An Afghan woman’s fight for gender equity

By Camila Rice-Aguilar

“Being a human rights activist in Afghanistan – especially for women’s rights – it is impossible to live a simple life without risk,” Halima started, patting the soft pink chadar covering her head. Halima is a forty-five-year-old Afghan woman and refugee who dedicated her life to serving Afghan women and children before being forced to flee the Taliban in 2021.

Halima is a journalist, educator, advocate, and mother. Living in Kabul, she was an editor and reporter for several publications focusing on children’s and women’s rights, including the Subhe Kabul newspaper and Hasht-e Sobh newspaper. She wrote about the importance of women’s participation in Afghan society, such as women’s role in elections, peace negotiations, and in fighting administrative corruption and discrimination. She worked on projects to advance Afghan women’s economic empowerment and build their financial independence. 

As a contractor for Save the Children, she was a member of the review committee and an editor for “Let’s Write for Afghan Children,” a project that published books including pieces written by children on topics ranging from human rights to family and hygiene.

She also published articles documenting instances of violence against women and condemned members of the Taliban, Daesh, and Shia elders for their open hostility toward women. Many of the articles criticizing the Taliban were later deleted from online archives, including a story demanding punishment of one of the Taliban commanders and religious leaders accused of sexually harassing women in educational centers.

It was never particularly safe to be an Afghan woman working as a journalist or activist. When asked why she would risk her life to expose these stories, she replied, “If someone is able, aware, and observes an unjust situation and they don’t act, I don’t think that’s right. I knew what I could do as a writer to fight against the violations of human rights and women’s rights, and I considered it my duty to do so.”

The struggle for freedom and equality among Afghan women has endured across generations. Halima’s mother, Laila, helped women find work and achieve financial independence in her home province and raised her daughters to pursue higher education and careers. She was one of Halima’s greatest inspirations.

In addition to her journalism and advocacy work with international human rights organizations, Halima ran a co-ed school that employed female teachers and promoted literacy among girls. She was determined for boys and girls to be taught to “live free” in her school, and for girls to have equal access to education. 

When U.S. forces announced their withdrawal from Afghanistan in April 2021, the Taliban regained control in four months. Immediately, the de facto authorities suspended secondary education for girls and terminated the employment of almost all female public servants in the education and health sectors. There was also a wave of threats, attacks, and killings against journalists throughout the country. 

“When Kabul fell, it was as if I fell from the height of a mountain into a valley,” Halima said. Suddenly, her career was eviscerated, and her hopes were extinguished when she started receiving threats on her life. Her work as a journalist made her an immediate target, as did her co-ed school, and simply being a woman with a profession. “The Taliban wanted to kill me,” she said. “I had no choice but to leave.”

Since the takeover, the Taliban authorities have undertaken an aggressive agenda to systematically dismantle gender equality and remove women and girls’ access to public life in Afghanistan. They have issued over 90 edicts and restrictions stripping women and girls of fundamental rights: now, women are mandated to wear full coverings in public, require a male chaperone to leave the home, and are banned from secondary education, employment, and public areas like baths, parks, and gyms. There are also new restrictions on accessing health care and previous social and legal protections for Afghan women.

For over two decades, Afghans risked their lives to strengthen gender equity and build a rights-based democracy. With the return of the Taliban, the country faces a harsh reversal of relative progress amid the threat of lethal retaliation from the oppressive de facto authorities.

Nearly 76,000 Afghans arrived in the United States during and immediately following the 2021 evacuation, including Halima and her family. They were granted humanitarian parole – a two-year immigration status that allows them to enter and work in the United States temporarily.

“It was very difficult for me when I left Afghanistan with my family during the evacuation,” Halima admitted. “I felt like a child who lost their mother; helpless and desperate. The first glimmers of hope for life returned to my heart when I stepped on U.S. soil.”

Halima knew she could not return to Afghanistan with the Taliban moving toward a “gender apartheid,” so she applied for asylum in the United States. Human Rights First took on Halima’s case in February of 2023, and she was finally granted asylum a year later on February 3rd, 2024.

“It was a very lengthy process and the wait time was difficult,” she explained, referring to the U.S. asylum system. “I was so relieved when my family and I were granted asylum.”

Since 2021, Human Rights First has worked to evacuate, resettle, and protect Afghan allies and other at-risk Afghans such as Halima through legal assistance, advocating for bi-partisan legislation, and coordinating resources through coalitions.

After relocating to Alexandria, Virginia–home to a large Afghan community–Halima resumed her efforts supporting Afghan children and families. She took a position at the Alexandria City Public Schools as a family liaison, helping to connect Afghan families with the tools and resources needed to help their kids assimilate and succeed in school. “It is important for me that I continue working in education and supporting my people,” she said.

While Halima and her family are safe now in the U.S., it pains her to know what Afghan women are having to endure under Taliban rule.

“There are lots of benefits and privileges that come with living in the U.S., but my heart is still with the people in Afghanistan,” Halima confided. “Women are not allowed to go to school or work. They are deprived of the right to work and study. That bothers me deeply. No matter where I am, my heart is still with my people.”

Read Halima’s letter to Congress and learn more about how you can support our work helping Afghan refugees through the Evacuate Our Allies (EOA) coalition and Project: Afghan Legal Assistance.

Blog, Refugee Voices


  • Camila Rice-Aguilar

Published on March 29, 2024


Seeking asylum?

If you do not already have legal representation, cannot afford an attorney, and need help with a claim for asylum or other protection-based form of immigration status, we can help.