The Letter: The Taliban and the future for women in Afghanistan
Sweeta Noori was one of several speakers from Afghanistan at the recent White House march to support Afghan women. She is a vocal critic of the now completed U.S. withdrawal, knowing just what the Taliban is capable of.
“The way they abandoned Afghanistan is not acceptable. They did it in the middle of the night. It weakened the troops in Afghanistan. They lost their hope. The Afghan people lost their trust, the army lost their trust,” she shared.
In June, 2008, when we were both working for Women for Women International, an organization that helps women survivors of war rebuild their lives, Sweeta received a letter from the Taliban that forever changed her life.
“My husband and I were watching TV when I got a call from one of our guards advising me not to come to the office because of a death threat they received,” Sweeta told me. “In the morning I decided to go anyway. I never trusted these kinds of letters… I was not the person to be scared or give up. I worked in very difficult circumstances such as the Taliban time.”
Sweeta, now 47, described the year of her birth, 1973, as a time of optimism for women. The republic welcomed its first president, former Prime Minister Khan, a human rights advocate and supporter of women’s education. Sweeta’s mother was a prominent doctor and a professor at the Kabul Institute of Medicine. She’d planned to follow in her footsteps. With the rise of the Mujahidin (guerrilla fighters), however, Sweeta was forced to drop out of medical school. Ongoing violence caused her family to flee to Pakistan.
When the Taliban took power in 1996, Sweeta’s family returned to Kabul hopeful for a different future. Instead, the Taliban’s restrictive interpretation of Islam relegated women to their homes, unable to move freely, work or be educated. Inside her home, she taught English to other women, a crime at that time but a personal duty to her sisters.
The fall of the Taliban and United States’ post-9/11 intervention brought renewed optimism and progress for some, but not all, Afghan women. Sweeta often spoke of two Afghanistans: one in Kabul, where women were gaining access to an education, economic and political opportunities, and another outside of the capital, where women were subject to a different set of rights and laws that restricted their freedom and endangered their lives.
As country director for Women for Women International in Afghanistan, Sweeta worked on the frontlines with the poorest, most marginalized women: 80 percent were illiterate and innumerate. Many of the women did not know their own age or the ages of their children. A number of them were single heads of households with multiple children to care for. It was common for these women to marry off their daughters early to reduce the family’s economic burden. The same had been done to them. Female leaders trying to change the status quo remained targets.
“I went through the letter ten times, and as I read it again and again there was a growing fear inside me,” Sweeta said. Loosely translated from Dari it read:
“…You and your organization did not pay attention to our past several warnings and [are] still continuing to encourage innocent women to do anti-Islamic, anti-cultural and traditional activities in the country, and continue to mislead our women and our communities. From now on your fate and destiny is in your own hand.”
Two phone calls from the Taliban came next. They seemed to be tracking Sweeta’s every movement. They warned her that if she did not quit her job they would kill her and her seven-year-old son and baby daughter and she would be responsible for their deaths.
“As a mother of two kids, I could not believe these two innocents were the ones who should pay [for] the cost of my work,” said Sweeta.
I used every political connection I could think of to get Sweeta and her children out of Afghanistan. After September 11th, though, the U.S. was letting few Afghans into the country, fearing potential terrorists. Finally, word came in July of 2008 that their visas had been approved. They would be safe.
Women like Sweeta risked their lives simply for trying to help their own. Now an American citizen, Sweeta and other Afghan-American women submitted a petition calling on the Biden administration to “honor its commitment to gender equality” by ensuring women’s rights activists and leaders received priority evacuation and those remaining in the country sufficient protection. Working through the night, she collected more than 200 signatures from other Afghan-American women. The cause was personal for all of them.
Sweeta dismisses any Taliban effort to appear more tolerant as “window dressing,” designed to garner international support and avoid sanctions. The letter is a tangible reminder that little has changed.
“It’s really heart-breaking, what’s happening,” said Sweeta. “Look at these women. They still do not lose their hope, they are still trying to help other women. This cannot be the end of the world for Afghan women.”
And what about all of the Afghan women and girls who don’t warrant American protection or intervention, the poor and the marginalized, the would-be doctors, educators, and athletes? What of their futures and fate? As a woman, mother and fellow activist, I can only echo Sweeta’s words.
Karen Sherman is the author of Brick by Brick: Building Hope an Opportunity for Women Survivors Everywhere, 2020.