The Afghan Women Left Behind

The New Yorker

On the morning of August 15, 2021, Samira was lying in bed, drifting in and out of sleep, in a room she shared with several other people. They were in a shelter in Kabul run by Women for Afghan Women (waw), a U.S.-headquartered N.G.O. dedicated to protecting vulnerable women in Afghanistan. Samira and her roommates had found refuge there from abusive brothers, fathers, husbands. Suddenly, she was jolted awake by the voice of the shelter manager giving urgent orders: the Taliban had taken control of Kabul and they all had to get out. waw could no longer guarantee their safety. Around Samira, women started to cry. Staff scrambled to determine who could go to relatives’ homes, and handed out forms stating that clients were leaving the shelter of their own accord.

Samira panicked. She had been there for only two weeks and couldn’t return to her family. Her stepmother and half brothers hit her often, and for little reason. Once, they beat her when she cooked a meal they didn’t like. In fact, this was her second stay at waw. Two years earlier, she had lived there for nearly seven months. waw had mediated between Samira and her family members, who agreed to stop the violence, and she returned home. But, Samira told me, the beatings got worse. Sometimes her family refused to let her eat for days. Recently, the brothers—struggling farmers in Laghman Province—announced that she would be married to an elderly man, who was offering a hefty sum. Samira realized that she was being sold. She snuck out in the middle of the night and huddled at a bus terminal. When dawn broke, she took a taxi to Kabul and eventually arrived at waw.

By the time the shelter manager ordered the women to leave, the city was already transforming. Taliban fighters had entered the capital on pickup trucks and Humvees, brandishing machine guns. Local police abandoned their posts, and embassies evacuated their staff. President Ashraf Ghani and his wife, Rula, left on a plane. Some Afghans, remembering the Taliban rule of the nineteen-nineties, took precautionary measures, painting over photos of women on advertisements. waw’s leaders were convinced that the Taliban would not allow them to continue operating shelters. In the confusion, Samira made a quick decision. She signed the form, gathered her few belongings, and stepped out of the shelter’s gates and into the midafternoon sun.

Samira started walking toward the northern part of the city. U.S. military planes circled overhead, and sporadic gunfire sounded in the distance. She came to a cemetery where tents of cloth and rope had been erected. The area had been a gathering place for heroin addicts and, more recently, Afghans fleeing conflict in other parts of the country. If Samira stayed on the main streets, people would ask who she was, what she was doing. At least in a cemetery, she reasoned, there would be the safety of seclusion. Night fell, and more people arrived. Samira found two women who reluctantly allowed her to sleep near them and settled in.

Like thousands of other Afghan women, Samira thought that waw would save her from a life of abuse. However, soon after the government’s stunning collapse, and the chaotic U.S. pullout, waw, the largest women’s organization in the country, would make the decision to shutter its shelters permanently, leading many of its clients to feel abandoned, and dividing staff members over how to proceed. Several of its leaders would quietly flee Afghanistan; its founders say that the institution betrayed its own mission. As the world rushed to evacuate tens of thousands of people from the country, a daunting question hung in the air: What would happen to the millions who were not able to leave?

Waw was conceived in early 2001 by Sunita Viswanath, who was then a thirty-four-year-old human-rights activist working at the Sister Fund, a charity based in New York. She had been shocked by what she read in newspapers about Taliban rule—people stoned in football stadiums, music outlawed, women banned from public spaces—and how little attention it was getting. She and a group of other women, including Masuda Sultan, an Afghan American entrepreneur and human-rights activist, formed waw to try to help.

In the beginning, their programs mainly served Afghan communities living in the U.S. But after the American invasion toppled the Taliban government following the 9/11 attacks, waw turned its operational focus to women in Afghanistan. Gloria Steinem helped plan their first conference, in New York. In 2003, waw gathered women from across Afghanistan in Kandahar, the Taliban’s former stronghold. The attendees produced an “Afghan Women’s Bill of Rights” that they wanted to include in the country’s new constitution: access to reproductive health care, the right to marry and divorce, rights of inheritance. The constitution ultimately didn’t incorporate any of these demands, but it did recognize that men and women have “equal rights and duties before the law.”

