In her university room in Bangladesh, Nina, 19, holds her boxing gloves up to her face, staring into the mirror.
She is learning to protect herself. She says there is no other way. Nina is one of hundreds of Afghan women who have taken up the offer of an education abroad, despite knowing they may never be able to return home.
Nearly 12 months ago, walking through Kabul airport, she says she felt far less strong. She remembers her hands shaking. She knew it was dangerous to flee Afghanistan.
When airport officials questioned her, she lied: “The Taliban don’t allow women to travel alone so I said my mother was sick in Pakistan.”
She was relieved when they were convinced, but a harder challenge was yet to come.
As Nina stepped onto the plane she stepped away from her home and family. “On the day when I left I was crying that I might never see my mother’s face again, it was so hard for me,” she says.
“It broke my younger sister’s heart. When I think about them, it hurts.”
‘We want to get 1,000 women out’
Since the Taliban took control of Afghanistan two years ago – in August 2021 – life has drastically changed for women in the country.
They lost their right to be educated past the age of 12, their right to wear what they want or travel alone for more than 72km.
Nina is among those who was offered a way out – an education through programmes organised by the Asian University for Women (AUW).
As soon as the Taliban came to power, the AUW began receiving calls for help from their female students. Its founder, Kamal Ahmad, says he knew he had to get them out.
As western forces left the country they managed to evacuate a group of 148 women from Kabul as AUW students spread the word. Seven coaches made the dangerous journey to the city’s airport a total of three times.
The women were in the departures area when a suicide bomb ripped through the crowd outside one of the airport’s gates on 26 August, killing more than 150 people.
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“After an extremely traumatic journey to the airport, they boarded a flight with the US military and successfully landed in Saudi Arabia,” Mr Ahmad said. “All 148 women are now in universities across the United States. I just feel relieved that it wasn’t a bad outcome.”
Since then AUW has offered scholarships and organised the evacuation of hundreds more women out of Afghanistan – 450 so far. These students have been sent to AUW’s own university in Bangladesh, or partner colleges such as Brown University in the US, and Oxford and Manchester in the UK.
AUW hopes to help more women – the goal is 1,000 – to continue their education by offering scholarships and a safe exit from Afghanistan.
‘I left my husband in Iran’
Safia, a journalist in her 20s, is another beneficiary of the scheme. She was heading to work the night the Taliban took over. The television studio where she worked was soon shut down and, with it, her career.
She says it was difficult to even leave her home for several weeks, amid the new restrictions placed on women.
“One day I decided to wear red and the Taliban tried to kidnap me, [putting me] in a box because I wasn’t wearing all black. It was terrifying.”
Safia’s capturers told her to go inside the post office to hand in her ID, passport and mobile phone, but instead, she fled.
“I believed with all my heart that they would shoot me from behind,” she said. “Despite the fact that I knew death is better than a Taliban capture in our culture, I screamed that I wouldn’t go inside the post office, and with all my strength, ran” she added.
She says she ran past moving cars, nearly colliding with a few, but kept running until she reached a shop. She says by the time her husband found her, she could not speak.
The Taliban never came looking for her, she says, but it was a small reprieve: she no longer had a job and she mostly stayed home, afraid to step out.
Several months later she was offered a scholarship to study at AUW. She hopes that by continuing her studies she can help her family but she has no idea when she will reunite with any of them, including her husband.
She says he helped her to leave Afghanistan by lying to airport officials about where they were going. She says they were questioned hard, and had to show a marriage certificate just to enter the airport.
“They kept checking for proof that we were husband and wife. They eventually let us through but it was tough. Then I had to travel through Iran, Dubai and then ended up in Chittagong. I had to leave my husband in Iran, it was so hard.”
Safia, who is currently enrolled in a pre-undergraduate programme, say she never wanted to leave. She believes Afghanistan needs journalists to speak up for ordinary people.
“I personally wanted to be a voice for the women who had lost their rights but my family wanted me to leave for my own safety.”
‘The day I left my family forever’
Nina’s parents also encouraged her to go to Bangladesh. But she says she worried about leaving them behind and the risk to them. She also found it difficult to adapt to a whole new culture and language.
But by her second semester she had created a boxing club. Now she has 50 female students in her class.
She believes self-defence and strength for women is important: “I’ve always wanted to be able to protect myself and I want to teach others to do the same.”
She says for seven years, she worked hard at school and regularly boxed at the gym.
“But then in August 2021 I couldn’t go to the gym, I couldn’t continue my education, I couldn’t even go outside.”
She says the Taliban took Afghanistan 20 years into the past: “I cried. The situation is horrible.”
Now she wants to empower other women at the university to find strength and confidence. Like Nina and Safia all of them have left their lives behind and are trying to step into their future – but, for now, they have had to give up those they love.
“I wish for the women of Afghanistan to be free because I know they are trying so hard. I hope one day they can all continue their dreams,” Nina says.
Each of these women say they have something in common. They will never forget the women they’ve left behind.
News by Gem O’Reillyaye, BBC Afghanistan
BBC, 16 August 2023, Direct Link: https://www.bbc.com/news/world-66461711