Testimony from Afghan woman peacebuilder Kochay Hassan*: Life under the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan Regime
17 August 2022
Disclaimer: This is my experience, and I cannot speak on behalf of the millions of women living in different regions of Afghanistan.
I remember the night – scrolling more than 18 hours a day on Twitter to witness the collapse of provinces one by one. It was scary; at the same time, adventurous. I even followed Zabiullah Mujahid, a Taliban spokesperson, on Twitter to get the latest and most reliable news on the fall of our provinces. But unfortunately, President Ghani’s comments on social media and local and international media coverage were false promises that could not be believed. What they wrote was a plain lie.
A day before the collapse of the capital, I read that the Taliban fully controlled Mazar. The adrenalin rush, non-stop refreshing newsfeed, busy minds with frightening thoughts, escape plans and applying for any opportunity to leave Afghanistan was all I heard and witnessed on social media and in real life. It was surreal. Who would have thought that Kabul would collapse? I laughed whenever someone would mention it.
I remember tearing up and listening to the national anthem several times, thinking this would be the last day to listen to it and watch the national flag waving in the presidential palace. It was depressing, I admit.
The first three days of Kabul under the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan (IEA) regime were quiet and dark. I heard there were barely any people walking around the city. The tragedy of the airport was embarrassing and horrific. Kabul was officially the land of zombies. I regularly asked my father about the situation outside the house, and every time he would answer that all was well. Did I believe him? No.
I saw videos of people being punished and tortured by IEA soldiers for listening to music, wearing jeans, and their political background and relationship with governmental officials. Some were old footage from years ago, while others were misinterpreted. But unfortunately, some were real videos happening in the provinces.
Hearing and reading about it discouraged me from going outside and seeing more for myself. My mom and sister were the first women in our family to go outside and witness the situation. On the third day after the fall, my sister got sick. My mom had no choice but to go out with my sister to get her medical attention. After an hour and a half, they returned, and I asked, “How was it? Did they question why you were outside without Mahram? Did they react badly because my sister wore jeans instead of a burqa and hijab?” Mom laughed and said, “No. They were quite respectful. They would not even stare at us. I saw some girls eating ice cream, and the group of Taliban would look at them and smile shyly among themselves.” I was shocked. This was nothing that I expected. That encouraged me to go out to see the situation for myself.
The first month was numb – lots of good and bad stories were spreading here and there. But for myself and thousands of other women and girls, it was just depressing. There was nothing in the news. Twitter and social media were the only source of information for us. My closest friends were evacuated from Afghanistan, one after another. WhatsApp groups were full of negativity and hopelessness. Groups of women and girls kept saying life was over for them in Afghanistan. They could not see a future in this country.
Weeks later, my sister and I went out shopping. I did not want to take risks, so I wore the longest dress I could find in my closet because I did not own an abaya or hijab. The streets were empty. Barely any women or girls could be seen. My heart sank. It was like they had vanished from the face of the earth. But let me clarify this: the reason that there were no women in the street was not that the Taliban would not allow them, but that, like myself, many were afraid to go outside and face a new reality. The checkpoints were full of Talibs, and their appearance intimidated me. It was bizarre – almost comical – that the people we had been afraid of for 20 years were just there. Among us. Not one or two, but hundreds of them in the streets. They were Afghans, too, who spoke our language and believed in the same God as we did. Then what separated us?
Before the fall, I worked as an employee for one of the women-led organizations. The day Kabul collapsed, I was still in the office when one of our male colleagues entered the room, panicked, and asked everyone to leave immediately. It was strange that a night before, Balkh collapsed, and I cried my eyes out, and then the very next day, the other employees and I came back to the office like it was just another ordinary day. Our colleague said, “Taliban are at the gates of Kabul. Pack your stuff and leave immediately.” My supervisor was shaking and crying. She whispered, “My mom is in the hospital. What will she do? Oh my god. What is happening?!” I hugged her and told her to calm down. Then I went straight for my table and started packing. While packing, I thought that it was the end of my career. I will never see my colleagues again. I will never be able to work. The organization will no longer be able to function since it is women-led and works to educate women and girls.
A month later, after the collapse of the government, I was connected with senior management of the organization through a WhatsApp group. I was informed that all our organization’s key employees had left the country, including our director. Things were not going well for the organization and many others like it that were women-led. The turnover in all organizations had significantly burdened the remaining employees. The bank accounts were frozen, which prevented many non-governmental organizations (NGOs) from operating or paying their employees’ salaries on time. Some women-led organizations were on the blacklist due to their former senior management’s involvement in politics and the National Resistance Force (NRF) – work in opposition to the IEA. Most of the projects funded by the United States government were suspended due to sanctions. All development projects were stopped and shifted to humanitarian projects. It was hard for NGOs, including ours, to adapt to the sudden change in the scope of programs. Female employees of NGOs were working from home. The women-led organizations hired men as directors or deputies to negotiate with the de facto authorities, reopen their offices and continue their work. Some collapsed after a few months due to the lack of funds and difficulties adjusting to the huge turnover.
