by Crystal Bayat
My mother tells me that on the occasion of my birth, our house was gripped by grief, a thick and heavy sorrow. She was blamed—and battered—for bringing another daughter into the world. I was the fourth girl born to our family. Afghan men, my father, and uncle among them can tolerate having two, possibly three, girls in a row. But the fourth child had to be a boy. My mother and I had disappointed my father’s conservative family by failing to conform to their expectations. That pattern has persisted over the years. I am a girl—also a fighter.
Like Malala, Greta and so many other girls of my generation, I have always known that I have to stand and fight for my beliefs, no matter how overwhelming the scale or gravity of the threats. As girls, we must be willing to pay the price for the change we seek. But the truth is that none of us can succeed alone. I would not have taken many, or even, the first, steps on my path, the struggle against the Taliban, without my mother’s example and encouragement.
My father and his family were not only disappointed by my birth, they disapproved of girls being educated. My uncle—who exercised enormous influence over my father—always said that “girls were useless.” He urged my father not to let any of his daughters leave home—other than through marriage. Fortunately, my mother, who was an OB/GYN doctor, prevailed. She had faith in me and my future from the day I was born. And she has stood by me, like a rock, till now. It is from her, not from school or university, that I learned that defeating the Taliban and securing a better future for girls does not begin on the battlefield. It begins at home. And it comes with a price—a price that my mother and generations of women and girls before us have paid. They continue to pay and I, and generations of women and girls to follow, must also pay if our nightmare’s to end.
Getting an education in Kabul after the fall of the Taliban was a daily battle, not only inside our house, but on the way to school, and back. Despite this, I always knew that I was fortunate—lucky to be born to my mom and to have the blessing of a maternal grandfather and family who believed in education. I knew that many girls in Kabul, let alone in remote parts of the country, did not have my luxury—a chance to escape their conditions. As a schoolgirl, I fantasized about a time when all Afghan girls would have the power to cast off the Taliban, or rather, the veil of ignorance, poverty, and violence that deprived us of life and education, joy, and dignity.
Still, even in Kabul, I had to keep aspects of my own education a secret. After school, I would go to an English Training School to learn English. I knew that if my father, or worse, my uncle, discovered my English books, or worse, my notebooks, my mother and I would be beaten. Eventually, we were. But it was worth the price. I learned English. Similarly, when it came to going to university, my father was so enraged that he beat my mother and me when we sought his permission to take the entrance exams. He cut off my financial support. My mother was not defeated. She sold her jewelry to get us into university. Again, I learned that if you believe in something enough, you don’t always wait or ask a higher power for permission. You make it happen. And pay the price of your decisions and actions.
I studied very hard for the Kabul University entrance exam, often in the dark. It seemed as though most of my father’s family were determined that I fail. They did not believe that I—a girl—was capable of being admitted. And frankly, as with my birth, my uncle made his disdain clear. He disapproved of the idea of girls going to school, let alone university. For them, it was shameful, even scandalous. I devoted my heart and soul to study, day and night. I scored 5th out of 365,000 students in the country taking the exam. On the day I left for Kabul University, our house was once again in the grip of grief, heavy with sorrow and sighs. Except for my mother and sisters—there was no end to the light or the joy in their eyes.
I enrolled in Kabul University’s Faculty of Law and Political Science with a vision of bringing constitutional, institutional, and cultural change to a patriarchal, and agrarian, society. Girls in Afghanistan are not just second-class citizens. In many instances, they are still treated as chattel, property bought and sold in marriage, with no rights or claims to their body, let alone a place in the future of their country or a voice in the government. It did not take long for my dream to come against another harsh reality. The violence that haunted me at home was also manifest at the university—albeit in a new form. Professors would subject female students to what felt like a daily stream of sexual advances, with one professor of religious morals using grades, passing his class, for sexual extortion. Such abuses of power were part of the extensive corruption that included the financial, moral, and sexual corruption that set the stage for the collapse of faith in the government. I never gave in to these illegitimate demands but left the university. Being the object of sexual harassment was impossible to tolerate.
Instead of giving up, my mother encouraged me to take an achievement test for a scholarship at Delhi University. And she decided to talk to my father to secure permission for me to study abroad. It was the holy month of Ramadan. I will never forget those nights. I was keeping the fast and awaiting a chance to speak to my father at the end of the day. He listened to his brothers and the community—but he did not want to see, let alone, hear from me. He never believed in my power or promise—not for an instant. It was only with paternal grandfather’s intervention, after my mother had put her life on the line by threatening a divorce, that I was granted permission to continue my studies in India.
As I left for India, my mother’s love and trust shimmered in my soul. As she put it, “You have to break all these taboos and bring changes to the life of women in this land.” Being a foreign student, an Afghan woman, in Delhi was difficult. But I did not lack motivation. I studied political science and international relations at the United Nations Studies Institute and graduated as a first division student from the University of Delhi. As my understanding of the world and international laws and institutions, including the United Nations, grew, the more I recognized the power of having a voice—the gift of an education. I could share and change the story of Afghan women and girls not only at home but connect and share their stories with the world. In India, I also started a small business, earned money, and helped my family. I bought a car—with my own money—and was one of the few girls who drove. I confronted every man who thought I was weak and did not let them overtake me. I also “trained” my friends to drive in my car. I wanted girls and women to know that they can drive cars as well as boys and men.
