'We don't shoot women in stadiums': An Afghan American woman's plea

This first time I saw my father cry was when I was a university student and we sat watching the Taliban blow up ancient Buddhas in Bamiyan, Afghanistan. He could see how disturbed his emotion and the images made me. His cousin said, “Bachem (my child), they are not our people. This is not our culture. We don’t blow up history. We don’t shoot women in stadiums.”  

Since my parents’ emigration to the United States, where I was born, my love for both countries has grown by watching and listening to my father, an Afghan air force pilot-turned-Virginia taxi driver and the son of the general who once united the Nuristani people to fight the Soviets. 

With the Taliban’s return to power, we Afghan Americans began reliving the trauma of our past. We watched our native flag and adopted American flag be torn down in Kabul, as a humanitarian crisis unfolded beyond our reach to help. 

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When the United States and its coalition partners intervened 20 years ago, we saw a glimmer of hope for a better future for women, a future for which my uncle said he longed. Be assured, Afghans wasted no time in pursuing that future; some falsely claim they did not. 

Women, especially, put their lives and safety on the line. The world witnessed their progress in Tokyo this summer, where Afghan women competed in the Olympics. That was the fruit of years of labor, getting girls to school, improving maternal and child health, and increasing opportunities for women. I have helped women judges obtain access to computers and computer literacy training. Even knowing the bravery of the Afghan people, I was in awe of their dedication.

If the events of the past week have shown us anything, it is that American promotion of soft power, including gender equality, is not possible without hard power. U.S. diplomats and the Department of Defense need to evacuate the most vulnerable among the Afghans — and under Taliban rule, that means many women. 

At the moment, eyes are turned to Kabul. But rural women, already struggling to access education and technology, will see opportunities crushed under the Taliban and their al Qaeda affiliates. Having just begun to feel the effects of American investment in their future, they too see their accomplishments turned against them. 

Who could blame Afghan women receiving death threats from the Taliban for thinking that the Afghan and U.S. governments cheered them on as they jumped into the promised safety net, only to yank it away?

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Preserving women’s progress was not included in the discussions and agreements made behind closed doors between the U.S. and the Afghan government. The U.S. pullout came before women’s rights could be secured during negotiations between the Taliban and the Afghan government, despite pleas from the few women who were on the Afghan negotiation team. This is more reason to prioritize safety for women activists, military members, journalists, judges and other leaders now.  

Former President George W. Bush reminded us recently, “The United States government has the legal authority to cut the red tape for refugees during urgent humanitarian crises.” Yet President BidenJoe BidenHouse Democrat threatens to vote against party's spending bill if HBCUs don't get more federal aid Overnight Defense & National Security — The Pentagon's deadly mistake Haitians stuck in Texas extend Biden's immigration woes MORE did not do this. 

Recent Taliban statements would market the terrorist organization as a political one, saying that it has changed and become more lenient. This is patently false. The Taliban are those same people we watched detonating history, shooting women in stadiums, and otherwise openly violating international human rights laws. To this “new” Taliban we have left behind many of our Afghan sisters. 

Like many Afghan Americans, I watch the devastation of Afghanistan while recalling stories from my elders about growing up in the “good old days” of Kabul. And I remember cultural shows at our American schools, where we raised the flag and twirled in mirror- and coin-bedecked gowns, each outfit representing a different Afghan region, a different ethnicity. To us, an Afghan was an Afghan, no matter the cultural and religious differences. But just as I felt for my father that day in Ankara so many years ago, I feel a piece of me — both the Afghan and the American — threatened to be lost. 

American credibility as a reliable security partner has been sorely tested. But so has its credibility as a defender of human rights. Afghan women entering the United States and stranded in holding camps need immediate protection. Afghan women scholars need college faculties to take them in. Abandoning Afghan women now, every bit as much as leaving behind stockpiles of ammunition, weaponry and vehicles, will have far-reaching consequences for American foreign policy for many years to come.  

Whatever happens next must build on — and not treat as an afterthought — the investment Afghan women have made in themselves, their country, and their partnership with their American sisters and brothers.  

Humira Noorestani is a Washington-based corporate attorney, founder of DigiCounsel and a member of the American Council on Women Peace and Security. She received congressional recognition in 2004 for her work related to social justice and women’s rights. Follow her on Twitter @HumNoor.