KABUL, Afghanistan — On the 16th day that Parwaneh was locked in her room, a group of armed men visited her, banged on the door, and demanded she followed their orders. It was 2016, and Parwaneh had been taken hostage after she refused to marry the man to whom her father had promised her — hardly surprising given he was much older than her and already had one wife. Worse, he was a member of the Taliban, the Islamist group that has long made Afghanistan one of the worst places in the world to be a woman.
If Parwaneh refused to marry him — as she had done each day she had been held captive at her uncle’s home in northern Afghanistan — she would be taken by force. She was warned that her father, who had already been paid for the promised engagement, would be killed.
Nearly three years later, Parwaneh, 21, is now in hiding at a women’s shelter in the Afghan capital of Kabul. Wearing a black headscarf loosely over her long brown hair, she told the story of her forced engagement as coolly and evenly as if she were speaking to friends at a dinner party, dropping in the occasional bitter joke. It’s a story that took her from the southern coast of Iran, where her family lived as refugees, to a Taliban-dominated town in northeastern Afghanistan, where her once-loving father tried to sell her to a man she had never met.
But it’s also a story of triumph and possibility. A brilliant student who spent her childhood immersed in Persian novels, Parwaneh escaped her captivity with the help of a borrowed cellphone and a lie told via text to the man she was being forced to wed. Her father once burned her schoolbooks, but she’s now studying to become a computer programmer. Someday she hopes to visit Paris, go to grad school in the United States, and run her own tech company.
Saving women like Parwaneh — young, educated, and with a bright future ahead of them — has always been at the heart of the US rationale for invading and then remaining in Afghanistan.
Or at least that’s the story the White House has often liked to tell.
The US first carried out airstrikes as part of Operation Enduring Freedom in October 2001 in response to 9/11. The objective was bombing the training bases and strongholds of al-Qaeda and the Taliban across Afghanistan, and capturing al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden dead or alive. But in November that year, the White House assigned first lady Laura Bush to deliver its weekly radio address so she could make an emotive appeal to the international community on behalf of Afghan women.
“Only the terrorists and the Taliban forbid education to women. Only the terrorists and the Taliban threaten to pull out women’s fingernails for wearing nail polish. The plight of women and children in Afghanistan is a matter of deliberate human cruelty, carried out by those who seek to intimidate and control,” she said. Immediately after the speech ended, the US State Department released an 11-page report on “the Taliban’s War Against Women.”
“We’re tired of the narratives of victimhood assigned to us as Afghan women and we will no longer accept others speaking for us.”
The narrative of rescuing Muslim women, oppressed not just by patriarchy but by terrorists, found universal appeal in the US — including in Hollywood, where celebrities and journalists mingled at benefit parties, pledging their support.
Nearly 18 bloody, turbulent years later, the future of Afghanistan lies in the balance this week after President Donald Trump tweeted that he had secretly organized and then canceled peace talks with the Taliban and, separately, the Afghan government at Camp David. According to his tweets, Trump called off the meeting after a series of attacks orchestrated by the Taliban killed at least 100 people, including a US soldier.
Peace talks between the US and the Taliban have been going for the better part of a year, and this latest development only follows the pattern of Trump’s reckless approach to diplomacy as the US tries to pull out of the seemingly never-ending war in Afghanistan. He once called the conflict a “waste of resources,” then changed his mind after he was shown a picture of Afghan women in miniskirts in the 1970s, before later suggesting that he might decide to “wipe Afghanistan off the face of this earth.”
The US has sunk more than $132 billion on reconstruction in Afghanistan, on top of an estimated $800 billion on a war that has cost thousands of American lives. Nearly 40,000 Afghan civilians have been killed, and thousands more injured. And the violence may yet escalate: A suicide bombing at a wedding in Kabul recently confirmed fears about the growing threat of fighters for the Islamic State in Afghanistan. Whether a peace deal is signed or not, the possibility of a civil war looms large, with the Taliban, the Islamic State and the Afghan government forces all vying for power.
But there may be no bigger admission of defeat for the US than the results of its other war: the one waged for women’s rights. Amid the focus on the return of the Taliban and the deaths of US soldiers, barely a word has been spoken about the future of Afghan women, who have been almost entirely excluded from the peace talks.