Our organization was struggling too. We did not have access to our accounts. Other female employees and I were working from home. We barely had projects. The donor would not risk their fund and money by investing in a women-led organization. I do not blame them; there were many issues with women’s work and uncertainty in their movement. The Mahram issue was also there, which made it even harder for women to get jobs and for donors to cover the extra expenses. It was the darkest four months for our organization. Every day was a new struggle, and further complications for women made it difficult for the organization to operate. However, that did not stop us from assisting our male colleagues from home, pushing us to work even harder.
It was the first weeks of December when we finally found the courage to talk to our district police department about allowing the female staff to return to the office. Surprisingly, they agreed but did not give us a written permission letter. It was all verbal, which left uncertainty, doubt and fear in many female employees’ hearts. The first day back to the office was so surreal. Nothing looked the same. Our female director was replaced with a male deputy director. As a women-led organization, we were left with only three female employees in the main office, which had been segregated into male and female sections. But this did not stop us from interacting daily. Every day was a struggle, financially and mentally, for our organization, yet our spirits were not broken, nor was our will to work.
I would come home crying to my mom and sisters because of the work pressure. It pained my soul to see our organization collapse and unable to pay our staff salaries for months. It would give me a headache every day and caused me many sleepless nights to see the space for women-led civil society organizations (CSOs) shrinking. I still think of the days I wanted to write my resignation letter to our director, who assisted the organization from a distance and guided me daily in handling certain things. However, the midnight breakdowns would not stop me from waking up the next morning, dressing up and working all day to find a way to reopen other branches in the provinces. Just thinking of those days makes me realize how far I and all the other female employees and our organization have come.
During these four months, assistance and small funding from other organizations helped us operate and remain open through difficult times. It was like a blessing and spark of hope on those black days. We could finally access bank accounts again a month later, though the salaries for only two months were processed. We could pay some of our debts, but we still had other problems. We were able to reopen our other branches one by one. It was not as desirable for the provincial staff, but we overcame it by coordination and trust-building with the de facto authorities. We gradually learned that the key to surviving is negotiation and coordination. We learned that we should speak their language and change some terminology to make them understand our work. It took a lot of time, energy and many meetings, but we needed to do that outreach. We were finally getting back on track. However, we still lacked funding and women to lead the organization.
I took over as the Executive Director in April. It was new, and the future for the organization was not very promising. It is not for the majority of women-led CSOs in Afghanistan. I met groups of other CSO directors in different gatherings, and they all asked for opportunities and funding. Their years of experience and nationality would not change the fact that the organizational capacity had been significantly reduced, and the projects’ scopes had changed from development to humanitarian action. Afghan NGOs were trained for 20 years in the development sector, and the donor would instead go with international NGOs (INGOs) since they implement humanitarian projects with better quality and transparency. This is one of the reasons that local NGOs, specifically women-led organizations, have struggled to get projects and funding from donor agencies.
Once, my uncle heard me saying that I’m exhausted and depressed. I remember that he replied, “Kochay, be patient. If you want to lead an organization, it requires a lot of sacrifice and patience. It is good that you are passionate about your job. Work with what you have available. Just because you are dealing with old cars doesn’t mean you have to buy new ones. Fix the old ones and invest in them. You don’t know this, but you are sitting on top of a gold mine. You must find your worth and prove that your organization can offer new things. Just do what you are confident about, and do it the best way possible.” My uncle taught me a lifelong lesson to adapt and adjust to new circumstances.
It is not easy to live here, but it is not unbearable either. That keeps me sane and optimistic about the future for myself and millions of other women and girls in Afghanistan. Is it too limited? Does it require certain restrictions? Does it take us more steps than the men-led organization to complete a simple procedure while dealing with the de facto authorities? Yes, yes and yes. But does that stop me and the other 60+ women and girls in our organization from coming to the office regularly? No. Are we frustrated sometimes? Yes. Are we angry sometimes? Yes. But do we, as women, also have joyful moments when we cover 11 provinces and serve thousands of women and children through our interventions? Yes. And that is what matters the most.
This month marks one year since the collapse of the republic government of Afghanistan. We, as Afghans, have faced it all. From middle school closure, economic crisis, poverty, sanctions and bank restrictions to brain drain, the current regime, natural disasters and humanitarian crisis, we have experienced everything imaginable. It has been a difficult and painful year for all Afghans. But it has not stopped us from surviving every day and fighting for that spark of light in the darkest days. Though international allies failed us, we fought our own battles and did not quit. We stayed. We fought. We fell but got up and fought harder—every day. History should not call any of the women who were left behind victims. Remember us as survivors, agents of change and peacebuilders.
GNWP stands with the Afghan people, particularly women and youth peacebuilders, who continue to be negatively impacted by the oppression and violence brought upon them by the Taliban. GNWP thanks the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation (SDC) for its support that enables us to sustain our work with AWEC and other local women’s rights organizations and promote local peacebuilding and women- and youth-led humanitarian response.
For GNWP’s full solidarity statement, see: https://gnwp.org/take-urgent-action-to-protect-the-rights-of-afghan-women-and-girls-and-restore-peace/
* Kochay Hassan is the Executive Director of the Afghan Women’s Educational Center (AWEC). AWEC is a member of the Global Network of Women Peacebuilders (GNWP) working locally in Afghanistan for the rights of women, young women and girls.
 A male escort to accompany a woman when she leaves the home.
 A long, loose garment covering the whole body from head to feet, worn in public by women in many Muslim countries.
 A full-length outer garment worn by some Muslim women.