and I faced death threats,” she said.
Safi was five years old during the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. She still remembers how scared she was when she escaped to Pakistan in 1982 with her father, a high-ranking government official. She grew up in camps, studying at refugee schools near Peshawar. As a young child she yearned to sing the Afghan national anthem during the morning assembly in school. “Every time the Pakistani anthem would play, I’d sing our own song in my heart.”
The years spent in Naheed Shaheed High School for Afghan refugees in Peshawar were formative in making her an advocate for refugee rights and women’s education. When she was 15, she began teaching English as a second language to other Afghan refugee girls. She realized that education would be the key to finding her way back to her home country. In 2001, she joined a nonprofit working with women-led households in Afghanistan, many of whom were widows from the Soviet war. “All I wanted to do was return home. I always felt that refugees are second class citizens. No matter where you are, your heart wants to return home,” she said.
In 2005, with the collapse of the Taliban after the American invasion of Afghanistan, Safi was finally able to go home. It felt like a new dawn. “The hope was contagious at that time. I could see endless possibilities for nation building and the role of women in it,” she said. For the next 15 years, she worked with Afghan Women Network, Afghan Education Center, UNDP and other organizations on women’s education and gender equality. This was a time when there was massive investment by international organizations — the U.S. and NATO affiliates — into rebuilding a “New Afghanistan.”
In 2018, President Ashraf Ghani invited her to join his government as minister of information and culture; she accepted enthusiastically. “I believed in the leadership and thought this was a way for me to bridge the gap between the government and advocacy groups to bring real change,” she said.
Her first term as a cabinet minister was marred by controversy and criticism. Safi was born in Laghman province in eastern Afghanistan to a politically influential Pashtun family. She was married into another influential family; her husband was council chief of the Safi provincial council. “She was a misfit in the Ministry of Information and Culture. She’s from an elite circle of the dominant ethnic group,” said an Afghan civil rights activist currently in exile in the United States. “It was clear that she found a place in government due to her privileged background and connections.”
In her defense, Safi said her work as a women’s rights activist who led nonprofits for several years gave her the necessary qualifications that many of her male counterparts lacked. “Not all male ministers were experts within their line of ministry. Being a women activist, I had proved to be a good manager. I don’t think it was my privileged background but my capabilities which got me the job,” she said.
In less than two years, Ghani appointed her to be the minister of women’s affairs, a post that was more aligned with her past work and experience. By then, there were early signs of the Taliban’s return as they were capturing more territory. But that didn’t slow her down. She truly believed that the massive gains made for Afghan women’s rights in the last two decades could not be erased even by the Taliban. “Many asked me why I took over this post at a time when the Taliban was advancing. I thought I would continue (working) for women’s rights even if the government changed. I truly didn’t believe I would become a refugee again,” she said.
Safi was part of the first round of negotiations that were being led by the Afghan government in 2018. They lasted for a year but never had an actual dialogue with the Taliban. “We were preparing papers, reports and statements. We were contacting women from different regions and were consolidating our position as a strong population of Afghanistan,” she said. When the final round of negotiations was underway in Doha, Safi said she understood from her U.S. counterparts that they were pushing hard for women’s rights but fell short on giving an assurance. “They were saying women’s rights are human rights and are a priority for us. But it wasn’t clear how the international community would have Afghan women within the negotiation process,” she said.
Safi was one of four female ministers in Ghani’s cabinet in 2020. Of these, she and Minister of Education Rangina Hamidi were nonpolitical appointees with backgrounds in human rights activism.
“We really stuck by each other. Because we could relate to our shared passion for Afghanistan’s progress, since we both had no political affiliation,” Hamidi told New Lines from Arizona. Their male colleagues would often make sly remarks when the “best friends” were spotted together at government events and meetings. “When you are two women in a male-dominated government, you have to stick together,” Hamidi said.
To be a woman in public life in a patriarchal society like Afghanistan meant always being conscious of every step one took. “We were mothers and had to factor in a work-life balance, because raising children is considered more of a woman’s responsibility,” Hamidi said. Unlike their male colleagues, they also had to be seen as “pious” and “cultured” women, who do not socialize with men beyond office hours. This meant skipping social events and get-togethers where a lot of after-hour business and decision-making happened. Afghanistan’s government had its own officer’s club and female cabinet ministers had to stay away from it to avoid scandal and gossip. “Safi is a very mature woman who understands the cultural nuances of Afghanistan. She has been a minister longer than me, so I would look up to her for advice,” said Hamidi.
