Inspired by their mother, the Afghan sisters Sadaf and Zolheja dream of becoming business women. But for now, only Sadaf seems ready to fulfill that ambition, while Zolheja is thwarted by the Taliban’s ban on women attending universities.
“I seem to have to bury all my goals,” 19-year-old Zolheja told NBC News via WhatsApp from her home in the Afghan capital Kabul earlier this year. The ban went into effect last month. (NBC News verified the sisters’ identities, but agreed not to use their last names because they fear Taliban reprisals.)
She said she now spends her days “thinking, crying, searching and trying to apply for scholarships so that I can have the opportunity to study elsewhere.”
“I go everywhere,” she said.
Her older sister, Sadaf, 21, said she was evacuated from Afghanistan in August 2021, shortly after the Taliban seized power. She added that she was eligible to immigrate to the United States because of her work at a non-governmental organization that focused on education and is now studying business management on a scholarship at the University of Tulsa in Oklahoma.
“I had to do this, I had to come here to support my family,” she said.
While the Taliban initially promised a more moderate rule and pledged to respect the rights of women and minorities, they have implemented their strict interpretation of Islamic law, or Sharia, since they took power. As a result, the country has become the most repressive country in the world for women and girls, deprived of many of their basic rights, the United Nations said on Wednesday.
Women are barred from most jobs, ordered to wear head-to-toe clothing in public, and banned from parks and gyms. After barring girls from middle school and high school last spring, the Taliban began enforcing a ban on women’s higher education in December by blocking their access to universities.
Zolheja said she found out about the ban when she arrived at her university and was denied entry along with many other female students.
“The day they announced the ban, I felt like they were killing us,” she said. “We are human beings, we should live the way we want to live, not the way the Taliban wants us to live.”
Her mother was especially sad for her, as her own dreams were crushed after the Taliban introduced a ban on women’s education after they first came to power in 1996, she said.
“She had this experience before and knows how much it hurts,” Zolheja said.
Sadaf added that their mother had wanted to resume her studies after the US-led invasion in 2001, prompted by the Taliban’s refusal to kill Osama bin Laden, the leader of Al Qaeda and the mastermind behind the 9/11 terrorist attacks. , to deliver.
At that time, access to education became available to women across the country, but Sadaf said she was unable to obtain documents proving she had already completed most of her studies and did not want to start over.
Instead, Sadaf said, their mother stayed home and took over the chores “so we could focus on our studies.”
Their father also supported their educational endeavors, she said, adding that he didn’t want them to be “women just around the house, cooking and cleaning.”
“I’m so thankful to have parents like that,” she said.
That support did not waver after the Taliban took over, and after some emotional conversations as a family, they decided it was best for her to leave the country with the help of her NGO.
“I was just trying to escape from Afghanistan,” she said, adding that their goodbyes were hasty as she embarked on what would be her first trip outside the country from Kabul International Airport.
Through tears, her mother told her to “stay safe,” Sadaf said, crying as she recalled their farewell.
She added that she called her mother from the plane and told her, “I’m flying.”
After landing in Qatar, she flew to Ramstein Air Base in southwest Germany before continuing on to Washington, DC. From there she went to Texas and then to a camp in New Mexico, where she stayed for nearly two months. Finally, she said, she went to her new home in Tulsa, where she knew people associated with the NGO she worked with in Afghanistan. (A US official with knowledge of Sadaf’s trip confirmed this to NBC News.)
Her first real home in the US was a dormitory at the University of Tulsa, which had started a support program for fleeing Afghans. A job as a case manager and interpreter at a resettlement agency soon followed, before she was accepted into university on a full scholarship.
Sadaf said she missed “everything” about her homeland, especially her family, and that adjusting to life in Oklahoma had been difficult. But while also studying English, she earned a 4.0 GPA in her first semester.
Currently in the US on a humanitarian parole, she said she is seeking asylum and hopes to apply for a green card. Ultimately, she said, she hopes to bring her family to the US and there are several ways she can do this, including the new Welcome Corps Programlaunched last month by the State Department, which allows private U.S. citizens to sponsor refugees.
Back in Afghanistan, the ban on women’s education remains in place despite international condemnation from Western countries, as well as more hardline Muslim majority countries. Along with Turkey, Qatar and Pakistan, Saudi Arabia — which until 2019 imposed sweeping restrictions on women’s travel, work and other crucial aspects of their daily lives, including driving — urged the Taliban to change course.
The ban also sparked several protests in Afghanistan, where just over 100,000 of the country’s 20 million women are in higher education by 2021, according to data compiled by the Ministry of Education and published by the National Statistics and Information Authority in May.
So far, the Taliban has shown little sign of rolling back the policy, along with a separate ban on Afghan women from working for non-governmental organizations that it also introduced last month. The group alleged that female workers were not wearing the Islamic headscarf properly.
Several senior Taliban members declined to comment on whether they will restore education for women and girls. They also declined to comment on whether women and girls should be allowed to work for NGOs.
While some Western institutions provide virtual courses for Afghan students, only 18% of Afghans had access to the internet in 2020, according to the latest available data of the World Bank.
As a result, Zolheja said she felt like “a bird in a cage that wants to fly but can’t,” adding, “I feel like I have no reason to live and no good future to wait for. “
Although Sadaf’s future looks a lot brighter, she remains saddened by her sister’s plight and that of other women in her homeland.
The sisters chat when they can via text – but Sadaf said that when she is alone, thoughts flood her mind about her family’s future, especially Zolheja’s.
“Just staying home and doing nothing, that bothers me and my sister a lot,” she said. “I can’t do anything for her, that makes me sad.”