Still, the new, Western-backed government failed to reach some of the most vulnerable populations. When waw staff visited women’s prisons, they found that many detainees were languishing there after fleeing abusive homes. (Women were incarcerated for “moral crimes,” such as eloping or having extramarital sex, even in cases of rape.) waw launched a shelter program and built support centers that cared for children who had been jailed alongside their mothers. In Afghan society, it’s unusual for women to live alone, and waw led mediations to reunite clients with their families. If a woman returned home, staffers would visit unannounced to confirm her safety. If she didn’t want to go back, waw could help her secure a divorce and find a new husband, or a job with the organization. Lawyers and counsellors were trained to root waw’s work in Islamic law and traditions.

waw’s programs and budget in Afghanistan outgrew those in the U.S. Eventually, it was operating in twelve provinces and serving more than three thousand clients annually. But, as its work became more public, it drew scrutiny and criticism. In 2010, Noorin TV in Kabul ran an “investigative series” that falsely accused shelters of being fronts for prostitution. That same year, Manizha Naderi, then waw’s executive director, brought Bibi Aisha, an eighteen-year-old girl, to the U.S. for reconstructive surgery. Bibi Aisha had run away from her in-laws; after she was found, her husband, a Talib, and his family, cut off her nose and ears. Time featured her picture on its cover with the headline “What Happens if We Leave Afghanistan.” Some felt that waw had used Bibi Aisha to justify the U.S. occupation. (Viswanath recalled a State Department official expressing the opposite concern—they thought that publicizing Bibi Aisha’s case highlighted the U.S.’s inability to keep Afghans safe.)

At times, waw struggled with the Afghan government, too. In 2011, President Hamid Karzai tried to take control of all women’s shelters in the country, nominally to quell rumors of corruption and prostitution. (The plan failed.) But, after Ghani came to power, in 2014, waw developed closer ties with Kabul. Rula, Ghani’s wife, became particularly invested in the organization, once remarking that few had been able to tackle problems facing women “with the understanding and dedication, the wisdom, and the patience” of waw. Leslie Cunningham, a member of the board and the wife of a former U.S. Ambassador, was friends with Rula, and it sometimes seemed to Viswanath that waw had to seek permission from the government to do its work. By 2018, there were new concerns. The government, rife with corruption and dependent on the U.S., was unable to hold territory—or popular support—in the peripheries of the country. The Taliban was making gains, and the U.S. had started engaging the group in peace talks. “Things are looking really bad,” Sultan told Viswanath.

In 2019, the two approached waw’s board about following the U.S.’s lead. If the Taliban was capturing large swaths of territory, they reasoned, waw would need to work with them. With help from Islamic scholars, Sultan and Viswanath put together a document that outlined religious justifications for women’s shelters. They met with academics, experts, and N.G.O.s who advised them on how to open lines of communication with Taliban leadership so that they could continue their operations. waw didn’t stop these efforts, but it didn’t support them, either. Viswanath and Sultan felt sidelined by their own organization.

According to Viswanath and Sultan, several board members, including Cunningham, worried about legitimizing the Taliban. There also seemed to be a strong desire to maintain a relationship with the Ghani administration, which had been left out of the U.S.-Taliban peace negotiations. Meanwhile, Najia Nasim—waw’s Afghanistan-based executive director—and a few other staff members simply believed that the group couldn’t be trusted. To the founders, getting stalled by these concerns amounted to a failing strategy.

waw staff declined my requests for individual interviews; Annie Pforzheimer, a board member who briefly served as the acting Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Afghanistan, responded on behalf of the organization. She confirmed that there were concerns that the Taliban might leverage a relationship with waw to portray itself in a more favorable light. But, she said, waw ultimately decided not to engage with the group because it believed that doing so would be ineffective and possibly illegal. (Sultan told me that the State Department knew she was pursuing meetings with the Taliban and didn’t indicate any legal concerns.)

When Kabul fell, panic set in. This was the worst-case scenario that Sultan and Viswanath had feared, and waw was unprepared to deal with it. Nasim directed employees to completely halt shelter operations and to send as many women as possible back to their relatives. The abrupt decision surprised one of waw’s donors. “Suddenly, I get the news that everyone is reintegrated,” Tooba Mayel, the director of the Colombo Plan Gender Affairs Programme, told me. “We could have helped.”

