Making Their Voices Heard A Parliament of Exiled Afghan Women in Athens
Before the country fell to the Taliban, 69 members of Afghanistan’s parliament were women. Now, 25 of them live in Athens. They are speaking up in the hope that the world will not forget their plight and their country.
By Katrin Kuntz in Athens
Last year, as the Taliban advanced on Kabul, a young politician organized a protest in front of the Defense Ministry. She stood on the street with a cardboard sign bearing her message to the people in the provinces as they fell, one after another: “Stay strong.”
The article you are reading originally appeared in German in issue 6/2022 (January 5th, 2022) of DER SPIEGEL.SPIEGEL International
The woman’s name is Shagufa Noorzai, 29, and she was one of the youngest lawmakers in the Afghan parliament at the time.
Only a short time later, Noorzai had to flee the Taliban in Kabul. She hid for 10 days with friends and then for a month in her apartment. The Taliban searched for her and nearly caught her. When her father opened the door one morning, they beat him and stole Noorzai’s armored work car that her chauffeur had used to drive her to the parliament in Kabul each day. But parliament hasn’t convened since the arrival of the Taliban.
Shagufa Noorzai on her way to the NGO Melissa Network in Athens: “My horizon became ever wider. And my anger greater.” Foto: Claire Eggers / DER SPIEGEL
First, Noorzai lost her office, then her job and her income – and now she has also lost her country. Noorzai now lives in Greece, in the capital of Athens, where she shares her story.
On a recent morning, a minibus drives her through the Athens suburbs for two hours together with other Kabul politicians before stopping in a narrow street near Omonia Square, in the center of the city. The women get out. Noorzai wears a colorfully embroidered coat, a headscarf and high heels.
She has arrived at her new job: The Afghan Women’s Parliamentarians Network. Her new calling is to speak out so that things aren’t forgotten.
She steps into the building’s second floor, where the Afghan parliament in exile is headquartered. The space has been provided by Melissa Network, a Greek aid organization. Two dozen Afghan women, who until recently held seats in the Afghan parliament, move up the stairs. They chat. The atmosphere is confident. They are young and old. Some of the women are from important political families, while others are representatives of minorities.
“If the world keeps its eyes on Afghan women, the Taliban won’t dare to kill them.”
They are here to discuss how they can empower the women who have been left behind in Afghanistan from afar, with the full knowledge that women’s freedom is becoming more restricted with each day of Taliban rule. They have no desire to simply give up.
Athens has become a major center for Kabul’s displaced female politicians. Until the Taliban seized power, 69 female representatives and senators held seats in parliament in Kabul. Around 25 of them are now living in Greece. The BBC has found out that nine other women are still in hiding in Afghanistan. The rest have found refuge in Albania or Turkey, for example.
The women will likely only stay in Athens for a few months before they continue onward with new visas to the United States, Canada or the United Kingdom.
That they ended up in Athens, of all places, is surprising: Greece, after all, seems to be doing everything it can to keep refugees out. You can see homeless people from Syria on the streets here. When Afghan nationals try to enter the country from Turkey in inflatable dinghies, the Greek coast guard has a record of towing many back into international waters.
The government has been the subject of international criticism for these pushbacks, which violate international law. Yet, it agreed to take in the women. In Greece, some believe the government wants to use them as showpieces.
Politician Homa Ahmadi in Athens: Right now, Athens is a center for female politicians from Afghanistan in exile, but it is likely they will continue on to other countries soon. Foto: Claire Eggers / DER SPIEGEL
Around 800 Afghans Have Found Refuge in Greece
When Kabul fell, several organizations made efforts to rescue the female politicians. The Melissa Network created a list of 150 influential women and helped get them out of the country. Most arrived in Athens together with their families, around 800 people altogether.
Members of the exile parliament meet with Hannah Neumann (center), a German member of the European Parliament. Foto: Claire Eggers / DER SPIEGEL
Noorzai, the former member of parliament who founded the parliament in exile together with her colleague Nazifa Bek tells her story in the office of the director of the Melissa Network. Politely, but firmly, she gives instructions on where people should sit. At first, she ignores the interpretor. Noorzai has the self-confidence of a woman who has made it to the top in a patriarchal society.
“I come from a family where there were a lot of obstacles,” she says, a Pashtun family in Helmand province, a very conservative region. Her parents, she says, worked for the government, her mother in education and her father in the agriculture sector. She says both supported her as she made her way into politics. “The problem was my siblings and the relatives,” she says. Her brothers, especially, but also her sisters had been opposed to her ambitions, she says. Her youth had been filled with warnings like: “Don’t go out so late!,” “Stop studying and get married!” or “Women can’t do that.” Once, her brother even offered her money to drop out of school.
Politician Nazifa Yousufi Bek in Athens Foto: Claire Eggers / DER SPIEGEL
“But I still kept trying to get better,” Noorzai says. As a child, she says, she got used to reading books silently.
