Jamila Afghani was settling into her new home in Kitchener, Ontario, when she found out that the Taliban had raided her office back in Afghanistan. Uniformed officers had barged into a counselling service for women in Kabul, accused the staff of running “a ministry of women” and taken one of the employees away for questioning.
Afghani had chosen the premises in the capital in part because of its proximity to the Ministry of Women’s Affairs, where she had good contacts who supported her work championing the rights of women and girls. When the Taliban replaced the women’s ministry with the Ministry for the Propagation of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice, Afghani’s organisation found itself working under the nose of the morality police.
Last month’s incident was a chilling reminder of the daily humiliations women face as the Taliban obliterates them from public life.
A few weeks after the raid, Afghani was awarded the Aurora humanitarian prize at a ceremony in Venice in recognition of her 25-plus years educating girls and as founder of the Noor Educational and Capacity Development Organization (Necdo). Her acceptance speech, via video from Canada, was tearful: “My country, my people, are passing through the darkest days of history “Today children are not allowed to go to school; my sisters are not allowed to go to their job because they are women … sometimes we believe there is no humanity in this world any more.”
Afghani has reopened the Necdo office, but is hypervigilant, an eye always on the office CCTV, and checking on colleagues – all from thousands of miles away. She feels guilty she can’t be there in person.
“Every day I’m working until 4am. I try my best to say, ‘I’m with you.’”
Afghani, who was left disabled after contracting polio as a child, fled Afghanistan with her husband and three children 11 days after the Taliban took control of Kabul on 15 August 2021. Despite holding visas for multiple countries, the family couldn’t get on a flight out. “Kabul airport has four entrances; we tried all of them on different days, but it was so crowded, it was too dangerous. One day my daughter almost suffocated in the crush, we could not get water for her.”
Eventually the Norwegian ambassador to Afghanistan, Ole Andreas Lindeman, arranged her escape to Norway. They were relieved to be in a safe place but the climate made it difficult for Afghani, who uses crutches, to get out, and the language proved challenging. “I was very isolated, I was stuck in the house for months of the year while it snowed,” she says. A year later they relocated to Canada.
Afghani’s children hope they can settle now, but she is determined to return to Afghanistan as soon as possible. “Even when my children say, ‘No, we are fed up with moving around’, I say, ‘You stay with your father, I will go back’. I have no other choice: as long as I’m alive I have to struggle.”
It is the sixth time she has been a refugee. The first, after the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, still gives her nightmares. Her disability meant she could not leave on foot through the mountains to Pakistan with her siblings, so her father enlisted a friend to take Afghani by road. She was disguised as a Pashtun but the border guards weren’t fooled. Forced to turn back, they were shot at by Russian forces. “I was unconscious for hours. When I woke up I was bleeding from a bullet wound by my right ear; the taxi driver was crying and shouting for help. The car was on the edge of the mountain. I opened the door and looked down a cliff face,” she says. She spent the rest of the journey holding her father’s dead friend and was too traumatised to try again.
It was years until she and her mother were able to join their family in Pakistan. Once there, determined to continue her studies – and against her father’s wishes – she went to university, gaining a degree and two master’s. “Education changed my life,” she says.
She set up a centre in Kabul to help schoolchildren catch up, then a second in Ghazni, angering a local imam who disparaged her as a bad Muslim.
“I was really worried [about challenging him],” she says. “Friends suggested not to do it, but the knowledge I have from studying Islamic law gave me strength to debate. He realised it was difficult for him to turn the conversation and he changed his mind. It was really empowering and a turning point in my life.”
Inspired by the exchange, she established a project to persuade religious leaders that women’s rights are within the teachings of Islam which reached 6,000 imams in 22 provinces.
By 2021 she had opened dozens of literacy centres and more than 100,000 girls were enrolled. “We had at least 10 centres in each province, and about 2,000 teachers in our membership,” says Afghani. Necdo also provided support to victims of domestic violence, and having to close the centres was crushing for thousands of women in its network.
One of the worst moments in the past year was hearing that one teacher, a mother of four, had killed herself. “She was a very dignified woman; she did not share with us,” Afghani says. “If you are a single mother [under] the Taliban regime, how will you survive in this society?”
The suicide prompted Afghani to launch counselling services. So far 600 women have had therapy sessions, but there are thousands more in need. Part of the $1m (£860,000) Aurora prize money will hire counsellors. “We are contacted every day by women asking for help; many of them express suicidal thoughts,” says Afghani, who admits it takes its toll. “My children call me ‘the river’ because I’m always crying. I’m an emotional person.” .
It hurts her deeply not just that girls are locked out of schools and women denied careers, but that domestic abuse is rife too. Hundreds of divorce cases that had been processed have been reversed, with women forced to go back to abusive husbands. Afghani’s new plan is to make education films which she will attempt to persuade the Taliban to show on TV, although the chances are slim.
“It’s a difficult time to be optimistic,” she says. “But I’m hopeful that no darkness is for ever; no cruel, abusive regime can remain. The dark-mindedness of the Taliban will collapse.”