The US is the primary outside power capable of pressuring the Taliban and the Afghan government to give women a say over their futures. But instead, the subject is now being treated as an internal dispute, something that the women of Afghanistan must take up with their own leadership at another set of talks, to take place if the US does end up signing a deal with the Taliban.
“Nobody can change Afghanistan in 20 years to make it Switzerland,” said Sima Samar, who was until recently the head of the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission. “We want a country where people can live without fear — if the US doesn’t achieve that, then all this time has been wasted.”
Over the years, narratives about Afghan women have focused mostly on their helplessness and victimhood, and now their fear that the Taliban are set to return to power. But feminism was not exported to Afghanistan by the US — Afghan women across the country and from the diaspora have long been cajoling, negotiating, and even working with the Taliban behind the scenes to push for their rights and autonomy. Afghan women now want the US to fulfill what it set out to accomplish, to be an ally and to amplify their voices, instead of playing to the trope of a tired savior.
“We’re tired of the narratives of victimhood assigned to us as Afghan women and we will no longer accept others speaking for us. Afghan women resisted the Taliban long before the US got involved in Afghanistan, and continue to fight for our rights and spaces every day,” said the Afghan writer and human rights campaigner Sahar Halaimzai.
Parwaneh grew up mostly in Bandar Abbas, an Iranian seaside city that lies on the narrow Strait of Hormuz near the Persian Gulf. She did well in school; after she was finished studying, she would often read late into the night. She inhaled anything she could get her hands on at the market — often Reader’s Digest–style magazines with stories about ordinary lives.
Parwaneh’s parents supported and encouraged her and her younger sister in their studies. The family had a bookcase made out of dark wood, and she filled it slowly — the bottom shelf with old magazines, another shelf with textbooks, and at the top, her favorite novels.
Parwaneh and her family had come to Iran as refugees in the ’90s, fleeing the Taliban-controlled Afghanistan. When she was 17, in her last year of high school, her father was forced to return to Afghanistan by Iranian authorities. He sent for his wife and children to join him. Parwaneh was nervous — she had spent her whole life in Iran and it was home to her. But she also knew that, as a refugee, it would have been hard for her to gain access to a university in Iran, and her father promised her she could continue her education at a university in Kabul.
Parwaneh and her family packed up their most important possessions and prepared to fly to Kabul. Her mother told her that her book collection would be too heavy to take, but she and her younger sister picked up as many as they could and shoved them into the backpacks they took on the plane.
When they arrived in Kabul, the family stayed for just one night. The next day their father took them to a place Parwaneh had never seen before — his home village in Baghlan province, in the country’s northeast, deep in Taliban territory.
Life didn’t change overnight for Parwaneh and her sister. They kept their cellphones and computers and occasionally wore jeans with their headscarves.
“Our uncles would really put pressure on our father about the way we used to dress, like, ‘Why they are wearing jeans or pants?’”
But for many in the village, including members of their extended family, this was scandalous. It began to affect how Parwaneh’s father treated her and her sister. “It wasn’t like we were naked or without hijab, but still we wouldn’t dress as conservatively as he would tell us,” she said. “Our uncles would really put pressure on our father about the way we used to dress, like, ‘Why they are wearing jeans or pants?’”
He forced Parwaneh and her sister to live in a separate section of their family’s house and would often lock them in their rooms. If they went out into the courtyard, he would scream that they were trying to run away. Often he wouldn’t let them come out for days at a time. He told their brother, then 6 years old, not to listen to his sisters because they were women.
“They would give us food like [they were] giving food to an animal — that’s how they treated us,” Parwaneh said.
Parwaneh felt herself begin to change too. Nobody told her that she had to wear a burka — the garment for women favored by the Taliban that covers a woman’s entire head and body, with only a layer of mesh over her face. But one day she put one on. The constant sneers and shaming from her uncles and other relatives had become too much to bear.
Parwaneh’s father had never bothered her about her cellphone and computer when they had lived in Iran, but now he’d taken the electronics away. It made this transformation all the more jarring.
