Lawyer and women's rights activist Maliha says she will work to raise the voice of Afghan women, even after leaving Afghanistan.
“The worst feeling is when you see great suffering there, but you can't change anything"
When the Taliban swept through the streets of Kabul on a sunny Sunday last August, Maliha (not her real name) realised that her nearly two-decade-long campaign for women’s rights in Afghanistan was coming to a tragic end.
For over 14 years, the mother of three had worked hard as a lawyer - and outside of the courtroom, as an activist - to help Afghan women.
“I was following the news with anxiety as the Taliban were advancing on Kabul after the fall of many provinces,” she tells Afghan Witness (AW). “Listening to the news… It was like black clouds spreading all over ahead of a devastating storm.”
On what would become a historic Sunday, Maliha was on her way to a government office when she heard that Taliban fighters were entering the city.
“The city was chaotic, and everybody seemed to be running,” she remembers. “While I was rushing to get home, I couldn’t believe the republic was gone, hopes gone, and we were losing everything we had worked for [after] two decades.”
For Maliha and many others in Afghanistan - particularly women - the return of the Taliban was reminiscent of the group’s first stint in power between 1996 to 2001, when they banned women from work, education and even stepping outside the home without a male guardian.
“I couldn’t believe we were once again going back to the past where women were stripped of their basic human rights,” Maliha says.
Back then, Maliha and her family were forced to leave Afghanistan for neighbouring Iran, but they returned to the country following the toppling of the Taliban regime by US-led forces in 2001.
After returning to Afghanistan, Maliha soon joined a private university and earned a degree in law before starting her work in what was then the Former Government’s Ministry of Justice.
Maliha was among tens of thousands of women who gradually joined the new government workforce, while others found employment in the private sector following the Taliban’s collapse.
Over the years, Maliha worked in multiple organisations as a legal expert while advocating for women’s rights and maintaining her position as a lawyer.
“As a woman, it was pleasant to work as a lawyer and legal expert, where I mainly focused on issues concerning women’s rights,” she says. “All these years, I stood tall as a woman and never felt tired defending and promoting women’s rights in courts, conferences and gatherings.”
Maliha describes the Taliban’s takeover of Afghanistan as “a dream turning into a nightmare”.
In the days following the fall of Kabul, Maliha tells AW that she lived in hiding and fear as the Taliban consolidated their power.
While the new rulers of Afghanistan promoted a softer version of themselves to the world by announcing a “general amnesty” for former government workers and promising to protect women’s rights and press freedom, Maliha remained firmly suspicious of the Taliban’s intent.
Ten days after the fall of Kabul, as tens of thousands were still desperately trying to flee, Maliha was offered a potentially lifesaving opportunity by an American non-government organisation (NGO) to leave Afghanistan.
The organisation that helped Maliha leave Afghanistan had funded some projects related to women’s rights in Afghanistan over the years.
Maliha and her three children were first evacuated to Abu Dhabi and then to Albania, where they have been waiting since.
“While I am grateful that my family is safe now, my heart is mourning for my country, for my people who are now living in deep poverty and under oppression," she says.
Maliha’s distrust of the Taliban has largely proven to be true, as evidence mounts of the Taliban killing and forcibly disappearing hundreds of Afghanistan’s former security forces and government officials.
There have also been cases where female protesters - demanding their right to work and education - have been met with force, and recently, several prominent female activists were detained, which has spread fear among women campaigners.
On March 23, the Taliban also backtracked on their decision to reopen girls’ high schools, sparking international condemnation as photos of school girls in tears circulated on social media.
Life as a refugee
Maliha and her family have been adapting to a new reality, and are currently living in a hotel in Albania. She is grateful for the care and hospitality she has received from the government and people of Albania - which she says has helped heal the trauma she has suffered.
“That day - the fall of Kabul, and with it, the republic - is still unbelievable for me, and I can't stop thinking about it,” she says. “I used to have nightmares following that day, even months later.”
Maliha and her children have been offered two resettlement options: The United States, or Canada. She picked the latter after deliberations with her relatives there.
As Maliha waits for a date when she'll fly to Canada, thoughts of her country and its people remain in her mind.
“I feel grateful when I remember that my family is safe, and my children will have a better future,” she says. “I, however, feel angered, depressed and depleted when I think about Afghanistan and how millions of people, especially women, are suffering under the Taliban.”
While Maliha has left Afghanistan, her campaign for women’s rights continues.
“The worst feeling is when you see great suffering there, but you can't change anything,” Maliha says before pausing for a moment. “I will, however, work to raise the voice of Afghan women, no matter where I will be.”
Interview by Afghan Witness