For nearly two weeks after the Taliban takeover, Safi waited to hear from her friends and colleagues abroad on how to escape. For weeks following Aug. 15, Safi was in hiding trying to avoid the Taliban who were hunting down Ghani government officials. Since Kabul fell, she has not returned home “The Taliban had come looking for me and took all guns and weapons from my security forces. My husband asked me to seek refuge elsewhere. I lived with friends and relatives, always changing my location,” she said.
She thought she had missed her chance. Government and nongovernment leaders from the U.K., France, Australia and the U.S. had offered to help in the run-up to the August takeover, but she had refused then. She wanted to stay. When all hell broke loose, there was no help forthcoming. “Every day, I would check my phone but there would be no messages from anyone. Kabul was crying in desperation and no one was listening,” said Safi.
The Afghan rescue operation was utter pandemonium. Hundreds of thousands of Afghans were flown out through evacuation flights by the U.S., UK, Australia and their allies. But an equal, if not greater number of people were left behind. According to a recent report published by Association for Wartime Allies, a U.S.-based nonprofit, the U.S. only took in 3% of the Afghans; the remainder, around 78,000 of those who worked for the American government, have been left behind.
After waiting for two weeks, Safi finally heard back from her friends abroad. They coordinated her escape on a WhatsApp group of women’s rights activists who were spread out across the world. When she somehow reached Kabul airport to escape, the Talib forces approached the crowd, wielding leather lashes. Safi watched in horror as the Taliban whipped three of her family members. “At that moment, I felt my weakest. What was the point of working so hard if it has boiled down to this: I can’t even protect my family,” she said, holding back tears.
They went back from the airport and decided to return to hiding, when her friend and colleague Hamidi called and urged her to try again. “Rangina told me that if I return now, I will be killed. She directed me to a dirty ditch path that she had used to reach the tarmac. That’s where we would be picked up from,” she said.
Safi, her kids and nearly 10 family members waited by the ditch and later at the tarmac for several hours before being taken to a British base. When they were finally allowed to board the plane, Safi felt numb. “We couldn’t believe that we were finally safe. What we saw at the airport that day and what we experienced, it was really challenging and terrifying,” she said in a muffled voice, breaking into tears.
In January this year, women’s rights activists and leaders from Afghanistan held a virtual meeting to assess the situation back home and strategize for the future. Safi was one of the presiding leaders as the last women’s affairs minister of Afghanistan. She broke down several times during the meeting when she expressed her helplessness over the state of affairs concerning the women who were left behind. She recounted to others the story of her horrifying escape from Kabul.
Safi may have managed to escape, but three of her deputies, all Hazara (a minority ethnic group) women, are still hiding in Kabul. She has been unsuccessful in getting them out and is being criticized for her discriminating behavior against the Hazara community. Safi’s decision of not taking up evacuation offers before the Taliban arrived is believed to be the reason many women who worked in the government missed their chance of being rescued.
“It is shameful that despite being the top minister for women’s affairs, she couldn’t rescue her own deputies. While she made a lot more attempts to evacuate her extended family and male bodyguards who were also Safi like her, the Hazara women who worked in the ministry were left to fend for themselves,” another person, who was part of the Ghani government, told New Lines.
Safi denied all allegations. “The reason that I did not leave in the early days was that I felt a big responsibility toward all the women who were left behind, including the minorities. Even though I was a minister, I was one of the last to leave,” she said.
It’s not just Safi. Rangina Hamidi admitted that she also couldn’t evacuate her staff out of Kabul. In her defense, she said it proves that unlike some “corrupt” leaders, they didn’t have the connections needed to get their staff out. “Not everyone in the Ghani cabinet was corrupt. Both Safi and I have no evidence against us that indicates that we have ever been involved in financial or moral corruption,” said Hamidi.
A year since Kabul fell, Safi is still hopeful of a change in Afghanistan. Living out of a four-star hotel in southern Kingston, she keeps herself busy with virtual meetings, webinars and efforts to help the women who have been left behind.
“The world may have moved on, but we can’t. Every day we hear bad news from my country. Those of us who have escaped have a responsibility towards those who could not,” Safi said. “I still believe that I will return home once again.”