“My commitments to Afghanistan give me hope to never give up,” Farzana, 18, told Ms. “I am a role model for thousands of girls who are orphaned and do not have a family.”
Last summer, almost one year after the Taliban takeover, I spoke to 17-year-old Farzana about her life in Kabul. (Her name has been changed here for safety.) Before the Taliban returned to power on Aug. 15, 2021, Farzana attended high school. She ran track for her school team and, since she was in kindergarten, was a member of a local NGO focused on leadership development for Afghan youth. After Farzana’s father died in 2017, she—along with her mother—worked to financially support their family of nine.
Now, two years since the U.S. withdrew their troops, Farzana, 18, feels she has very little to live for. Nearly all of Afghan women’s rights have been taken away: She cannot attend school or university. She can no longer travel without a male escort. She is banned from public spaces, including parks, gyms and salons. Even the leadership program—which she said saved her life after she was banned from attending school—has been closed for in-person activities. Since her mother is uneducated and now unable to work, Farzana is the sole provider for her family, teaching girls online (the only way women and girls can work) through the NGO—at least, for now.
It is dangerous to speak against this treatment for fear of retaliation from the Taliban. Even still, Farzana spoke with Ms. to discuss living under Taliban rule and gender apartheid for two years. Her urgent call for international help and support shows how she and her community have tried to survive—despite feelings of hopelessness, erasure and abandonment by the global community.
This interview has been edited slightly for clarity.
Clara Scholl: What has changed for you in the past year? How are you doing?
Farzana: When the Taliban took over originally, they banned universities for women and girls. Now, everything that was for women and girls has been banned. They banned all gyms, universities, schools, parks and restaurants for women. They banned the center that teaches English, which was the saddest for me because I was learning English there.
I’ve never forgotten that day the Taliban stopped our course. We were in class and we heard fighting in the hall. The teacher told us to stay in the class, but we realized it was getting bad. Without the permission of the teacher, I ran away from the course with my friend until we reached outside. The Taliban wanted to lock the women and girls inside the center. I ran away and got into a car with my friends. We were crying for the girls locked inside. No one knew what would happen to them. After that day, the people at the center told women never to come again.
The leadership program I have participated in since kindergarten is closed. They no longer have permission for female staff to come to the organization and work. Before that day, it was a beautiful place. It was like my home. It’s been eight months since women have been allowed inside, and now we are only working online.
Afghan people are in bad economic conditions, and that’s why so many girls are getting into arranged marriages. Families do not have anything to eat at home and they receive money from their marriage.
One of my girl classmates, who is just 18, was forced into an arranged marriage with someone in the Taliban who already had another wife and children. Her father was forced to give him her hand. They were engaged, and on the day of their wedding, the girl ran away from home and fled to Iran, and then Turkey. The Taliban came to us and asked, ‘Where is your classmate?’ and we said we didn’t know. They asked me, because she told them I am her friend, and I said I didn’t have any idea. That man was trying to find her and kill her.
I am proud to be a girl, but when you see your hopes and your mental health die every minute and you can’t do anything about it, it’s really hard.
Afghan people are in bad economic conditions, and that’s why so many girls are getting into arranged marriages. Families do not have anything to eat at home.
Scholl: What does it mean to be a woman in Afghanistan right now?
Farzana: It means everyone sees you as nothing. It is really heartbreaking. It has been two years and the future looks dark. It’s not being alive, and not being dead. We have permission for neither.
We cannot go outside of our home with a relaxed mind. Every second we are worried that the Taliban will stop and harass us on the street. When girls tell them to stop, they show their ID cards to confirm that they are Taliban and tell the girls to be silent. The girls have to be silent because they know that there is no way to get out of it.
If they see a single strand of hair outside of your scarf they fight with you. One time they stopped me because my pants got to be a little bit shorter because I grew taller and I didn’t have enough money to get a new pair. When they called me over, I told him that I don’t have any other pants to wear. I am jobless and poor. He screamed at me, ‘Do it now. If you do not, I will call the police to put you into jail.’ I was crying for him to please leave me because I don’t have any other pants and it’s a very small part of my ankle that was showing. He told me he never wanted to see me again and that I was a bad girl. He called me many bad things and almost hurt me with the weapon he has to beat people.
Girls are developing mental health problems because everything is at home. Being at home has really had an effect on my mental health. All of the days are framed by four walls in a home. I cannot be outside. It is like jail.
Learning online is not easy, and it needs a lot of passion and these days there are many challenges with online learning. I’ve spent eight months on my phone, and it hurts my eyes. We are faced with problems, but we see being online as an opportunity because if we don’t have the internet then what would we have?
I had the hope to be a great athlete and leader in the world—a leader for Afghan women. These are still my hopes and my goals, and even in this hard situation, I am doing my best to get an opportunity to find a university outside of Afghanistan.
Scholl: What is the biggest difficulty you face right now?
Farzana: My biggest problem is that I don’t see my future in Afghanistan. I am trying but I cannot find an opportunity for me to continue my education. I see girls in other countries who have permission to do everything, but they don’t want to learn. They have school but they don’t like it. They have university, but they don’t like it. I am thirsty to have one day, even one day, to go to university or college.
If I don’t study, I could be removed from my job. If I am jobless, no one in my family will have food. I don’t have a father, and I have one brother but he is deaf and uneducated. My mother is also uneducated. They won’t be offered a job to do. I am the sole provider of the family.
I am always thinking about it. Every night, I am thinking about what would happen if I lost my job. I won’t have any other skills.
In the past, there was more equality where men worked and women worked together in the family. Now, it is just the man that can work, even if it’s a young boy. They have to leave school because they need to find money for the family. Afghan boys and youths are not being educated either.
It has been two years and the future looks dark. It’s not being alive, and not being dead. We have permission for neither.
Scholl: Are there moments that bring you hope?
Farzana: My commitments to Afghanistan give me hope to never give up. I am a role model for thousands of girls who are orphaned and do not have a family. They see me as their future, as a powerful girl, who is always strong and has an ability to find solutions. I want to show people that people without money, food or a father can also grow. I want them to feel hope.
I am young, but I am everything for my family. I can’t show how hopeless, heartbroken or powerless I feel. But I am sick. I cannot show them how hopeless and broken I am because I am their hope.
Scholl: What can people around the world do to help?
Farzana: Provide opportunities for girls and boys to get an education because these opportunities will make a very big impact. They can support us by providing scholarships for university, creating online courses or work. There are many powerful women in Afghanistan who can work online too. They are intelligent and hard-working. Girls and women had other jobs in beauty salons, but the Taliban banned them too. Many women aren’t educated, and had no other chance or skills to earn money other than beauty salons.
Education will change many generations of people and the whole story of Afghanistan because it is a country with many uneducated people.
I hope that one day Afghan women will have the opportunity to be leaders. I had the hope to be a great athlete and leader in the world—a leader for Afghan women. These are still my hopes and my goals, and even in this hard situation, I am doing my best to get an opportunity to find a university outside of Afghanistan. One day, I will work for women and girls and I will tell them how hard it was for me and Afghan girls. Some have it even harder than I do. Maybe it’s part of life that some darkness will come, but I still believe in a bright future.
Editor’s note: If you know of scholarship opportunities that are accepting Afghan girls or you would like to get in contact with Farzana, please email email@example.com.
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