When winter came in 2016, he began taking the books from Parwaneh and her sister too — the ones they had painstakingly carried by hand from Iran. He burned them one by one in the fireplace in the family’s home. As she remembered that winter, Parwaneh began to cry.
There have been few periods in history crueler to women than the rule of the Taliban, which governed Afghanistan from 1996 to 2001. Women and girls were little more than chattel, and the list of restrictions on their movement was endless. Girls were banned from school and forced to wear a burka outside the home lest their appearances “excite men.” Women could not work at all, or even leave the house without a male chaperone. Any violation of this code by men or women was punishable with public flogging and executions.
Life for many women like Parwaneh has undeniably improved since the Taliban was in power. Some women can visit doctors, go to schools and offices again, run for office, and play sports. But human rights defenders are still under attack from armed groups and the Afghan government, women are still jailed for failing virginity tests, sexual harassment is rampant, and the maternal mortality rate remains high.
In the past few years, the Taliban has sought to remake its image as a more moderate force. Maulvi Qalamuddin, a cleric who once served as the chief of the feared religious police under the Taliban, and now heads his own political party, is typical of this apparent change of face.
Girls were banned from school and forced to wear a burka outside the home lest their appearances “excite men.”
Qalamuddin is perhaps best known for his ministry’s decree banning television and videos; religious police officers hung confiscated reels of film from street signs at the time. But sitting in his office in Kabul in August he almost sounded reasonable, by the standards of the previous Taliban rhetoric. “It was wartime then,” he said of the years the Taliban held power. “We couldn’t let women go out alone and risk something happening to them. When we have a stable government, it will be different.”
Asked how things would be different if the Taliban were to return to power, he said he believed women could hold all positions except head of state — but that workplaces would have to be segregated. How exactly a woman judge or politician could do her job without interacting with men was left unclear.
Qalamuddin’s views largely echo the Taliban delegates at the peace talks but the group’s commanders on the ground could still rebel against even these limited steps towards moderation. The Taliban leadership still believes the country should be governed according to Islamic law, and that schools and offices should be gender-segregated. The views of men like Qalamuddin leave room for interpretation — so much room that it’s left women’s rights activists concerned.
“Which kind of Islamic system do they mean? Would it be Iran-style or Turkey-style?” said Sima Samar. “We are not the only Muslim country in the world.”
There has been scant evidence of this apparent moderation in the official negotiations between the US and the Taliban. In 2018, when the US ramped up peace talks with the Taliban in Doha, women were again left trying to make the case for themselves from the outside.
In February 2019, two women were present in Moscow when Taliban officials met prominent Afghan politicians from the opposition — including former president Hamid Karzai — but these were unofficial talks. At the conclusion of the meeting, Sher Mohammad Abbas Stanikzai, the Taliban’s political leader, suggested that women would indeed be better off than in the ’90s. The Taliban, he said, was no longer opposed to women-run businesses, education, work, the choosing of one’s husband, security, health, and their right to a good life.
But Stanikzai also held women — specifically those who cared about women’s rights — responsible for “immorality, indecency, and circulation of non-Islamic cultures.” By this he meant such apparent transgressions as watching un-Islamic TV shows, and participating in any kind of activism for women’s liberation, which he saw as a form of corruption.
The Afghan government’s absence from the Moscow talks meant even these limited commitments were at best only a vision for post-conflict Afghanistan, not a binding agreement.
Anticipating that things were unlikely to improve as the talks progressed, the Afghan Women’s Network, an NGO that has fought for women’s rights since 1996, released a six-point agenda for the peace process. Its message was concise: Women’s rights are not the sole concern of women; they are indicative of progress, sustainability, and peace for an entire society. “You do not have to be a woman to defend women’s rights! We are your partners in the development of the country,” the statement read.
On paper, the US was on board with the message from AWN. In 2017, Trump signed the Women, Peace, and Security Act, which made the US the first country in the world to have comprehensive legislation acknowledging “the diverse roles women play as agents of change in preventing and resolving conflict, countering terrorism and violent extremism, and building post-conflict peace and stability.” But that law has meant very little on the ground in Afghanistan, and women were still largely absent from the negotiating table.
