Nishan is still in medical school, but few options are open to her after graduation. (Photograph by Oriane Zerah)

The world left these Afghan women behind. Now they’re fending for themselves.

Educated in a Canadian-funded school, they became Afghanistan’s best and brightest young women. Today they live in fear, abandoned to the Taliban.

The dark spectres that hang over Shazia Mohseni take multiple forms these days. Sometimes it’s the haunting possibility that to build the future she dreamed for herself she will be forced to leave her family behind in Afghanistan. “How can I live without them?” she says. “They are my life.” On good days, when she tricks herself into believing she may still be able to have a life under Taliban rule—a life of some kind—she tells herself: “Never!”

On bad days, when the Taliban in her native Kandahar introduce a new decree limiting women’s ability to navigate in public—No more shoes that make clacking noises!—or she hears about another public beating, she entertains the possibility of going it alone. “What could be worse than the non-life the Taliban have imposed on women and girls in Kandahar?” she thinks.

Other terrors in her not-so-distant future are less ambiguous. There is starvation, for one. Afghanistan is in the midst of its worst food shortage in living memory. According to the World Food Programme, 23 million people face starvation this winter, more than half the population.

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The worst-hit families are those whose breadwinners are women, like the Mohsenis. Their nightmare started the moment the Taliban began to take control of Afghanistan’s major cities at the end of July, and the jobs that sustained them vanished. Before the Taliban came to Kandahar city, Mohseni’s days had been a torrent of activity. In the mornings she would go to her private university, where she was completing a computer science degree. Her afternoons were spent at the offices of Afghans for Progressive Thinking, a non-governmental youth mentoring organization, where she was the regional coordinator. In the evenings she would help her mother with household chores and then tackle her studies late into the night, sometimes by candlelight.

But as the Taliban tightened its grip on Kandahar, the university closed and the offices of her NGO were shuttered. By the time the Taliban conquered the city on Aug. 13, Mohseni hadn’t left the house in weeks and hadn’t been paid for more than a month. “When I was so busy, I used to think: ‘I wish I could just stay at home all day and rest,’ ” she told me in early August. “But now that I’m at home all the time, all I want is to go back to university and to go back to work.”

Mohseni studying at home: 'All I want is to go back to university and to go back to work' (Photograph by Oriane Zerah)

At the time, the prospect of either of those things happening were quickly dimming. Restrictions, including the strict separation of men and women and the requirement that women be accompanied by a male family member any time they were in public, had made it nearly impossible for women to work. As the Mohsenis burned through their savings, Shazia began to lose hope that the Taliban would keep their promise of allowing women to go back to work and resume their studies.

At the end of September, she and her family decided to make the difficult journey from Kandahar to Quetta, in Pakistan’s Balochistan province. Perhaps there, given her work experience and command of English, she would find a job, she thought.

She also hoped that once she left Afghanistan she could appeal to Western nations for help. As a teenager, Mohseni had studied at a Canadian-funded school in Kandahar and was eventually hired to teach English classes there; as well, the NGO where she worked was funded by an Australian organization. After the fall of Kabul on Aug. 15, Canadian authorities advised Afghans who had worked with Canadian organizations (and who believed they qualified for the Special Immigration Measures visa) to leave Afghanistan and apply for the visa from a third country. The Australians, meanwhile, had already offered Mohseni an emergency visa; she had made a frantic trip by road to Kabul in the hopes of being evacuated from the airport. But the chaos there, and the ISIS suicide attack on Aug. 26 that killed 183 people, had forced her back to Kandahar.

Surely Canada or Australia would grant her permission to leave with her family. What other choice did she have?

***

During Afghanistan’s post-2001 state-building period, most women like Mohseni looked to the international presence to pursue a decent education and a job. For ambitious young people, a government education was a path to nowhere—the schools were poorly funded and badly staffed. And if you wanted to make a good salary, your best bet was to tap into the massive flow of foreign funds coming into Afghanistan.

But in a deeply conservative city like Kandahar, the choices for a private education, especially for poor families, were slim. Indeed, the only choice for Mohseni was a Canadian-funded school known as the Afghan-Canadian Community Centre, or ACCC. The centre was set up in 2006 by an Afghan, Ehsanullah Ehsan, and a Canadian, Ryan Aldred. Ehsan was a girls’ education advocate who had run successful girls’ schools for Afghan refugees in Pakistan during the Taliban’s rule in the 1990s, and had returned to his native Afghanistan when refugees began going home following the collapse of the Taliban regime.

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Aldred, a reservist from Picton, Ont., had stumbled upon Ehsan in 2006 while looking for a way to contribute to Canada’s military deployment to Kandahar province. “Initially, my thought was to help him buy a few computers and pay the teachers for a few months,” he says. “But as we talked and I got a sense of how far money would go in Kandahar, I decided to do more.”

Aldred and Ehsan were able to secure funding from the Canadian military, the Canadian International Development Agency and private donors in Canada to set up a school in Kandahar that would teach skills like English and computer literacy. The goal was to make young Kandaharis employable with the rapidly expanding foreign-funded organizations popping up all around Afghanistan. “There was a lot of money to be made there,” Ehsan says. “But so much of it was leaving Afghanistan in the pockets of foreigners. Ryan and I thought Afghans should be receiving some of this money. So we trained them with the skills these foreign organizations needed.”

