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She Is Staying In Afghanistan To Ensure Women's Gains Aren't Lost Under Taliban Rule

Internally displaced Afghan women, who fled from the northern province due to battle between Taliban and Afghan security forces, gather at Shahr-e-Naw Park in Kabul on August 13, 2021.
Internally displaced Afghan women, who fled from the northern province due to battle between Taliban and Afghan security forces, gather at Shahr-e-Naw Park in Kabul on August 13, 2021.

From 1996 to 2001, when the Taliban previously held power in Afghanistan, women and girls were denied basic rights, such as the ability to go to school, hold a job outside the home or travel unescorted.

Many are concerned that with the Taliban once again in control, the rights of women in the country will once again be denied. For their part, the Taliban have encouraged women to join the new government and declared amnesty across the country. However, many Afghans remain skeptical.

NPR's A Martínez spoke with Mahbooba Seraj, founder of the Afghan Women's Network. Seraj says there's "so much uncertainty that I honestly cannot tell you whether we are coming or going, what's going to happen, whether we're going to be alive tomorrow. ... We have absolutely no idea what's happening."

Seraj is staying in Afghanistan, she says, because she wants to protect the women and girls she's responsible for — but also because it is her country and "I don't want anybody to force me this time to get out of this land."

Below are excerpts from our conversation with Seraj, but this is one of those conversations best heard: You can do that here.

Fully veiled women walk past a billboard put up on the wall of a beauty salon in Kabul on August 7, 2021.
Sajjad Hussain / AFP via Getty Images
Women on Aug. 7 walk past a billboard put up on the wall of a beauty salon in Kabul.

"Not going to hide"

"I am responsible for a group of women and girls in Afghanistan belonging to a category of women that have been hurt — they have been abused and used all their lives," Seraj explains. "They have been under my protection for the longest time. And I am still around because I don't know what to do with them."

Seraj says because she can't get these women out of the country and won't put them on the street, she stays to "keep some law and order" in place.

She has been telling the women in her care to avoid worrying — "because there's nothing you can do by worrying." Instead, she urges them to keep calm, pray, breathe and "let us keep our heads high up and our senses around us."

What she can't say is what lies ahead for her, for these women or for all the women of Afghanistan.

"I have been working in this country for the past 20 years. This is what we do. This is our job," Seraj says. "We look after the women. We look after the children. We dug wells; we teach people how to look after their health ... how to look after the health of their children. We try to have schools that can teach them. There is nothing that I am ashamed of doing for this country."

Seraj says she's "not going to hide anything from anyone."

"I was born and raised in this country," Seraj told us. "And I'm going to stay in this country, and I don't want anybody to force me this time to get out of this land."

"The world left us"

Seraj told Martínez she feels so abandoned by the U.S. and at the moment she cannot talk about it without wanting to scream:

"I am sorry — I am like so, so upset because of the way it was done. I am not saying they should've stayed with us and hold our hands for eternity. No. But the way they did [this] was wrong."

She says she feels like "the world left us like a hot potato."

"They dropped us and we are where we are. So now we should really stand up for what we believe. We should really work hard."

Before she can believe the Taliban's calls for a more inclusive government, Seraj says, she needs to see action.

"They have said these things quite often lately, but we want them to actually do it and see how they're going to be dealing with us," says Seraj. "What they're going to allow us to do, whether our girls can go to school, whether our women can go to work ... they have to allow us to do that. Then once I see it, then I will believe."


Her message to Americans

Seraj also shared with Martinez a message for Americans watching what's happening in Afghanistan.

We've posted it here in full:
"Please, as Americans, you have a country that has laws — you are a democratic nation. Don't allow your government to use you by taking you by the nose and directing [the country in] any direction that they want. Don't allow that to be done to you as people. Please don't allow it. You're much greater, much bigger and much more powerful than that.

"Make sure that when you get involved in a country, when you do something for a country, when you get involved in a situation like Afghanistan, the way you went there — make sure that your government doesn't lie to you. Because your government has been lying to you from Day 1 about this. All the way. They've been lying to you so much that they don't even know what is the truth anymore.

"So please tell them that, please. That's not who they are. Americans are amazing people."


This story originally ran on the Morning Edition live blog.

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