The hypocrisy hadn’t gone unnoticed in some corners of Washington, but it fell to a woman to point it out. On February 5, at a Senate Armed Services Committee, Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, a New Hampshire Democrat, brought up the issue of Afghan women with Joseph Votel, commander of the US Central Command (CENTCOM). Shaheen quietly and politely demanded to know whether women were finally going to take part in the peace process. Votel prevaricated and told her it was “a question best posed” to Zalmay Khalilzad, the US special envoy to the peace talks and former ambassador to Afghanistan.
“If I were an Afghan feminist, I’d march up to the table on my own.”
In war and diplomacy, timing is everything. Days after the Moscow talks, on February 8, Khalilzad addressed the US Institute of Peace and echoed the Taliban’s claims that it was repentant about its treatment of women in the past. “They [the Taliban] said they made a mistake in how they dealt with women when they ruled the country,” he said, and insisted the US would speak up for women’s rights.
On February 25, Khalilzad arrived in Doha for the peace talks between the US and the Taliban. “Now the work begins in earnest,” he tweeted.
But just two days later, Khalilzad’s wife set off a firestorm among Afghan feminists and activists when she wrote an article for the National Interest, a US foreign policy magazine, entitled, “Afghan Women Are in Charge of Their Own Fate.”
“It’s time for Afghan feminists to put their shoulders to the wheel and start doing what women everywhere have had to do when they wanted their rights: fight for them,” wrote Cheryl Benard, a researcher and author. “As women in Western civilization, we didn’t get our rights because people from a different culture far away felt sorry for us and sent their soldiers and tons of their money to lift us out of oppression.”
“If I were an Afghan feminist,” Benard wrote, “I’d march up to the table on my own.”
When asked about the criticism of her article, Benard said that there were “millions if not billions of women” around the world who would give anything to have benefitted from the “money, time, soldiers, training seminars,” and other programs that have been “lavished” on Afghan women. Benard said she blamed “Afghan elite women” in large part for the suffering of rural women.
And Benard’s op-ed didn’t appear in a vacuum — it was a sign of things to come.
In March, a delegation of women from the Afghan Women’s Network and other advocacy groups traveled to Washington to meet with members of Congress. The response from Congress members was largely sympathetic — but it was unclear to the women what influence the people they met had with the decision makers in the White House.
In April, Shaheen confronted the US secretary of state, Mike Pompeo, who was at another Senate hearing in Washington. Shaheen asked how the US would ensure Afghan women were able to participate in the peace talks.
Pompeo was evasive. He nodded gravely, but said there were multiple issues the US had to deal with first. Finally, in an echo of Benard’s op-ed, he said: “I hope the [Afghan] women will make themselves heard to their leadership.”
After nearly two decades of war, ostensibly with the aim of liberating Afghan women, amid talk that the US troops were about to withdraw, those very women were being told to buck up and fight their former oppressors themselves.
What angers so many Afghan women about the way they have been treated at the peace talks is that they have been trying for years to confront the Taliban and make themselves heard — from within and outside the country.
Khatol Momand is one such woman.
Momand left Afghanistan as a 9-year-old with her family in the ’90s. The Taliban had just come to power in Kabul, and Momand recalled seeing a woman being publicly whipped by Taliban officials.
“Fear became a part of my DNA,” she said.
After they left Afghanistan, Momand and her family spent several years in neighboring Pakistan. The Taliban had banned cinema and music, but away from home Momand grew passionate about Bollywood and learned to speak fluent Hindi.
Eventually, her mother’s French teacher put in a request with a refugee organization and helped the family move to Europe.
“Fear became a part of my DNA.”
Momand, a single mother, now lives in Norway, where she teaches and writes for a living. Her work, she said, was how a group of Afghan journalists found her in April and invited her to be part of the highly anticipated round of intra-Afghan peace talks in Doha.
“I knew immediately that I had to go. It was a matter of facing my fear, and for speaking on behalf of Afghan women,” she said.
For the first time since the beginning of the US-Taliban peace process, the Taliban had finally agreed to meet with members of Afghanistan’s government and civil society, even if only in an unofficial capacity. Momand was told that she only had a week to prepare before she flew to Qatar for the talks, which were scheduled to begin on April 19.