Women taking a class at the Afghan-Canadian Community Centre (Photograph by Oriane Zerah)

Their idea was hugely successful. By 2009, the centre had amassed so much funding that it expanded from the one-room classroom it had borrowed from a government school into its own building, with a staff of 110 and 1,500 students, split evenly between boys and girls. It also established partnerships with outside institutes, including the Southern Alberta Institute for Technology, which offered students advanced online classes. ACCC graduates quickly began making names for themselves in Kandahar. Sarina Faizy, who studied at the school from 2010 to 2012, was hired by the U.S. military’s media relations team when she was just 12 years old. By 16, she had won a seat on Kandahar’s provincial council, the sole female among a cohort of bearded, turbaned men. In 2018, while she was on a fellowship in the U.S., Gen Abdul Raziq, her advocate and protector in Kandahar, was assassinated. She never returned to Afghanistan. There was also Maryam Sahar, a star pupil at the ACCC who was hired by the Canadian military as its first, and only, female interpreter in Afghanistan. She was evacuated to Canada in 2012 after receiving death threats from the Taliban.

They were the lucky ones. Others, like Shahida Nishan, who convinced her conservative parents to break with tradition and let her pursue a medical degree, remain trapped in Afghanistan. “Mr. Ehsan taught us to be independent,” Nishan told me last summer. “He taught us how to make our arguments without anger. I was able to speak to my parents very calmly and explain to them that girls’ education is not bad. I was able to convince them that receiving a medical degree would help our entire family.”

Today, that same confidence has become a curse. The Taliban have allowed her to continue her education, but the quality of teaching at her private university collapsed after most of its top professors left Afghanistan. Nishan once believed she would become a surgeon; the best she can hope for now is only slightly better than a midwife.

“It’s cruel in its own way,” she told me recently. “I will finish my degree. Maybe other girls will also complete high school or, if they are lucky, go to university. But what will they do with that knowledge? In the Taliban’s view of the world, a woman has no place except in the home. A woman should not be seen or heard. Any knowledge a woman gains will remain stuck inside her head with nowhere to go. It will drive her mad.”

***

In the weeks and months following their takeover, the Taliban leadership has tried to project an image of unity and moderation. In meetings with foreign dignitaries, and the near endless stream of tweets that follow, they insist that no one is in danger; all are forgiven. The reality, however, is very different.

“Their rules are inconsistent,” Shaharzad Akbar, the head of the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission, who is currently in exile in Istanbul, told me in late October. “In one place women can wear the niqab, in others they have to wear a burka. Private high schools for girls have opened again in a few districts in the north, but not anywhere else. This suggests local decision-making and negotiations with local Taliban commanders, not centralized control.”

Some areas are again experiencing the brutality the Taliban meted out during their rule in the late 1990s; in others, particularly in major cities, where the eyes of the international community are watching, the Taliban have taken a softer approach. Increasingly desperate for cash, they insist that they have moderated, that they should be removed from terrorist watchlists—including Canada’s—and recognized as Afghanistan’s legitimate government.

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In the process, sources on the ground tell me women have begun to carve out a space for themselves. According to one French aid worker who spoke on the condition of anonymity, Afghan women are back working at international NGOs in Kabul and other cities. An Australian aid worker said the Taliban’s central leadership “has bigger problems than women going to work. They need international aid, and that aid is tied to women’s participation. So they are allowing it, for now.”

Shinkai Karokhail, the former consul general at the Afghan consulate in Toronto and now one of Afghanistan’s female parliamentarians in exile, strikes a cautionary tone. “The Taliban will play the game with the international community as long as the attention of the world is on them,” she tells me from her new home in Mississauga, Ont. “But they have their own reasons for being vague about their intentions when it comes to the rights of women. Many of their fighters and commanders are uneducated villagers with ultra-conservative values; if the leadership appears to be too soft, if they are seen to be giving in to demands from the international community, those people will leave the Taliban and join groups like ISIS.”

It’s those radicals in the ranks of the Taliban that still strike fear into the hearts of many Afghans. Mohseni is terrified of them. Her attempts to leave Afghanistan through Pakistan failed. Neither the Australians nor the Canadians responded to her pleas for safety. Finding work proved equally frustrating. Without proper documentation, no Pakistani or foreign NGO would hire her, despite her impressive skills and resumé. By the beginning of November, the family had run out of money and was forced to return to Kandahar.

Since returning, Mohseni has managed to find work with an international NGO, though she asked me not to disclose which one, fearing repercussions if any of the “radicals” among the Taliban find out. She travels to and from work in a burka, fearful every time she leaves her home or her office that she will be kidnapped or killed. She has heard stories of such things happening from friends and relatives.

Like Nishan, the medical student, Mohseni now wonders if it was all worth it. She sacrificed her teenage years to chase the dream of becoming a “professional woman,” she says. “I had an idea of what my future life was supposed to look like. I used to picture it in my mind all the time, especially when I was feeling tired. It would give me energy. Now, if I think about that future me, all I do is cry.”

The lost future haunts Mohseni and Nishan, as well as thousands of other Afghan women who benefitted from the international project in Afghanistan. For many, it feels like a betrayal, of promises made and unkept. The unravelling of their nation has been the unravelling, too, of their own lives.


This article appears in print in the February 2022 issue of Maclean’s magazine with the headline, “Those left behind.” Subscribe to the monthly print magazine here.