Nasim, the executive director, would’ve been the one to find a way to operate under the new regime; several former staff and board members told me that, in mid-August, she seemed to disappear for weeks and did not respond to multiple urgent messages. (According to waw, she was in contact with a few people.) In New York, staff worked tirelessly on evacuations. In Afghanistan, Haqiq and Shirzad took charge, rushing to negotiate with local Taliban militias who had entered waw offices, confiscated furniture and cars, and in one instance detained some employees. Zahra, the shelter manager in Kabul, moved forty-five women and their children to a safe house, and fielded calls from other employees and clients looking for guidance. “It was mad days,” she told me, fighting back tears. Haqiq led talks with several Taliban officials to explain waw’s work. They didn’t get explicit permission to continue operating the shelters, but they weren’t attacked, either. Haqiq told me that he wished the conversations had happened before August’s chaos.

Despite these efforts, leadership in New York seemed determined not to continue. In a private conversation about how to work in the new climate, which I acquired a recording of, Nasim said that keeping shelters open would put the staff in danger. Kevin Schumacher, the deputy executive director, called the Taliban a “bunch of animals.” In early 2021, waw had been serving five hundred clients, many of whom had few options aside from returning to abusive homes or prison. After the takeover, waw permanently shuttered its women-focussed services, including the shelters and halfway houses, and evacuated many high-level employees, including Nasim, who ended up in Canada. By the end of the year, waw had let go of hundreds of staff members—defense lawyers who had once argued divorce cases in court, cooks who had worked in the shelters, personnel who had housed women at great personal risk. Like the clients, they were left behind. Pforzheimer emphasized that waw had to end its programs to protect staff and clients from danger, but Viswanath saw it differently. “Hatred of the Taliban defined the organization more than protection of women and girls,” she told me.

This spring, I travelled to Kabul and met with former waw clients and employees. We filed into an empty lounge inside a hotel in the center of the city, the gates of which are now guarded by the Taliban. Six staff members squeezed onto a sofa and a couple of armchairs, while about a dozen women—former clients—gathered around me. (Some names have been changed for their safety.)

Marwa, who wore gold-rimmed glasses, spoke softly and quickly. Like many of waw’s clients, she had transferred to a shelter from prison. She showed me photos of her face at the time: bloody cuts on her cheek and upper lip and bruises around her left eye. “My brother,” she explained. It happened after she ran away from her abusive husband. She had been with waw for eighteen months when the Taliban entered the capital. Marwa moved to a staff member’s house, but, soon, people started inquiring about the “strange women” living there, suspicions that morphed, as they often did, into accusations of prostitution. Marwa tried appealing to her father, who refused to allow her to enter his house; finally, the staff member helped her find a husband. He was a kind man, Marwa told me, but he had been part of the Afghan National Army and was now unemployed.

The women wanted to give each other the space to tell their stories, but whenever there was a pause in the conversation, they talked over each other in excitement. The staff seemed similarly impatient, often interjecting to reiterate how waw had abandoned them. At one point, the Kabul shelter manager, Zahra, who had been composed and stern, started to cry. She had worked with waw for ten years and was familiar with the weight these women carried. “What’s most hurtful is that leadership left us,” she said.

Mina, who wore a black-and-white floral hijab wrapped tightly around her face, told me that she had been a university student in Kapisa Province when she had a baby out of wedlock. She was imprisoned for several months before being transferred to waw, where she stayed for five years, working at the kindergarten in one of the halfway houses. In mid-August, she returned to her father’s home. When he finally allowed her in, he started beating her and withholding food. Her family taunts her, she told me, saying that her child should be killed. She had nowhere else to go.

It was Ramadan, and, with sunset looming, it was almost time to break the fast. Some women gave their apologies and left. Most, however, stayed, wanting to make sure that I heard what had happened. Rokhsana breast-fed her son as she told me that she and a few other women had pooled one-time payments given to them by waw (about ten thousand Afghanis, the equivalent of a hundred and twenty-five dollars, each) and, together, they had rented an apartment. Eventually, the other women left. Rokhsana was still living there; with no way to pay rent, she could be evicted at any time. Razia, who has three kids, leased a similar apartment in a squalid corner of Kabul, and hadn’t been able to pay rent in several months. Her daughter and two sons were helping her beg on the street.

Samira had not received any money from waw, and still didn’t have a regular place to live. After staying at the graveyard for three nights, she had moved to a settlement in a park. She started crying as she recalled a woman who handed her a hundred Afghanis, which she used to buy bread, her first meal that day. She spent the following months in the harsh cold, moving from park to park, she told me. She had been leered at and propositioned, and, at one point, in desperation, she befriended a group of women who gave her heroin.