But when she reached Doha, Momand learned that the talks had been indefinitely postponed after the Taliban objected to the size and composition of the 200-strong delegation drawn up by the Afghan government. The Taliban instead drew up its own list of people it was willing to meet: government officials were no longer welcome.
On the 19th, the Taliban sent a three-member envoy to Momand’s hotel and requested an audience with select members of the Afghan diaspora, including professors and businessmen. Momand was one of just two women, the other an Afghan who worked as a teacher in the UK.
This caused some tension among Afghan women not present. “There were other Afghan women who felt disappointed at not being included. They took their anger out on me online,” Momand said. “I felt bad for them. Many of them were activists with the Afghan Women’s Network, but the Taliban was never going to meet 200 people.”
The next day, Momand said, the Taliban sent transportation to pick up the delegates it had invited and brought them to the Ezdan Hotel in Doha.
“They were all waiting for us in the lobby,” Momand said. “I was wearing a lot of makeup and no hijab. I just wore casual clothes with a dupatta [scarf] loosely draped on my head.I wanted to see their reaction on seeing a woman like me since they force women to cover up all the time but were claiming to have changed their ways.”
“He looked at me and I knew that if I were not part of this delegation, I would be killed right then.”
As the delegation sat down for its first conversation, Momand raised her hand to speak. “I said, ‘Sir, I need to speak first because there’s a large group of men here, and I’m sure I won’t get enough time to speak.’ The Taliban leader Stanikzai said ‘Yes, let the women speak first. The men can have a discussion later.’”
As Momand spoke, she said, one member of the Taliban delegation grew visibly upset. It was a face she recognized from photographs in the news, every time there was a blast in Afghanistan — Zabiullah Mujahid, one of the few official spokespeople for the Taliban.
“I was talking about closing down madrassas [religious schools] that functioned as training camps so children could no longer be groomed as terrorists,” Momand said. “He looked at me and I knew that if I were not part of this delegation, I would be killed right then.”
“I was scared then, you know,” she added after a pause. “But I also knew it was now or never.”
The meeting lasted six hours, during which time Stanikzai was a surprisingly gracious host, Momand said. “It was funny, the way he ran around to make sure we were all fed. I remember saying, ‘You are so good to us here. Why does it have to be different otherwise?’ But he just said, ‘Please eat. Let’s discuss this later.’”
The meeting ended with the Taliban assuring the delegates that they would meet often to discuss intra-Afghan issues, but Momand said she doesn’t expect to be invited again, and that her inclusion at the unofficial meeting in Doha had been a token gesture at best.
“I am willing to meet them again and again and repeat the things I said, because what they are doing is wrong. But neither the Taliban nor the Afghan government really cares about women’s rights. They will do anything to come back to power,” said Momand.
“They are using women as a tool to achieve their goals,” she said.
The trouble with a one-size-fits-all, Lean In brand of Western feminism, which asks Afghan women to “walk up to the table” and “demand their rights” is that it ignores the story of Afghanistan itself.
Afghan history is replete with tales of women negotiators, peacemakers, and go-betweens. Even the founding of modern Afghanistan in 1747, which is credited to Ahmad Shah Durrani also relied on a woman; the poet and warrior Nāzo Anā had helped unite warring tribes to create the nascent Afghan state.
Palwasha Kakar, an Afghan American who works as senior program officer for religion and inclusive societies at the US Institute of Peace has spent the past decade researching why women make the most effective negotiators in conflict zones.
At a Senate hearing in Washington, Kakar told the story of a woman she’d interviewed in southern Afghanistan, whom she called Bibi Halima. An elderly religious scholar, Halima was known for negotiating with the Taliban to resolve family disputes. One day she was approached by a family whose daughter had eloped with her lover, a crime punishable by death under the Taliban. The family told Halima that the couple had been taken by Taliban officials and were expected to be killed soon.
Halima walked to a Taliban checkpoint to intervene on behalf of the family. At the camp, Halima quoted Quranic verses, invoking concepts of forgiveness and family. She pleaded until Taliban leaders allowed her to spend the night with the kidnapped girl, and the next morning, they let her take the girl home to her family.
