Saskia Murphy can’t
avert her eyes from Afghanistan

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As Taliban soldiers marched through government-held territory in early July, they stormed into workplaces and sent women home.

In Kandahar they walked into the offices of Azizi Bank and ordered nine women working there to leave. According to reports by Al Jazeera, gunmen escorted the women to their homes and told them not to return to their jobs. Instead, in scenes straight from The Handmaid’s Tale, the soldiers explained that male relatives could take their place.

Two days later a similar scene played out at a bank in Herat. Three Taliban fighters entered the branch, reprimanding female staff for not covering their faces. Women quit their jobs on the spot, sending male relatives in their place the following day.

After the fall of Kabul on 15 August, educated Afghan women who have fought for the right to study and work are fearing for their lives.

As Taliban soldiers seized the city many women hid at home in fear of being beaten for not covering up, or for leaving the house without a male guardian. Others desperately sought out burqas after fighters used the loudspeakers at a mosque in the west of Kabul to announce that women should wear burqas or full hijab – a long abaya and a face covering.

Women and girls who for two decades have dared to dream of lives and careers of their own are coming to terms with a new reality, existing under a warped ideology that tells them their only rightful place is at home.

There is fear, but there is also resistance. Last week Shabana Basij-Rasikh, co-founder of Afghanistan’s only all-girls boarding school, School of Leadership Afghanistan, revealed she had fled the country with 250 students, temporarily relocating to Rwanda.

Just days earlier Basij-Rasikh had tweeted a video of her burning class records in a desperate attempt to protect her students and their families.

As Basij-Rasikh’s students’ records were destroyed by flames, more girls scrambled to safety. Nine members of the all-girls robotics team, the Afghan Dreamers, were carried out of the country by an aircraft organised by the Qatar government, while a further five members were given refuge in Mexico. Last year the team hit the headlines after inventing a low-cost ventilator for Covid patients out of old car parts – a group of teenage girls dreaming and working for a better world.

As events unfold in Afghanistan, educators are begging the world not to forget about the millions of girls left behind. Afghan teacher Pashtana Durrani, executive director of Learn Afghanistan, who is now in hiding, vowed she would “raise an army, just like the Taliban did – only mine will be of educated determined Afghan women”.

Basij-Rasikh has vowed to return to her country. She insists her school’s move to Rwanda is temporary, and that as soon as circumstances permit, she and her students will return to Afghanistan.

But for now, as the Taliban tightens its grip on the country, and as women are turned away from workplaces and girls stay at home, Basij-Rasikh has urged us all not to look away. Posting on Twitter, she wrote: “If there’s one thing I ask of the world, it is this: do not avert your eyes from Afghanistan. Don’t let your attention wander as the weeks pass. See those girls, and in doing so you will hold those holding power over them to account.”

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