These women fled Afghanistan. What's at stake for those left behind?

For Afghan women, 20 years of gains face an uncertain future under a new Taliban regime.

Friends in Daykundi go to a local dam for a picnic on March 19, 2021, the day before Nowruz, a spring festival that marks the new year. Though many women have been afforded access to education, career opportunities, and freedom, their lives will likely be restricted by the new Taliban rule.

In the past month, Naheed Esar has spent her days settling into a new life as a doctoral student in the leafy college town of Fayetteville, Arkansas. At night, when her family in Afghanistan is just waking up, she calls them. “We try to calm one another,” she says. “But it starts with: Are you alive? Where is this person, where is that person?” She doesn’t get much sleep.

For 20 years, women in Afghanistan have gone to school, pursued careers, and fought to achieve a social standing equal to men. They’ve become artists, activists, and actors. Now, Esar and millions of women are grappling with the sudden Taliban takeover of their country. Thousands of women are fleeing or in hiding as they await an uncertain future.

For the past six years, 33-year-old Esar has served in the Afghan government, starting as a gender expert for the presidential palace and ending as a deputy foreign minister. By that time, the threats were constant: Esar traveled with five bodyguards in an armored vehicle, and dogs sniffed her Kabul home for bombs once a week. After the peace deal struck between the U.S. and the Taliban in 2020, the prospects for her—and millions of other ambitious Afghan women—to continue their lives grew increasingly tenuous.

Esar began preparing for her departure. “I realized if I stayed, I wouldn’t be able to leave Afghanistan alive,” Esar says.

When the Taliban last controlled Afghanistan, from 1996 to 2001, women’s education was widely banned, stoning and whipping were punishment for crimes like adultery, and a male escort was required to leave home. After the U.S.-led invasion ousted the Taliban from power, education of women and girls became a hallmark of the mission’s success. Millions of girls donned school uniforms. Today, half of Afghan women age 15 to 24 are able to read—double the literacy rate for women in 2000. And though their involvement in the labor market is still far below most countries, an increasing number of Afghan women have served in government, on the bench, and in the media. More than a quarter of parliamentary seats in the country of 39 million are reserved for women—more than in the U.S.

When Kabul fell in mid-August, the airport became a clearinghouse for those trying to escape Taliban rule and reprisals. More than 80,000 people have been flown out of Kabul since the country fell, but 250,000 who are eligible for U.S. visas are still standing by. Thousands more who believe they could be Taliban targets are waiting for help before the American military pull-out on August 31st. Among them are female journalists and parliamentarians, artists, members of the LGBTQ community, U.S. military translators, and others who fear for their lives under a Taliban regime. Large humanitarian organizations and private efforts alike have received an outpouring of support but have managed limited logistical success.

Through the maze of military bureaucracy at the airport, a trickle of Afghan evacuees have made it onto flights out of the country: A dozen teenage members of the Afghan all-girls robotics team landed in Doha on a special flight arranged by the Qatari government. One of the country’s first female mayors, Zarifa Ghafari, was smuggled to safety in Germany after telling the press she was just waiting to be killed. Students from the country’s only girls’ boarding school landed in Rwanda after its founder burned all the student records. (Founder Shabana Basij-Rasikh was a 2014 National Geographic Emerging Explorer.)

Naheed Esar left Afghanistan on December 17, 2020, for Pakistan, where she had an appointment for a U.S. visa that would allow her to pursue a Ph.D. in anthropology at the University of Arkansas.

As she waited, the Taliban seized more and more of her country. When Esar’s visa arrived in mid-July, her father urged her to go straight from Pakistan to the U.S. What if the Kabul airport collapses? he asked. She couldn’t imagine that ever happening, but she agreed to go. She landed in Arkansas at the end of July and has replaced her belongings with thrift shop clothing and furniture donated by professors at the university.

When Kabul fell, the Afghan Fulbright class of 2021 already had their visas, Esar says. Those she’s in touch with have made it to the U.S. She hasn’t met them in person, but they chat on WhatsApp and she urges them to get off social media, focus on their studies, and take advantage of the opportunity.

She had dreamed of one day opening an all-Afghan research institution. Now she doesn’t know if she’ll ever go back. “Leaving your country without even being there—while your family is there, your loved ones are there—is basically moving a tree from one place to another,” she says. “Will that tree ever grow the same?”

