Skip to main content

The Narrators of a Troubled Land: My Journey Evacuating Afghanistan and Sustaining Hope for Women

MEP_Homeira

Homeira Qaderi, Afghan writer, activist, and educator, recounts the night she and her son left Afghanistan after the Taliban re-takeover in August 2021. Since leaving, she has established virtual reading and writing communities for Afghan women and girls, hoping to leverage the power of writing to resist Taliban rule.

On August 28, 2021, at 2:30am, I boarded the last American military evacuation flight from Kabul Airport, holding the hand of my seven-year-old son, Siawash. That night, the airport was nothing like the place I had traveled through before.  

Apart from the calls of exhausted American soldiers, who were still sorting out the queue of the last group who had managed to enter the evacuation area, I could hear women’s muffled sobs in their shawls. They were tired, scared, and shocked. Stunned children stared at the soldiers and did not dare approach their mothers. Afghan men sat in complete silence and despair, not even attempting to comfort their crying female relatives. The occasional aerial gunfire could be heard nearby, but Taliban screams, pushing the rescue seekers away from the airport gates, were no longer heard.  

My throat burned with anger. But, I did not let my anger turn into tears, stubbornly holding them back.  

The day before 

Only 24 hours before, Siawash was tucked in his comfortable bed in our house in Karta-e Chahar, a neighborhood in western Kabul. He had cleaned his glasses and placed them on the study table in my room ready for his next school day. Now, he was resting his sleepy head on my leg, wearing eyeglasses that cracked in the commotion of people trying to enter the airport. There did not seem to be any tomorrow, nor excitement about going abroad, and Kabul did not seem like the homeland it had always been. 

The American soldiers wanted us to turn off our mobile phones for security reasons. As I turned off my mobile phone, I cut off communication with the 11 members of my family that I had left behind. Shame and sadness consumed me. I was supposed to send a message to my father upon boarding the plane. Every second of those lingering moments, when I said goodbye to my parents, weighed on me like a ton of bricks. Meanwhile, I could not hide that an even greater sadness began to creep into my eyes and mind. 

Though my sadness weighed heavily on my shoulders, there was no one with whom I could share the terrible pain that gripped my heart. As I stood amid the sorrow-drenched crowd, I felt very lonely.  

Only a few days earlier, on August 26, more than 200 Afghan women, men, and children, as well as 13 American soldiers, had lost their lives in a suicide attack at the airport. After that, my parents urged that I leave the country as soon as possible. Mother said, “Take your child and save yourself.”  At that moment, I did not know whether I should be happy as a mother who could save her child or sad as a professor of ethics who had to abandon her many students. I do not know when I burst into tears, but I remember Siawash's small hands wiping my face. I wondered if there was any hope for professional writers in Afghanistan. 

The power of writing  

Twenty days into our stay in the Fort Bliss refugee camp in Doña Ana Village, New Mexico, I concluded that I should continue supporting those who could not escape Afghanistan.  

My closest friend Lida, from the Taliban days of the 1990s, came to my mind—she self-immolated due to deep depression. Then, Shakiba, another friend of mine self-immolated. Parwana followed in her steps. Jamila, a neighbor's daughter, was next. Herat was consumed by suicides like a wildfire. The flames of the despair of school closure consumed everyone. I survived the waves of misogyny of the 1990s—but how? 

In 1997, four girls from the Mehri Herawi Girls High School grouped together to save themselves from the anguish and misery that was consuming the girls of the city. We knew each other, and the power of pens, through the school literary club. But with the arrival of the Taliban in 1996 and the closure of schools, we did not see each other for some time. Somehow, we were able to connect and decided to revive our literary association.  

Under the guidance of Naser Rahyab, a young professor at the college of literature, we gathered in a house in Herat to practice writing.  

We named our class “The Golden Needle Sewing Class” because we knew that the Taliban had no problem with girls' threads and needles. Their problem was with girls' pens and notebooks.  

Until 2001, every Monday, come rain or sunshine, we got together to write stories and exchange books. That writing course motivated me to survive the Taliban era. I survived by thinking about writing and reading and hoping for the day when I would publish my stories worldwide.  

On a warm Monday afternoon at the Fort Bliss refugee camp, I decided that I could save myself again—and many other young people—by writing. 

The virtual literary association 

While it was not clear when will would leave the camp, I launched my Facebook page for Creative Writing classes under the name “The Golden Needle Storytelling  Literary Association.” The classes were to be taught virtually. In the first three days alone, I received more than a thousand responses. In those early days of Taliban’s second reign, universities and recreational centers, public bathhouses, and beauty salons were still open to women and were among the last few places where women could meet. The enrollment in the Golden Needle class for girls swelled. 

During the period of ‘experimental democracy,’ girls had more interest in writing than those during the first reign of the Taliban did. I felt that I should join these girls to practice writing, hopeful that one day our writings would be read around the world. 

My classes started in October 2021, and I stayed in touch with young Afghan writers weekly. In spring 2022, when the Iowa University International Writers’ Program (IWP) sponsored my writing classes, our enrollment reached 300 students. We wrote, read, and discussed world-renowned books of significance. We read Anne Frank’s diary. We were warned of Big Brother reading George Orwell’s 1984. We reviewed the ways of fighting and resisting being a handmaid with Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid's Tale.  We learned how to be the narrator of our own history and our own society reading Isabel Allende’s The Soul of a Woman.  

Three years later 

Approaching the third anniversary of the Taliban takeover, it should be noted that it is quite clear that the Taliban have caused the most damage to women by destroying the government system. These days, our girls feel the gender apartheid in their every cell. They are living in an endless nightmare that only Afghan women have experienced. 

Afghan women are no longer allowed to attend high school and university. They cannot visit parks, go shopping alone, or go to public baths. Even the last place of women’s get-togethers, the hair salons, have been closed.  

The Pol-e Sorkh, a district of young, cultured book readers, is a lifeless and haunted long street. These days, the only thing that shatters the silence in Pol-e Sorkh is the occasional reprimand shouted by the Taliban at citizens for the length of their beards.   

Even then, there is a determined group of girls who have decided to become storytellers of their troubled homeland. For women, the time is now to take up their pens and notepads and become the narrators of their homeland’s tragedy.  

 We, Afghan women, believe that although the world has abandoned us to the mercy of the Taliban—and they are toying with the idea of using women as a bargaining chip in political dealings—we have no choice but to resist the Taliban with the might of our pens.  

Afghan women have now learned the ways to resist with their pen. Through civil disobedience, a large number of them are saving themselves from depression. Even though they know that living under the tyranny of the Taliban is not easy, they hope to survive it. In their diaries, they are narrating the stories of Afghanistan, like Anne Frank. But will the world be interested in the stories the Afghan women write? Will politics stand in the way of literary and free expression? Will the stories of Afghan women will be buried under the heap of the political trash dump?  

I am trying to keep all of our hopes alive, but sometimes, I wonder whether the world is interested in reading the stories Afghan women write. 

The views represented in this piece are those of the author and do not express the official position of the Wilson Center. 

About the Author

MEP_Homeira

Homeira Qaderi

Associate Research Scholar, Yale MacMillan Center
Read More

Middle East Program

The Wilson Center’s Middle East Program serves as a crucial resource for the policymaking community and beyond, providing analyses and research that helps inform US foreign policymaking, stimulates public debate, and expands knowledge about issues in the wider Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region.  Read more

Middle East Women's Initiative

The Middle East Women's Initiative (MEWI) promotes the empowerment of women in the region through an open and inclusive dialogue with women leaders from the Middle East and continuous research.  Read more