“It’s interesting because these women go up to Taliban soldiers, particularly the older women, and they tell them that, ‘You’re like my son. You shouldn’t be doing these things, as a good Muslim boy,’” said Kakar. But while women like Halima might understand the language of their oppressors best, they also know it’s in their interest to draw as little attention as possible to their negotiations with the Taliban, said Kakar.
Women were also often able to find room to talk with the Taliban by navigating the Pashtunwali code — or Pashtun way of life — common in parts of Afghanistan. While the present-day rank and file of the Taliban may not be aware of this specific tradition, Kakar said, it still had echoes in their dealings with women.
These women, Kakar argued, deserve a seat at the table alongside the politicians, their advisers, and military negotiators.
“They disagreed with the women on several points, but still wanted to engage in long discussions of the scripture with them.”
This July, a handful of Afghan politicians and civil society representatives, including six women, traveled from Kabul to Doha for a conference with Taliban officials. Once again, the meeting was set to take place as part of the so-called intra-Afghan talks — separate from the ones the US was carrying out with the Taliban. But as before, the Taliban refused to negotiate directly with members of the Afghan government and only agreed to the meetings if the officials went in a “personal capacity.”
This time, the women didn’t even know who else was going to be part of their group. “We didn’t get to coordinate before because nobody told us who was going — we saw each other at the airport,” said Mary Akrami, director of the Afghan Women Skills Development Center.
Luckily, the flight was delayed for an hour. Akrami and the other women’s rights advocates in the group spent time convincing the other delegates that women’s rights had to be raised and were not just a niche issue.
Facing off with the Taliban was no small thing. But in Akrami’s telling, the atmosphere was cordial. There were no arguments; rather, everyone had five to seven minutes each to say their piece. “They behaved so nicely. They took pictures with us. I was teasing them. I asked about their families,” Akrami said.
Kakar, who monitored the talks closely from Washington, said this intra-Afghan meeting was evidence of how women could find room to negotiate, even when the Taliban was not particularly forthcoming.
“The Taliban were amazed at one particular Islamic scholar, a woman named Zainab Muwahida,” Kakar said. “They disagreed with the women on several points, but still wanted to engage in long discussions of the scripture with them, including during breaks.”
Nonetheless, the Afghan women Kakar interviewed after the talks told her they were disappointed because Stanikzai had told a media delegation that the meeting had merely been a summary of “their hopes” and was not binding.
But Kakar learned that a week after the talks, the Taliban sent shabnameh — or night letters — across northern Afghanistan asking soldiers to de-escalate violence and refrain from attacking women and children.
“The question remains: Was this just for show? Was this just to win them over?” she said.
Central to the legacy of the US war in Afghanistan is the billions of dollars it has poured into building schools and hospitals, alongside core government functions, from policing to courts. These programs — which have often benefited from US aid — have frequently been criticized for their inefficiency, but they are the core of what the US will leave behind when it eventually leaves Afghanistan.
The Trump administration has made clear that foreign aid is not a priority, and while the US has not yet withdrawn a significant amount of aid to Afghanistan, many organizations are already facing a tightening of funds as donors flock to other conflict zones. And they have said they were told by State Department officials that the US is expected to significantly curtail funding by 2020.
If that happens, they say, it is certain to have a disproportionate impact on women.
“You’d be hard-pressed to find a USAID health program that doesn’t help women in some way. Just about all USAID programs have a gender component,” said an official with the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction, a US government accountability organization that examines USAID programs.
The US has obligated $1 billion on programs specifically aimed at women in Afghanistan throughout the conflict, and another billion on programs that had a gender component, according to the most recent data from SIGAR. The money sometimes flows directly from the US government to the Afghan government, sometimes through NGOs or contractors, and sometimes through multinational bodies like the World Bank.
“We have cases like child marriages, marriages of 9- and 10-year-old girls. Honor killings, rape cases, domestic violence.”
Two years ago, SIGAR took a team to Afghanistan to speak to women across the country who had been beneficiaries of US aid programs. The results were mixed — some women said the support significantly helped them, while others said the results hadn’t been so obvious.