Esar comes from a long line of female warriors. Her grandmother was a guerilla fighter during the Soviet invasion and later ran her village council. Under Taliban rule, her mother ran an illegal underground school for 60 girls. Esar, who was seven at the time, boastfully called herself the principal. But now her family seems to have given up hope. Her grandmother is dead and her mother, she says, isn’t interested in fighting again. Her parents talk about leaving, something Esar says they’ve never considered before. Their prospects for escape are shrinking by the day.

Getting out alive

Without clarity or a widely disseminated plan for evacuees to reach the Kabul airport, the onus to help Afghans escape has been on those with deep connections in the country.

Shannon Galpin hasn’t gone to bed in 11 days. Sometimes she lies fully dressed on her lumpy couch in Edinburgh, Scotland, and drifts into a half-sleep, ready to jump up if her phone rings with news of the evacuations. Nearly a decade ago in Afghanistan, Galpin helped establish the Afghan Women’s Cycling Team and the country’s first bike club. She’s spent the ensuing years supporting Afghan women pursuing athletics.

In 2020, there were girls’ teams in seven provinces and five bike races for women cyclists, along with BMX and mountain biking competitions. Athletics, like culture and art, can be a form of rebellion, says Galpin, who is American. “It’s truly universal that the bike is linked to women’s rights,” she says. “It’s a vehicle of freedom and mobility. That’s at the heart of your independence and equality.”

On August 15, as Afghan President Ashraf Ghani fled the country and the Taliban seized the presidential palace, leaders from the global community of climbers, bikers, and other outdoor sports started building a database for evacuation. The 400-person list of Afghan athletes and coaches includes an all-girls’ climbing team, the Bamiyan ski club, marathon runners, mountain bikers, a parkour group, and women’s basketball and football teams. Galpin and her collaborators quickly compiled and shared safe routes to the airport, the numbers for private security firms, and charter flight contacts.

On a given day Galpin is coordinating evacuations on 20 different message threads. Her inbox is filled with recordings of hysterical crying, reports of Taliban patrolling door-to-door, and occasionally vitriol that she knows is just vented frustration. “Now 11 days in, how do you say, ‘I’m so sorry just wait’?” she asks. “It’s heartbreaking. What we are doing in comparison to the fear they are living with? It’s never going to be enough.”

Galpin launched a fundraiser to help cover costs: A $10 taxi ride to the airport now costs $4,000 from a private security firm. Galpin appealed to the cycling community that had cheered on the Afghan teams over the years and has collected $36,000.

Galpin’s fundraiser is one of many. The founder of an Instagram meme account launched a GoFundMe drive to pay for private evacuation flights and raised $5 million in 24 hours. Now, a week later, it has surpassed $7 million.

But money is just one factor needed to navigate the chaos at the airport and the deadline of the American pull-out. Each seat on a plane out is estimated to cost $1,500, but some flights have been taking off less than a quarter full after logistical snags kept passengers from boarding. At first, the Taliban was allowing passage to the airport, but as of this week the road is closed and cars are being stopped at checkpoints.

Hampered by the chaotic and changing regulations, supporters are getting a few out at a time. So far, Galpin believes 50 people from her list of 400 have evacuated, but she won’t know for sure until the U.S. pullout is complete. “This doesn't end on the 31st,” she says. “Then we have to take care of the people left behind.”

One female cyclist, standing in the sewage trench that crosses in front of the gate at the Kabul airport where Afghans have congregated, yelled to the soldiers manning it that she was on a charter flight manifest. “I said it is a Uganda flight, the British soldier laughed,” she texted Galpin. After hours of phone calls, the woman made it onto the flight. It was practically empty.

An uncertain future

Right now there are only clues of what’s to come in a Taliban-led Afghanistan.

The leadership in Kabul has been on a public relations offensive, but already Taliban soldiers have refused to allow female students and teachers to enter the university in Herat, a city in western Afghanistan, and girls' schools in other provinces have been closed since the Taliban seized power. Women shopping alone in markets in Mazar-i-Sharif have been told to return with a male guardian, and female news anchors have been let go.

