Sara Gilliam is the Hamilton-based co-founder of Task Force Nyx, a women-led, all-volunteer NGO that fights for the futures and freedoms of Afghan women and girls.
For nearly two decades, Western nations buoyed the bright, capable and determined women of Afghanistan with promises of equality, democracy and fundamental freedoms. In our words and our deeds, we encouraged their educational pursuits, their dreams of gender equity, and their hopes for their sisters, mothers, daughters and future grandchildren.
But then, one year ago, we left. We made an agreement with their oppressors to abandon Afghanistan and the people who had supported our campaign there.
Today, Afghanistan’s women activists are being hunted, forcibly disappeared and tortured. Numerous prominent women whose courageous activism was lauded by the international media are now languishing as they wait for pathways to permanent asylum. Organizations sponsoring safe houses have run out of donor funds, leaving some of these women and their families without money for food or medical care. And in a July report, Amnesty International referred to the situation for Afghan girls and women under the Taliban as “death in slow motion.”
I have borne witness to these awful circumstances. I am in daily contact with Ayesha, who was an administrator overseeing girls’ sports prior to the Taliban takeover. (All names in this piece have been changed to protect the safety of the women.) After her job was declared irrelevant by the new regime, she raised her voice for the cause of girls’ education. Several weeks ago, she was abducted while collecting medicine for her child at a pharmacy. Our small NGO was asked to help her escape to a neighbouring country after she was released from her second imprisonment, which included beatings, electric shocks and gang rape. Ayesha is now plagued by nightmares and contemplates suicide in the early morning hours, but she refuses to abandon her children.
Nabila, a dentist, owned a flourishing clinic in Kabul. She texts me dozens of times a day, her colourful messages dotted with heart emojis and photos of her daily life in exile. A survivor of Taliban capture and torture earlier this year, she asks for assistance not for herself, but for her friends who protested in the streets, in their homes, and on social media, demanding access to secondary school for female students, the opportunity to work outside the home to support their families, and the freedom to show their faces in public.
Nabila also has colleagues who have been unable to flee, and they live in hiding, fearful of arrest at any moment. Last week, I received a photo of one of these women, Khatera, squatting in a ditch with her toddler son. She previously worked for Afghanistan’s Ministry of Education, but now she is pleading for funds for travel documents so they can escape to Pakistan. Their house is being surveilled around the clock, and neighbours have texted to say not to come home, because “they are watching for you.”
For them, home is a forgotten dream.
Fariha, a 22-year-old protester and domestic-violence survivor, fled a Taliban death warrant and against all odds made it to Pakistan. She is alone and 29 weeks pregnant, and when I last spoke to her, she had sold her only piece of jewellery – a gold ring – to afford a prenatal checkup. She doesn’t have enough to eat and she wonders if any country will offer her asylum.
We owe these women – and all the women like them – a great deal more compassion and assistance than they are receiving. That’s “we,” writ large – women globally, Western governments, activists and feminists, hockey moms and diplomats alike. If we allow Afghan women to be brutalized and forgotten, that means we have lost both our collective moral imagination and our sense of duty to those who helped champion the very freedoms that so many Canadians profess to cherish.
“Since the Taliban came to power, freedom and rights for women don’t exist,” said Lima, a journalist who is currently in hiding with her husband, a doctor and hospital administrator. “I am from the generation that grew up during the presence of Westerners in Afghanistan. Despite the war, freedom and democracy existed. We had hope for the future. But now, that hope is completely shattered.”
There are women who have been lucky enough to make it out of Afghanistan, but they now face a secondary prison of inertia and limbo – a seemingly endless wait without hope or clarity. Resettlement pathways to safe countries such as Canada have become snarled and bogged down by bureaucracy. Living as refugees with no clear path “home,” many are stateless and increasingly hopeless.
We owe them so much more. Because our own country has played a role in fostering democracy in Afghanistan, and we said we were committed to that project. Because many Afghans served alongside Canadians with friendship, dedication and honour. Because we are human beings, and they are human beings, and that should be reason enough to call us to action on behalf of these courageous women and their children.
Before last year, these talented women lived vibrant lives. When they took to the streets in protest, they marched with purpose and power. Now, as they grapple with uncertainty and fear, they have lost their agency, but not their dreams.
It’s been one year since the fall of Kabul, and it’s past time to step up. Our friends may be powerless at the moment – but we are not.
Keep your Opinions sharp and informed. Get the Opinion newsletter. Sign up today.