‘As We Look Back, It Has Just Disappeared’
Naheed Farid worked to advance the cause of women and minorities in Afghanistan —until the Taliban returned to power.
When Naheed Farid joined the Wolesi Jirga, the lower house of Afghanistan’s national assembly in 2010 at the age of 27, she hoped that her elevation to public office would show the country that women in democratic systems don’t just do the electing—they are also elected. The moment marked the culmination of an education in law and passion for advocacy, both of which were inspired by teenage years spent under Taliban-imposed house arrest.
In the 11 years that she served in the assembly, Farid worked on behalf of Herat to safeguard the equality of ethnic and religious minorities, support economic development projects, and push for an Afghan government-approved peace process amid ongoing fighting with the Taliban.
Farid wasn’t the first or only woman to serve in the Wolesi Jirga, but quickly made a name for herself as a staunch defender of gender equality. During her two years heading the Human Rights, Civil Society, and Women Affairs Committee, Farid advocated to protect voting rights, bolster prohibitions against polygamy and child marriage, advocate for gender diversity in the workplace, and expand maternity leave. The commission also helped women and girls on an individual basis, assisting victims of domestic violence and wives seeking divorces from their husbands.
It took only a few short days in August to dash Farid’s hopes that her life’s work would yield lasting change for Afghanistan’s women and minorities. The Taliban’s swift takeover of the country’s provinces, aided by al-Qaeda-aligned fighters, reversed the nearly 20 years of progress that followed the toppling of the first Islamic Emirate in 2001.
“Like me, so many women traveled a very bumpy and uneven road toward introducing a new Afghanistan,” Farid said in an interview with The Dispatch. “But now, as we look back, it has just disappeared. All the roads that we drew, all the paths, all the achievements, we just see nothing.”
For Farid, the reversal was all too familiar. “The day that the Taliban came to my city, in 1995, I was a teenage girl,” she said. “On that day, I asked my mother to take me to the school. She said, ‘no, the school is closed.’ I insisted, and so she took me to the school and asked me to cover my face for the first time in my life. I went to my school and saw a man with a gun sitting in front. They burned so many things inside of the school—chairs, books, so many things. And that day, they burned my hopes.”
The stratified system—which Farid described as a “gender apartheid”—confines school-aged girls to their homes, and, particularly amid an unfolding humanitarian crisis, encourages parents to sell their female children into forced marriages. According to some reports, girls as young as 20 days have been auctioned off as child brides as Afghan families struggle against starvation.
Even as Taliban fighters surrounded the country’s provincial capitals in preparation for sweeping offensives, Farid remained hopeful that the Afghan security forces would recover the lost territory. In the days before Herat fell, Farid traveled to her home city to boost morale among the government soldiers responsible for its defense.
Shortly thereafter, however, the country’s leadership reversed course, warning Farid and other at-risk lawmakers of its plans to surrender. She escaped to Iran alongside her three children, one of whom is a U.S. citizen, with only their clothes, a phone, and diapers for her baby. Farid’s husband and other family members remained in Kabul before eventually escaping via Hamid Karzai airport.
A United Nations World Food Program and Food and Agriculture report from October projected that 22.8 million people—more than half of Afghanistan’s population—face acute food insecurity between November 2021 and March 2022. An estimated 8.7 million of them are at risk of famine amid skyrocketing food prices, low crop yields, and diminished external support.
“There has to be a response to the humanitarian crisis in Afghanistan through a trusted corridor and that has to be established as soon as possible. For this, we don’t have months. We don’t even have days,” Farid said. “The winter is coming and it's very cold in Afghanistan.”
In testimony before the Senate Banking, Housing, and Urban Affairs Committee, Farid stressed the importance of local non-governmental organizations and civil society groups in the absence of a government able and willing to provide education, health care, and food aid. “Without outside assistance, more Afghans will suffer, more Afghans will die,” she told the committee. “But the Taliban cannot be allowed to set terms and conditions on how this humanitarian assistance is delivered and who it is delivered to.”
Asked by The Dispatch about lawmaker concerns that assistance provided to Afghanistan would empower its Taliban leadership, Farid—who has a background in nonprofit management—explained how establishing proper humanitarian corridors would mitigate the risk of support falling into terrorist hands. A regional partner, namely Tajikistan, would be necessary to give aid organizations a base from which they could maintain headquarters, distribute wages to workers, and deliver goods.
Providing in-kind aid like food and medicine rather than cash payments could also benefit Afghanistan’s civilian population without enabling its occupiers. The Taliban’s leadership is currently seeking up to $14 billion in frozen assets belonging to the Afghan central bank, with Foreign Minister Amir Khan Muttaqi urging the international community to show “mercy and compassion” toward Afghans facing food insecurity. But Farid, along with many other Afghan activists and lawmakers, has urged the United States against financial or legal recognition of the jihadist, all-male “interim” government.
“They have never denounced their ties with al-Qaeda and other terrorist groups. The Haqqani Network, which is on the blacklists of all international bodies—including the United Nations—now has three ministers, including the minister of interior,” Farid said. “Their rise to power gives other extremist and fundamentalist groups all over the world a sense of pride and a sense of confidence.”
And while Farid has been a vocal critic of President Joe Biden’s hasty withdrawal from Afghanistan this year, she views her country’s current plight as a multi-administration failure. The 2020 Doha agreement between the Trump administration and the Taliban, Farid argued, left the existing Afghan government with “no leverage” and emboldened the Taliban. “That was not a peace deal,” Farid said. “Afghanistan’s government tried to play a role, but unfortunately, because the U.S. already signed a deal with the Taliban, Afghanistan’s government did not have any choice.”
In the time between the deal being signed and the U.S. military withdrawal, Farid and other members of her committee met with lawmaking bodies from around the world to urge them not to abandon Afghanistan’s women. “We met with more than 25 parliaments, including Congress, asking them to safeguard women’s rights in the peace process of Afghanistan and to not let the achievements of women be undermined in any negotiation,” Farid said. “We told them: Don’t withdraw in a hasty way, let the situation become more clear, and continue your support for the national security of Afghanistan.”
Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, a Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations and Armed Services committee who has long advocated for the women of Afghanistan, praised Farid and her fellow members of parliament for their work.
“Ms. Farid and her female colleagues who served in the Afghan parliament showed immense courage to seek higher office in the first place, and continue to exemplify the bravery of Afghan women and girls to hold onto their hard-fought rights. The U.S. is committed, across party lines and between Congress and the White House, to support Afghan women and girls so the progress made over 20 years is not erased,” Shaheen, who was among the lawmakers Farid consulted, told The Dispatch. “We have a moral imperative to stand by Afghan women and girls and make clear to them that we have not, and will not, forget them.”
Farid, who now serves as a board member for the Afghanistan-U.S. Democratic Peace and Prosperity Council, remains steadfast in her commitment to charting a new course for her home country—with women at its center. “I hate when the world recognizes the women of Afghanistan only as victims or as beneficiaries,” she said. “They have been leaders, they have been agents of change in their society.”