Over the past two decades, access to education in Taliban strongholds has varied widely. In some districts, women have been allowed to travel to attend government universities. In others, there are not even primary schools for girls. For the most part, education is restricted after a girl reaches puberty, or around seventh grade.

“The Islamic Emirate is committed to the rights of women within the framework of Sharia,” Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid said at a press conference on August 17. “Our sisters, our men have the same rights; they will be able to benefit from their rights...They are going to be working with us, shoulder to shoulder with us.”

To Rada Akbar, these promises ring empty, if not darkly ironic. Akbar, a photographer, painter, and activist based in Kabul, has been a vocal critic of the Taliban. Earlier this year, she found herself on a released list of assassination targets. “The Taliban have been targeting women like me and my friends for the past 20 years,” she says. “People must be so naive to trust that they have changed. Twenty years of killing and destruction and overnight they change? No. They are the same.

 “The irony is that when they took Kabul they announced amnesty and they said, ‘We forgive every Afghan.’ What do you mean you forgive us? You killed us. You killed our friends and colleagues. You forgive me for what? For being an artist? You forgive us for losing our lives?”

Three months ago, Akbar’s family met over dinner and discussed leaving. Her mother flatly refused: The family had fled to Pakistan as the Taliban took power in 1996. She would not be a refugee again. Still worried, Akbar began sending her paintings and hard drives with friends traveling overseas.

On August 15, Akbar received a hysterical call from a photographer friend in Kabul. “Rada,” she screamed, “they are coming, they are coming!” Akbar left behind a half-eaten lunch and the better part of a decade of work and drove to the French Embassy. After a few days, she was moved to the airport in a convoy of 15 minibuses and armored vehicles. She’d wished they’d done it at night so she didn’t have to see her city overrun by Taliban soldiers. Now, she’s quarantined in a hotel in Paris with hundreds of other Afghans waiting to hear where they’ll go next. Her family is scattered across Germany, the U.S., France, and Turkey.

Soon there will be thousands of Afghan refugees across the world and many more left behind with no means to escape. “When the U.S. toppled Taliban rule, there was an effort to really try to help these women move forward. And after the last 20 years there have been so many achievements in education and professional life,” says Melanne Verveer, who runs the Georgetown Institute for Women, Peace, and Security. “The thought now of that being erased is something I think is really hitting people. Oh my god, what is going to happen to them now?”

Yet, according to data from the institute, Afghanistan still ranks as the second-to-worst country to be a woman due to the instability and gender-based violence.

Women gained significant political power during the past nearly 20 years, but now the future is uncertain. Some women political leaders have said a return to Taliban rule would be unacceptable, but others expressed hope that there would be a place for women's voices and Islamic values.

“We don’t know yet really what the Taliban wants us to lose and to sacrifice,” said Shinkai Karokhail, a parliamentarian and women’s rights activist, in a 2020 National Geographic story. “We are not against peace, we are not against bringing the Taliban back to [politics in] Afghanistan to at last end this long war.”

Under President Barack Obama, Verveer served as the first U.S. Ambassador for Global Women’s Issues. During one trip to Afghanistan, she met with a group of female journalists. One handed her a small bouquet of plastic flowers and recounted a saying: “One flower won’t bring spring, but many will.” She gestured at the female journalists in the room to show that spring had come.

This memory haunts Verveer, who now is spearheading a campaign called Protect Afghan Women that is helping evacuate judges, journalists, and human rights activists. “I keep thinking that spring has turned into a terrible winter right now,” she says.

Read This Next

Ötzi the Iceman: What we know 30 years after his discovery
Sanctuary gives hope to chimps, rescuers
Golden hour dazzles at these 10 national parks

Go Further

Subscriber Exclusive Content

Why are people so dang obsessed with Mars?

How viruses shape our world

The era of greyhound racing in the U.S. is coming to an end

See how people have imagined life on Mars through history

See how NASA’s new Mars rover will explore the red planet

Why are people so dang obsessed with Mars?

How viruses shape our world

The era of greyhound racing in the U.S. is coming to an end

See how people have imagined life on Mars through history

See how NASA’s new Mars rover will explore the red planet

Why are people so dang obsessed with Mars?

How viruses shape our world

The era of greyhound racing in the U.S. is coming to an end

See how people have imagined life on Mars through history

See how NASA’s new Mars rover will explore the red planet