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‘Burn my degrees, photos of me without hijab’: Afghan women in India tell families back home

Worried the Taliban may target their families for sending them abroad for education, Afghan women students are telling them to destroy all proof.

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Hyderabad: Tamana Nijrabi, 27, a postgraduate student of computer science at Hyderabad’s Osmania University, says she has been battling anxiety attacks and sleepless nights for the past few days. An Afghan citizen, not only has she been worried about the safety of her family back in Kabul in light of the Taliban’s comeback, she is also worried about her own fate if the insurgents find out she is unmarried and a student in a foreign country.

“If you cannot hide them, burn all photos in which I am not wearing a hijab, in which I have posed with my male friends,” a desperate Nijrabi told her parents Monday. “Burn my embassy documents, my degrees. Do not tell them that your daughter is a student in another country.”

Taliban fighters entered Kabul Sunday after an aggressive campaign that saw them overrun vast swathes of the country at unforeseen speed amid the pullout of international forces that arrived in Afghanistan 20 years ago for the US-led “war on terror”. President Ashraf Ghani has since fled the country.

The insurgent group, which ruled Afghanistan between 1996 and 2001, seeks to establish an Islamic emirate in the country, guided by their strict interpretation of the Sharia. Their rule earlier was marked by an iron-fisted control over women, who couldn’t work, study, or even stir out of the house without a male relative.

While the Taliban appear to be attempting to exhibit a more moderate outlook, the memories of those five years are making many Afghans sceptical.

Nijrabi says she has been in living in constant fear ever since she was told by her family that the Taliban are going house-to-house in parts of the country, checking for sensitive government documents and looking for Afghan government officials. They have already checked her uncle’s residence in Kabul and she knows “that my family cannot escape for long”, she adds.

Her fear is shared by other Afghans currently studying in Hyderabad.

According to Younus Shafaee, vice-president of the Afghan Students Association, Hyderabad, there are about 250 Afghans studying at different universities in the city. While most of the students are funded by Indian Council for Cultural Relations (ICCR) scholarships, a few are self-financed.

Of the 250, at least 20 are women, he said. Visas of 50 of the 250 students are close to expiry and they are scheduled to return to Afghanistan in two months, following the completion of their courses, Shafaee added.

“They do not want to go back. We are hoping the Indian government will help us with visa extensions and allow us to stay here for some more time,” said Shafaee, who is pursuing a Master’s in psychology at Osmania University.


Also read: America was overwhelmed, lacked coherent strategy for Afghanistan, US govt agency report says

Troubling memories

Speaking to ThePrint, Nijrabi remembers an incident from the early 2000s, when she was five years old. She said she was out with her uncle to get some drinking water, when they were stopped by the Taliban and reprimanded because Nijrabi was not wearing a hijab (headscarf). The insurgents, she added, warned her uncle that such acts would lead to severe punishment.

“My uncle has one daughter and she is married. But I am scared. If we go back, they may kill us,” said Nijrabi of herself and the other Afghan students in India, her hands shaking with fear.

She added: “I rarely wear a hijab and there are photos of me with some of my male classmates. They may harm our families for letting us come to another country to study. The Taliban does not allow women to be educated, forget coming to another country for that… I don’t want to go back.”

Nijrabi’s mother completed her graduation after the collapse of the Taliban in Afghanistan in 2001 and works as a teacher. The family, originally from the country’s north-east province of Kapisa — one of the smallest provinces in Afghanistan — has been living in Kabul for more than a decade.

The Master’s student said she has heard of the Taliban’s past brutalities from her mother, of a time when even television viewing was not allowed and Taliban members would break any TV sets and punish those caught watching them.

Women were among those who bore the brunt. There are rumours that the extremist group has sought a list of unmarried women to allegedly get them married to Taliban members. However, the Taliban have dismissed the rumours as baseless propaganda by the Afghan government.

Taliban spokesperson Suhail Shaheen has said the group will respect the rights of women when they take control and will give them access to education and employment. It has, however, clarified that wearing the hijab will be mandatory for women.

Also read: On the roads of Kabul, anxiety, fear, terror & gunshots a day after Taliban take control

Escaping Afghanistan… for the time being

Meanwhile, as reports of desperate Afghans trying to flee the country continue to pour in, those in India are relieved to have escaped the horrors back home, at least for the time being.

For 27-year-old Maryam Nazari, it was a lucky escape. She left Kabul Friday, two days before the Taliban reached the Afghanistan capital, and returned to India and her university in Hyderabad the same day.

Her family in Kabul is relieved that at least one of their daughters could manage to move away from the country, she said. But they are worried about their elder daughter, a government official. Maryam told ThePrint that her sister had packed all her work-related documents and sent them off to her relatives’ house in the hope of avoiding detection.

“My elder sister is unmarried and a government official. I am not sure what they will do to her if they find her,” Maryam said.

Her fear for her family, especially her sister, is shared by 24-year old Fresta, a postgraduate student of civil engineering at Osmania University, and the daughter of the governor of one of the districts in Kapisa.

“My uncle’s house in Kabul has already been searched. My family has no place to hide and my twin sister is worried whether she will be able to finish her graduation in Kabul. She is in her final year. My father is numb. He did not say a word when I called home Monday,” Fresta told ThePrint.

Like Nijrabi, she is also worried about the consequences of the Taliban finding out that she is unmarried and a student abroad, especially for her family.

“I told my parents, if the Taliban forcefully checked documents or photos or asked them about me, to tell them I was married and living abroad, not that I was studying here all by myself,” said Fresta. “That would be very risky for them.”

(Edited by Poulomi Banerjee)

Also read: In the end, the Afghan army was always doomed


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