After India, I was offered an opportunity to get a master’s degree in London. I chose to return to Afghanistan. Writing and social media became instruments for bringing about change for my generation and future generations. I became active in many fields and on multiple campaigns and wrote about women’s rights, minority rights, the peace process, foreign policy, corruption, gender equality, civil society and citizenship, and even menstruation, for national and international media. I felt then, and still feel, that the best way for bringing about change is to present and publish one’s ideas and beliefs among the people. Even though there were negative reactions to some women’s issues, I led a campaign to break the taboos around menstruation. Quite a few men welcomed my ideas and many women and girls expressed their solidarity and support for inspiring them.
My experiences as a girl made me understand the challenges facing minority groups in Afghanistan. Afghanistan is a rich and diverse country, composed of many ethnic and religious groups, including the Bayat, but forty years of war had exposed minority groups to assaults and injustice from larger majority groups. I launched a large-scale campaign to secure recognition for minorities by having their identities included on electronic ID cards. Prior to that minorities were forced to register under the name of majority groups, which deprived them of political recognition as well as social and economic rights. I received many threats, but never gave up. After two years of activism, which included creating social media hashtags, rallying extensive support among minority groups, and writing an open letter to the Afghan president, the president issued an executive order granting minority groups recognition on their ID cards. I shed tears of joy. I had learned that even in a traditional society with tribal culture and tradition, the society can and will accept change when one works correctly from the bottom up.
I had a strong spirit. And I knew that for Afghan women, minorities, and others to enjoy the rights and freedoms that women in other countries enjoyed, we needed to believe and act on what we said. After all, women and minorities were the first victims of war. And, so I was deeply concerned that we may fall victim to peace with the Taliban. There could be no peace where women and minorities were deprived of their rights and livelihoods. That is why I attended meetings, and conferences and gave interviews objecting to the flaws in the Doha Peace Agreement. I did not want to see the interests of women and minorities sacrificed in the name of securing peace with the Taliban. Sadly, that is what has come to pass. The return of the Taliban, with no checks on their power and no rights for Afghan women and minorities, was not the future for which so many women. Also, many nations had sacrificed so much blood and treasure over many years.
On August 15, 2021, the Taliban entered Kabul. All of Afghanistan, and indeed much of the world, was plunged into shock. After subjecting Afghanistan to war and bloodshed, murder and massacre, mayhem and misery for twenty years, a terrorist group that had inflicted untold damage on the country was assuming the reins of power. The Afghan people were once again witnessing the face of death before their very eyes.
When the Taliban arrived in Kabu, I felt my soul and spirit quiver. I could barely breathe. I could not accept their presence in silence. That night I made the fateful decision to confront them the next day. My life and destiny, my Kabul and my Afghanistan were not theirs to shape. Its future would not be defined by their vision—through the barrel of their guns. I shared my plans with my mother that night. I told her I would be protesting for women’s rights in front of the Taliban the next day. I had grown up through her love and support. I knew how much my decision would pain her. She granted me permission to protest.
And so it was that I launched the first protest against the Taliban. I wanted to stand in front of them. I wanted them to see the face of another Afghanistan—the spectacle of a progressive and awakened Afghanistan that had emerged in their absence. Though I knew my protest would not change the Taliban, let alone force them to accept progress, rights, freedom, and humanity, I believed that no protest is futile. I also wanted to encourage women and girls to protest against the Taliban. When the media covered our protests, I realized how much we had rallied a spirit of resistance.
That night, Kabul felt like an empty shell. The city had sunk into absolute silence. Afghans faced an unknown future, with everyone trying to escape before the Taliban secure their grip on Kabul and the rest of the country. We expected the Taliban to raid our house in retaliation for the protest. I sought refuge at a friend’s house.
A few days later, the Taliban lowered the national flag, the symbol of our nation’s sovereignty recognized all around the world. I felt they had killed me once again. I had written extensively about the flag as a symbol of our national unity. And so I organized a second protest, this time through social media, via WhatsApp. My mother and her friends decided to participate. Extensive protests followed.
The Taliban shot at the demonstrators and tried to use violence to block the protests. But we did not turn back. That led to massive protests in Kabul. Though the Afghan government had collapsed, the world knew that Taliban rule was being contested from the first day. Many Afghans dream of another future—a peace process, mediated by the United Nations, in which the rights of Afghan women and girls, as well as all religious and ethnic minorities, are recognized and respected as sacrosanct.
A belief or principle, like education or equality, can only assume its force from practice. That is not just true for girls. It is also true for governments—including democracies. We must practice what we believe. And we must pay the price.
Afghan girls and women of my generation are willing to pay the price. We may appear invisible to the Taliban, and even to the world, but we are not defeated. Thousands of women and girls inside and outside Afghanistan are organizing via social media and networks. We constitute a powerful force and form of resistance. Your willingness to stand and fight with us will send a powerful message to the world that the fight against the Taliban is not over. It has only just begun. Human rights matter and they must be won where it matters most: in every home and heart.
Crystal Bayat is an Afghan social activist and human rights advocate known for her protests against the Taliban takeover. A native Ghazni, Shia, and Bayat ethnicity minority, Bayat grew up most of her life with democracy and positive societal changes. She is currently continuing the fight to preserve Afghan human rights achievements as an agent of change