More than a year after taking power in Afghanistan, the Taliban continue their drive to erase women from public life. Among their latest efforts: barring women from working in national and international nongovernmental organizations.
In response to that decision last month, several major international aid agencies suspended their operations. In addition, even the most powerful women in Afghanistan fear for their lives, and for good reason.
On Sunday, Jan. 15, a former legislator was shot and killed in her home in the capital Kabul, along with her bodyguard. Mursal Nabizada was one of the few women who served in parliament and decided to remain in the country after the Taliban took power in August of 2021.
Fawzia Koofi served with Nabizada in Afghanistan’s parliament. They were friends as well as colleagues. Koofi spoke to The World’s host Marco Werman from London about Nabizada and the ongoing plight of women in the country.
Marco Werman: Ms. Koofi, first of all, our condolences to you.
Fawzia Koofi: Thank you. These are hard days for everyone in Afghanistan.
Well, I’d like to hear from you as a friend and colleague of Mursal Nabizada, just more about her. What sort of person was she?
She was young when she ran for parliament in 2018, and she was very passionate about her country and about her work. She was very ambitious. She wanted to serve the communities and be connected with the communities. And this was one of the reasons that, despite all the risks, she chose to stay in Afghanistan.
Were you two in touch in recent months?
Yeah, she recently texted me after the Taliban ban on women working with NGOs and the UN, requesting to see if there are possibilities for her to leave the country. She was working with an NGO, and after the ban, it was not possible. So, her message was that “it’s getting too much. I want to leave now.”
Did she express worries about her own safety, about living in Afghanistan with the Taliban in charge?
Not about her safety. Everyone in Afghanistan is unsafe. Women are more unsafe because of their work and because of the fact the Taliban don’t like them, even if they are female students or female teachers or female leaders, they don’t like them. So, every woman in Afghanistan is unsafe. She was more worried about her dreams that were shattered and her work that was no longer possible. Unlike many others who are in contact with me, they tell me that they know they might not survive the day that they start. Every Afghan woman who contacts me now, they tell me that for them [that they are dying] in slow motion. Because if you live, and you’re not recorded as a human being, you’re literally dying in slow motion.
So, I understand that Mursal Nabizada was offered a humanitarian visa and could have left the country long ago after the Taliban took over in 2021. She did not, though. I’m just wondering if you have any insight into her decision to stay.
Well, I think initially, she tended to believe the Taliban’s promise in terms of supporting women’s rights. So, like many others who actually were trapped into this narrative the Taliban created, which was Taliban 2.0, pro-woman, etc. So, I think she wanted to give it a chance. But in reality, this is a narrative the Taliban created, and we and our international friends tend to believe it. It was a failed and false narrative.
Fawzia you, yourself, survived at least two assassination attempts. So, you’re well aware of the dangers in Afghanistan, and especially what women face, given what you call the failed and false narrative of Taliban 2.0. What are you saying to other women you speak with who are still in Afghanistan?
Well, I feel very bad for not being able to be with them. But I know that even if I was in Afghanistan, I [wouldn’t be] able to do much, because I was already under house arrest when the Taliban came. And I didn’t want to leave. So, I don’t have words when they text me messages or voice messages full of pain and sorrow and emotions asking me to help them leave the country, especially after the Taliban’s two recent bans on women [attending] university and banning women from NGOs. I think literally that was the last nail in the women’s rights coffin. So, everyone wants to leave and there are some who are more at risk, especially my female colleagues, politicians, who are in Afghanistan. Some of them are in Pakistan and Iran. And they are desperate, they are asking me to support them. So, one of Mursal’s colleagues texted me the day before yesterday, the same day that she was killed, and said, “Ms. Koofi, is there a way for me to get out? Who knows? Probably the next would be me.” But the fact is that we can’t get 35 million people out, right? So, we need to really look beyond humanitarian aid and humanitarian visas, and see how politically we can create an alternative for the Taliban, so the Taliban are stopped and they do not last very long. And finally, they agree for a political settlement.
So, because of that move by the Taliban banning women from working for NGOs, some aid groups have quit their operations in Afghanistan, which, of course, has its own counterproductive consequences. What do you think humanitarian groups should do when it comes to dealing with the Taliban?
Well, I think it was the right decision to [end] some of this humanitarian aid, because how can your taxpayer’s money go to a group excluding women from the offices? It was difficult for these humanitarian organizations to reach women across Afghanistan, in terms of the recipients. So, I think it was a good decision. As much as it’s difficult and challenging, and I know that economically people are suffering, but I think it was the right decision to do so.
Ms. Koofi, is there a memory about Mursal Nabizada that you’ve been holding on to in recent days that you’ll keep with you moving forward?
Yeah. When she was elected in 2018, she actually contacted me and she said, “I would like you to mentor me.” And it was very sweet. When you hear that from somebody, it indicated the legacy, but also, you know, her passion to really be meaningfully involved in politics and try to do things for our country.
This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.