Female Afghan students speak out about flight to Qatar: they said no one could go without a mahram
Afghan Witness spoke to two women who planned to continue their studies in Qatar and Kyrgyzstan, but say the Taliban prevented them and other female students from boarding a Doha-bound flight. Both women's names have been changed to protect their identities.
In late August, Middle East Eye reported how “scores of female Afghan university students” had been prevented from boarding a flight to Qatar by the Taliban. According to the article, the Taliban members were “upset” that the young women were travelling without male guardians, which relates to a directive issued by the group in December 2021.
Afghan Witness (AW) has been able to speak to two of the female students who say they were prevented from travelling to Qatar that day. One of them, who we’re calling Hora, had spoken to AW previously. Back in April, she’d told us that her life was in danger as she awaited to be evacuated by her university.
The other student we spoke to, who we’re calling Samina, is a women’s rights activist, which she says makes her particularly vulnerable. She tells us that for the past ten months she’s been living in a safe house, where she shares three rooms with her eight family members.
“At that time [the Taliban’s takeover], I was changing my location from one place to another place, because of my activism [and] my university name,” Samina explains.
Samina is a student at the American University of Afghanistan (AUAF) based in Kabul, which Hora graduated from earlier this year. The institution was vulnerable even before the Taliban’s return; in August 2016, Taliban terrorists stormed the campus, killing at least 13 students and staff members and injuring 30, and, in the same year, two western AUAF professors were kidnapped and detained for three years.
With the Taliban back in power, students of western-associated institutions in Afghanistan have been fearing for their safety, with multiple articles online detailing their precarious situations. AUAF's Kabul campus has been empty for the last year, and, while many students were evacuated, hundreds reportedly remain in the country.
When we last spoke to Hora, she told us how she had been preparing to leave Afghanistan in August 2021 when a bomb blast struck the perimeter of Kabul's Hamid Karzai International Airport. While lucky to have not been at the airport at the time of the attack, Hora was unable to leave Afghanistan as planned, and when AW spoke to her previously she was anxious about the uncertainty surrounding her future.
The offer of a flight to Qatar was at first a beacon of hope. After graduating from AUAF earlier this year, Hora says that she and some other AUAF students were awarded a scholarship to study for a master's degree at the American University of Central Asia (AUCA) in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan. However, she explains to AW that both universities - AUAF and AUCA - were faced with the issue of how to safely evacuate the students. After a period of uncertainty, the students were finally given the green light.
“Eventually, we received an email stating that our flight was on Thursday - this flight was for Qatar,” Hora explains, adding that they were relieved with this news: “we knew the Taliban had no problems with flights going to Qatar. Even women without male guardians could fly.”
Samina planned to finish her undergraduate degree in Qatar after plans were announced to relocate AUAF’s main campuses to Doha, as per an agreement signed between the Qatar Foundation (QF) and Qatar Fund for Development (QFFD). The university’s president confirmed the relocation during an interview in August this year and said he hoped that once the Qatar campus is operational, “all of the women who were enrolled at AUAF last spring will have left Afghanistan”. Both Hora and Samina stressed to us that they were not concerned about the journey as it was a chartered flight to a country frequently described as having longstanding ties to the Taliban.
“Do not let them pass”
When Hora was offered the chance to continue her education in Bishkek, she quit her banking job, telling her boss only that she was leaving for personal reasons. At first, everything appeared to be going to plan; she had received her Kyrgyz visa and prepared to leave Afghanistan in late August. The planned route was to fly from Kabul to Qatar, then to Turkey, before her final destination of Bishkek.
On the day of the flight, Hora said goodbye to her loved ones, uncertain of when she might see them again. But when she arrived at the airport at around 7:00 am that morning, she saw her friends queueing. They told Hora that they weren’t allowed through because their online visas had not been verified by the Taliban’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, a requirement Hora says they weren't aware of. While the students were trying to contact AUAF to inform them of the issue, Hora says two men who appeared to be arguing approached them.
“The one man said to let us go, and the other man was not allowing us,” she says, adding that they seemed to be airport staff. “One of them said: ‘Do not let them pass; gather them all in one place’ - his words hurt me so much.”
After a few minutes, Hora says the students were allowed to continue, only to be stopped again moments later. Qatari officials had arrived on the scene to negotiate with the Taliban and kept the plane grounded, she explains, as well as representatives from various factions of the Taliban.
“Suddenly, while we were queuing, everything stopped,” Hora continues. “The head of Kabul Airport, who belongs to the Taliban from Kandahar, let us go, but then the head of immigration - who belonged to the Haqqani group - did not allow us. He said that the Taliban's Prime Minister was informed and ordered that the flight should not go ahead.”
“No one can go without a mahram”
In the end, though, it was not the female students’ visas or documents which appeared to be the issue, but the fact that they were travelling without a male guardian, according to the two women:
“After a while, they said no one could go without a mahram or male guardian,” Hora says. “Some students were crying so much.”
This is echoed by Samina: “When the representatives from both sides came, they [argued] with each other, then they told us no one can go - only boys can go because boys can go without any guardian,” she explains.
In December, the Taliban announced that Afghan women seeking to travel long distances by road should be offered transport only if accompanied by a male relative, known as a “mahram”.
“We were treated horribly - we couldn’t even move around [in the airport],” Hora says.
She tells AW that the flight eventually took off without them, with just two families and a few male students on board. Both Hora and Samina also allege that airport employees and Taliban members photographed their visas.
“We asked why they were taking pictures of our visas, and they said: ‘because we will know if you attempt to leave the country again’,” Hora recalls.
“No one has any idea what will happen next”
After the recent experience, Samina is nervous about what could happen next: “Twenty days have passed but we are afraid that if we go to the airport, we may face the same situation again. No one has any idea what will happen next,” she says, adding that she’s had no further news from the university regarding her evacuation. She remains in the safe house with her family, where she says they have only basic supplies.
Hora says returning home after the ordeal made her feel “totally embarrassed.”
“I assume we are on the Taliban's blacklist, and I am afraid to leave the country now,” she says. “The Taliban made our lives so hard that we all want to leave the country and never return until the Taliban are no longer in power."
Samina says that before the Taliban’s return, she had planned to gain her bachelor's from AUAF, and then hoped to apply for a prestigious Fullbright or Chevening scholarship to complete a master's degree overseas. She dreams of continuing her activism to raise awareness of Afghan women’s rights and help her community. Her ultimate ambition is to work with the UN she tells us, but under the Taliban, Samina says these dreams feel “impossible”.
As this story was published, AW was told that Hora has managed to get to Bishkek to begin her studies.
27 Sept 2022