Other women had faded into faraway corners of the country. Some had gone missing, and some had stopped answering their phones after sending cryptic messages. Haqiq told me about one woman who had been hurriedly reintegrated with her parents. One day, when she had left home to run errands, her husband approached and stabbed her to death. (waw declined to elaborate on the case, but told me that “we are devastated by the fact that we don’t have the tools to protect people anymore.”)

When Biden announced the pullout from Afghanistan, he promised that the U.S. would “continue to support the Afghan people.” The end of the military conflict has been a reprieve for many families, especially in rural parts of the country, but, since August, the U.S. and much of the international community have been waging a different type of war against Afghanistan, through economic might. The Biden Administration froze seven billion dollars of Afghan assets—and in February earmarked half those funds for families that lost relatives in 9/11. According to one estimate, around half a million government employees, including teachers and health-care workers, stopped getting paid. The U.S. has also imposed sanctions on the Taliban government, hampering the ability of aid groups and N.G.O.s to deliver services, and, in tandem with the asset freeze, causing a severe liquidity crunch. Before the withdrawal, foreign donors accounted for three quarters of the country’s public spending. That money has evaporated. In May, the United Nations warned that nearly half the population was at risk of starving. “We have never seen the impacts of poverty and societal breakdown on such a scale,” Anita Dullard, a spokeswoman for the International Committee of the Red Cross, said. (Last month, the World Food Program estimated that four million children are “acutely malnourished.”)

In Kabul, which is more connected to the banking system than the rest of the country, and where the population is bloated with internally displaced people, the economic crisis is visibly dire. Soon after I arrived, a man burned himself on the streets in desperation. Amid the orchestra of honks in downtown traffic, young girls tapped at car windows, begging for money. In a quiet corner of the city, women gathered outside a bakery at dusk to wait for a piece of bread. One woman thrust her son at me, holding up his thin arms; her husband had died in the war, she said, and she had been coming here to feed her family.

After the Taliban takeover, waw raised nearly eleven million dollars to help Afghans. Little of that money has actually gone to Afghanistan. Staff members in the country did not receive their paychecks through the end of 2021, and had little financial support to assist the women they once cared for. waw told me that it did provide small stipends and food to some clients and staff, using resources already in the country, but that it was unable to send more money because it was concerned about violating U.S. sanctions. Some organizations use the hawala system—an informal network of cash transfers that involve unknown middlemen—which waw deemed “too legally risky.” The organization insists that clients are still able to request ongoing humanitarian support. More than a dozen women and former staff I spoke with said that they hadn’t received anything in months.

Operating as a women’s organization under the new regime is mired in difficulties; for example, the Taliban dissolved the Ministry of Women’s Affairs, which had once been waw’s main government contact. To Viswanath, the fact that the largest Afghan women’s organization chose to focus on evacuations and refugee resettlement, rather than make plans for the twenty million women “who didn’t have luxury to leave,” reflects a moral problem. “We needed out-of-the-box, non-bureaucratic solutions for a huge crisis moment,” she told me.

The waw staff and clients I spoke with often circled back to a nagging point: the injustice of waw’s hasty withdrawal. One Saturday this spring, several dozen gathered outside the main office in Kabul to demonstrate against the leadership. One woman held up a sign that read, in English, “I was waw staff. Now I’m hungry and jobless.” They also lodged a formal complaint with the Taliban’s Ministry of Economy, alleging corruption, abandonment of clients, favoritism in the evacuation process, and failure to disburse donated money to clients and staff. In recent months, after the U.S. eased some financial restrictions, waw has paid back salaries to former staff. Haqiq and Shirzad, meanwhile, have been forced out of waw—in retribution, they believe, for speaking out against Nasim’s handling of the situation. (Pforzheimer told me that Haqiq was not performing his duties. Shirzad told me that he felt pressured to resign.)

Donors and women’s-rights activists are uncertain, and sometimes split, on how to support Afghan women under the Taliban, which has already reversed gains from the past twenty years. Despite promises to the international community, girls have not been allowed to return to secondary schools. The Taliban has also decreed that women should stay at home, hampering their ability to work. If they go out, they must be covered from head to toe in loose clothing. If they travel long distances, they must be in the company of a male relative. The rules are not enforced uniformly, or regularly, but the legal premise hangs like a cloud. Prominent activists have been harassed and detained.

