Inspired by their mother, Afghan sisters Sadaf and Zolheja dream of becoming entrepreneurs. But for now, only Sadaf seems poised to fulfill that ambition, while Zolheja has been frustrated by the Taliban’s ban on women attending university.
“It seems like I have to bury all my targets,” Zolheja, 19, told NBC News via WhatsApp from her home in the Afghan capital Kabul earlier this year, adding that she was forced to leave his business management course after the ban went into effect last month. (NBC News verified the sisters’ identities but agreed not to use her last name because they fear reprisals from the Taliban.)
She said that now she spends her days “thinking, crying, searching and trying to apply for scholarships so that she can have the opportunity to go to another place to study.”
«I’ll go anywhere,» he said.
Her older sister, Sadaf, 21, said she was evacuated from Afghanistan in August 2021, shortly after the Taliban seized power. She added that she was eligible to immigrate to the United States because of her work at a non-governmental organization that focused on education and is now studying business administration on a scholarship at the University of Tulsa in Oklahoma.
“I had to do this, I had to come here to support my family,” he said.
Although the Taliban initially promised a more moderate government and pledged to respect the rights of women and minorities, they have implemented their strict interpretation of Islamic law, or Sharia, since taking control. As a result, the country has become the world’s most repressive for women and girls, deprived of many of their basic rights, the United Nations said Wednesday.
Women have been banned from most labor camps, ordered to wear head-to-toe clothing in public, and prevented from using parks and gyms. After banning girls from attending middle and high school last spring, the Taliban began imposing a higher education ban on women in December by blocking their access to universities.
Zolheja said she found out about the ban when she arrived at her university and was blocked from entering it, along with many other students.
“The day they announced the ban, I felt like they killed us,” he said. «We are human, we need to live the way we want, not the way the Taliban wants us to live.»
Her mother was particularly sad for her because her own dreams had been crushed after the Taliban banned women’s education after they first came to power in 1996, she said.
“She had this experience before and she knows how much it hurts,” Zolheja said.
Sadaf added that his mother had wanted to resume her studies after the US-led invasion in 2001, prompted by the Taliban’s refusal to hand over Osama bin Laden, the al Qaeda leader and mastermind behind the 9/11 terror attacks. September.
At the time, access to education was available to women across the country but, Sadaf said, she was unable to obtain documents proving she had already completed most of her studies and did not want to start over.
Instead, Sadaf said, her mother stayed home and took over the chores «just so we could focus on our studies.»
Her father was also supportive of her educational efforts, she said, adding that he did not want them to be «women who are just inside the house, cooking and cleaning.»
“I am so grateful to have parents like them,” she said.
That support did not waver after the Taliban took power and, after some emotional family conversations, they decided that it was best for her to leave the country with the help of her NGO.
“I was just trying to escape Afghanistan,” he said, adding that his farewell was hasty as he embarked on what would be his first trip out of the country from Kabul International Airport.
Through tears, her mother told her to “stay safe,” Sadaf said, tearing up at the memory of their separation.
He added that he called his mother from the plane and told her: «I’m flying.»
After landing in Qatar, he flew to Ramstein Air Base in southwestern Germany, before heading to Washington, DC. From there, she went to Texas and then to a camp in New Mexico, where she stayed for almost two months. Finally, she said, she made her way to her new home in Tulsa, where she met people affiliated with the NGO she was working with in Afghanistan. (A US official with knowledge of Sadaf’s trip confirmed this to NBC News.)
His first real home in the United States was a dormitory at the University of Tulsa, which had started a support program for fleeing Afghans. She soon followed a job as a case manager and interpreter at a resettlement agency, before being accepted to the university on a full scholarship.
Sadaf said he missed «everything» about his homeland, especially his family, and that adjusting to life in Oklahoma had been difficult. But while studying English, he earned a 4.0 GPA his first semester.
Currently in the US in a status of humanitarian parole, said he was applying for asylum and hopes to apply for a green card. Eventually, she said, she hopes to bring her family to the US and there are several ways to do that, including the new Welcome Corps Programlaunched by the State Department last month, which will allow private US citizens to sponsor refugees.
Back in Afghanistan, the ban on female education remains in place despite international condemnation from Western countries as well as hardline Muslim-majority nations. Along with Turkey, Qatar and Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, which until 2019 placed sweeping restrictions on women’s travel, employment and other crucial aspects of daily life, including driving, urged the Taliban to change course.
The ban also triggered several protests inside Afghanistan, where just over 100,000 of the country’s 20 million women were enrolled in higher education as of 2021, according to data compiled by the country’s Ministry of Education and published by its National Statistics and Information Authority In May.
So far, the Taliban has shown little sign of reversing the policy, along with a separate ban on Afghan women working in non-governmental organizations that it also introduced last month. The group claimed that the workers were not wearing the Islamic headscarf correctly.
Several senior Taliban members declined to comment when asked if they would restore education for women and girls. They also declined to comment on whether women and girls could work for NGOs.
While some Western institutions are running virtual courses for Afghan students, in 2020 only 18% of Afghans had internet access. according to the latest available data from the world Bank.
As a result, Zolheja said she felt like «a bird in a cage that wants to fly but can’t,» adding, «I feel like I have no reason to live and no good future to look forward to.»
While Sadaf’s future looks much brighter, she remains saddened by the plight of her sister and other women in her homeland.
The sisters text chat when they can, but Sadaf said that when she’s alone, thoughts of her family’s future, especially Zolheja’s, flood her mind.
“Just staying at home and doing nothing bothers me and my sister a lot,” she said. «I can’t do anything for her, that’s what saddens me.»