“In general, they thought what was more important than any specific program was the US presence in Afghanistan and the continual pressure the US and international community [has] exerted on the government to keep women’s issues a priority,” said a SIGAR official with knowledge of the research behind the project. “That’s what made the difference more than any specific program.”
The State Department did not respond to a request for comment for this article.
Najia Nasim, who runs Afghanistan’s largest chain of domestic violence shelters, and whose organization depends heavily on foreign aid, said she was struggling to keep her employees’ spirits up because they know the organization could be shut down.
“I’m not optimistic,” she said. “It’s very uncertain. But I don’t want to lose hope, because then my staff will lose hope.”
Maintaining aid to women and children should be a top priority, she said. “We have cases like child marriages, marriages of 9- and 10-year-old girls. Honor killings, rape cases, domestic violence,” she said, counting them off on her fingers.
Parwaneh was stuck at home with her increasingly conservative father and surrounded by relatives who had no interest in her reading, watching TV, or any of the other million things a young woman like her might want to do. Life became unbearable. She had an inkling that her father would push her into a marriage she wasn’t ready for. She felt like the walls were closing in.
Parwaneh decided to escape. She ran away with her sister to a local women’s shelter, which a shelter official said is supported by US aid money.
They were safe there for a while, but their father begged them to return to their family, saying he would rent Parwaneh an apartment and that she could continue her education after all. She decided to believe him.
Parwaneh moved in with a relative and went back to high school. Things seemed fine for a while. But one day, her uncle approached her and said her father had promised her to a much older man who was in search of a second wife.
Parwaneh refused immediately. “I know my rights,” she thought. In retrospect, she credits the fact that she had gone to school throughout her childhood for that realization.
“It would make them more angry because I knew my rights. And they would be like, ‘Why does she know all this? Why can’t we make her do what we want her to like we make other girls do as we say?’” Parwaneh said.
In response, her uncle locked her in a room at his house.
“For 16 days I was locked in that room,” she said. “They wouldn’t open the door for me because they were scared I would run away.”
Every day, the brothers of the man to whom she had been promised would visit and try to persuade her to agree to the marriage. When she refused, she said, her uncle would beat her in front of them. She could barely eat, and the white lace collar of her tunic turned gray from her washing it every day. She had brought only the set of clothes she was wearing.
On the last day, the man’s brothers returned, and this time they were armed. They had a car with them and were prepared to take Parwaneh away at gunpoint. Her uncle begged her one last time to agree, saying they would kill her father if she didn’t go with them. As bitter as she felt toward her father, she knew she couldn’t live with herself if he were killed.
“I was afraid that they would kill my father. And if they did, I’d never be able to forgive myself,” she said.
She finally gave in.
“I was afraid that they would kill my father. And if they did, I’d never be able to forgive myself.”
But Parwaneh had no intention of actually getting married. She bided her time until she could take a trip home, where she borrowed her mother’s cellphone. She used it to text the man she was supposed to marry to ask for permission to go shopping with her sister for an engagement dress. She knew if she baited him — saying that they were engaged, that it was his responsibility to allow her to go out, rather than her father’s — he might acquiesce.
She was right. He granted her permission to see her sister.
“When my sister saw me, she didn’t recognize me because I had lost so much weight,” Parwaneh said. “I was so skinny that my clothes were coming off me.”
Alone together at last, the two girls later escaped again to the women’s shelter.
This time, the women at the shelter helped her and her sister get to Kabul. They now live in another women’s refuge in the capital, part of the same network dedicated to protecting women.
The existence of the shelter has given Parwaneh the ability to escape her family and do what she first came to Kabul to do — study, and one day to travel outside Afghanistan.
“If I had run away from home and this shelter hadn’t been here, I would have been in big trouble,” Parwaneh said. “Where would I go? Look at me — I’m going to university. If this hadn’t been here for me, I don’t know where I would go and what I would have done.
“I am scared that I will lose this home and education and life that I have.” ●
Additional reporting by Khwaga Ghani in Kabul. Opening photograph by Kiana Hayeri.