Ridiculed and Respected at the Same Time
After finishing school, Noorzai trained to become a nurse and took a job with Doctors Without Borders. She studied law at university and, from 2015 on, worked as a provincial coordinator for a local aid organization working to promote women’s rights. Her work included organizing workshops where she encouraged women to start their own businesses at home. She sat in on court proceedings in which brutal crimes against women were being tried. Noorzai spoke to journalists she felt were reporting with an overwhelmingly male perspective. She also held discussions with mullahs who advocated forced marriages. “My horizon became ever wider,” she says. “And my anger greater.”
Noorzai became a local celebrity in Helmand, ridiculed and respected at the same time. Her father was soon asked if his daughter might be suited for representing Helmand as a member of parliament in Kabul.
Shagufa Noorzai in Athens: “Women’s rights were always extremely important to me.” Foto: Claire Eggers / DER SPIEGEL
“I’m not sure,” she recalls saying. “You should at least try,” her father answered. That’s when, as she describes it, the “greatest experience of my life” began. During the election campaign, a suicide bomber tried to blow himself up in front of her house. She says an election official suggested she spend two nights with him to secure a better outcome in the election – or pay a tidy sum of money.
“But I managed without the mafia, without money and without becoming a victim of men,” Noorzai says, with tears welling in her eyes. On the night of her election, she had members of her family stay with relatives for safety reasons. In the summer of 2018, she entered Kabul’s parliament at the age of 26. It was a sensation.
“These Women Are Legitimate Lawmakers”
You can still see her old parliamentary office in Facebook photos. In it, there’s a heavy, wooden table with gold ornamentation covered with stacks of books, a vase filled with flowers and a laptop. Noorzai is wearing a grass-green scarf around her head and peering relaxedly into the camera. She had three secretaries and, because of the repeated threats she received, a bodyguard. “Nevertheless, I received visitors every day and dealt with their problems,” she says.
In Athens this morning, Hannah Neumann, a German member of the European Parliament, is visiting the politicians in exile. Neumann is the vice chair of the Subcommittee on Human Rights in the parliament. She addresses the women who fled to Athens as if they are peers. “This is an elected parliament,” she says. “These women are legitimate lawmakers.” When it comes to issues like humanitarian aid, she says the EU should be speaking to the women at least as often as it is with the Taliban. Neumann wants them to tell her how they think the EU should interact with Afghanistan under Taliban leadership.
Amena Afzali, Afghanistan’s former labor minister und then-President Hamid Karzai on an Athens street: “We want to speak for those who are still in Afghanistan and are suffering.” Foto: Claire Eggers / DER SPIEGEL
Amena Afzali, the former labor minister under former Afghan President Hamid Karzai and most recently a senator in the upper house of the Kabul parliament, is the first to stand. “I don’t know whether to speak of Afghanistan in the past or present tense,” she says. “We were a country of the highly educated, of poetry, of women scientists and brilliant minds. All these achievements have been destroyed by the Taliban.” The economic problems, she says, are huge. The threat of famine and the economic problems are huge, she says. “We want to speak for those who are still in Afghanistan and are suffering.”
Parliamentarian Malalai Ishaqzai jumps up, dressed entirely in white, and begins a heated discussion about how the West’s sanctions need to be lifted so that doctors and teachers can get paid again.
Politician Aziza Jalis pleads for faster evacuations. “Everyone still has relatives inside the country who are struggling to get their papers,” she says. A woman who had to leave her daughter behind because she was lacking her papers, leaves the room crying.
Then Noorzai rises. “Those of us here in exile need to be loud and protest because that protects the women in Afghanistan. If the world keeps its eyes on Afghan women, the Taliban won’t dare to kill them.”
The discussion lasts for two hours, with the politicians speaking loudly, sometimes crying together. Until one of them once again stands up resolutely and continues the discussion. The women know they no longer have power, but their self-confidence is evident in their gestures, their mannerisms. They still have good networks. They know ambassadors, aid organizations and have connections to governments.
Their helplessness in the face of their country’s humanitarian disaster pains them. They view the withdrawal of the Western protective powers as betrayal. “The one side doesn’t hear us, the other is killing us,” is how one of the women sums up the situation for Afghan women. In other words, the EU isn’t doing enough for Afghanistan, even as the Taliban silences women in the country.
Shagufa Noorzai stands next to her apartment in Athens: “My nature doesn’t accept silence” Foto: Claire Eggers / DER SPIEGEL
After the meeting, Noorzai drives to the Athens suburb of Glyfada, where aid organizations have arranged an apartment for her, her mother, her sister and a brother. During the drive, she shows mobile phone photos from earlier days. They show her as the only woman surrounded by men, at receptions, in her office, protesting in front of the Defense Ministry. She chose “My nature doesn’t accept silence” as the slogan for her campaign against the Taliban’s advance.
In Glyfada, she sets out in the evening for her daily walk, between upscale boutiques and sushi restaurants. She’s a young woman, and her life is now starting all over again.
Now, Noorzai has applied for a Canadian visa. She wants to go to university there and perhaps set up an online shop selling traditional Afghan clothing. “I’m looking forward,” she says. And yet she will always be looking back, too