In July, a report by Afghanistan Analysts Network found that aid organizations have scaled back their activities because of funding shortfalls, and that donors are concerned about the appearance of “working with the Taliban.” In fact, a split has emerged between high-level officials in Kabul, who want to engage the international community and allow girls to attend secondary schools, and the Supreme Leader, Haibatullah Akhundzada, in Kandahar, who has taken a more hard-line approach. Some experts argue that further isolating Afghanistan will only undermine the moderate faction. Mayel, the waw donor, told me that humanitarian needs have to be prioritized regardless of the political leadership and that organizations should find openings where they can. “We can’t just let them die,” she said.

It occurred to me that the women I spoke with, both clients and former staff, hardly ever mentioned the Taliban. The concerns they talked about were more immediate—finding shelter and their next meal, how to avoid capture by abusive relatives. Samira was particularly vulnerable on the streets, young and alone. She has recovered from heroin addiction and continues to beg during the day; some nights, she goes to hospitals and pretends to visit patients so that she can find a place to sleep. When I asked her if she faced harassment from the Taliban, her voice was level. “Taliban is not the only threat for young women,” she told me.

The economic pressures bearing down on the country will likely lead to more abuse in households, exacerbating problems that organizations like waw had aimed to solve. According to an estimate by Save the Children, in the first eight months since the Taliban takeover, as many as a hundred and twenty thousand Afghan children may have been forcibly traded or married in exchange for financial reprieve by desperate families.

International donors and organizations have limited their support to humanitarian programs, mostly implemented through the U.N. According to one study, the number of local N.G.O.s and civil-society groups has been cut in half. In recent months, waw has begun working closely with the U.N. on children and girls’ education, but has chosen to stay away from women-focussed projects. Most of its efforts have been recentered on Afghan women in the U.S. “Over time, we would like to do more that is back to the core of what waw stands for,” Pforzheimer told me. I asked her if she believed it was possible under the Taliban. She laughed. “If we stay and do good work, and understand the landscape, maybe,” she said.

Sultan and Viswanath have both left waw, frustrated by what they described as the organization’s unwillingness to find solutions to help women in Afghanistan. Viswanath was upset, in particular, about how little of the eleven million dollars raised since the collapse has been directed to such efforts. (Half has been allotted to serve Afghans who came to the U.S.; a quarter will be used to assist with continued evacuations, humanitarian support, and children’s programs; and a quarter will be reserved for possible future operations.) They are starting a new N.G.O., called Abaad: Afghan Women Forward, which will provide humanitarian assistance and fund economic programs for women. Among its first clients will be those that waw once served.

For decades, Afghanistan has depended on N.G.O.s for service delivery, basic humanitarian aid, and projects geared toward helping the most marginalized. But being a “republic of N.G.O.s,” as one analyst called it, comes with its own problems. At its crux, an N.G.O. is beholden to donors and their ideological bent, not the communities it supports. As the scholar Faisal Devji argued after the U.S. withdrawal, “These beneficiaries possess neither political equality nor democratic power over their benefactors, however much they are consulted in the apportioning of aid or the launching of development projects.”

Women inside the country have little choice but to carve space for themselves however they can. I spoke with one female journalist who used to run a women’s media network in Kabul. She shut it down, but chose to stay in Afghanistan as an independent journalist. Last fall, a group of women gathered in the capital for a press conference on the right to education and employment. Just as waw had done over the years, the organizers drew upon the Quran to justify their demands, which focussed on a woman’s right to learn and work under Islamic law. They used Islamic history to point to how women had contributed to the fields of health care, business, government, and farming. One of the hosts recently told me that, although the political climate has worsened, the group is continuing to push the government on issues such as education.

Even in the context of women’s rights, shelters are a particularly sensitive issue, as they are often accused of being fronts for brothels. Some have chosen to take the risk. One afternoon, I travelled to one of the only shelters in the country, which has managed to obtain permission from the Taliban to operate. A few of waw’s former clients had been transferred there, and the group had grown to about thirty women and children. When I visited, they were cleaning the house in preparation for Eid. One woman was much older than the rest—she had gray hair and eyes framed by wrinkles. Another woman, who stood a few feet apart and looked on in silence, had arrived recently. She had been at a mosque by herself; I was told that the Taliban hadn’t known what to do with her and brought her to the shelter.

Sunlight streamed through the open doors at one end of the house. A group of four teen-agers moved from the staircase, where they had been chatting, to stand in the warmth. They wrapped their arms around one another, whispering fiercely, as if sharing a secret. They were giggling. ♦

The Afghan Women Left Behind