University graduate Sofia grew up hearing "tales" of the Taliban, but says she now faces the "same fate" her mother faced.
"I see the current situation as a vortex – the women and girls of Afghanistan are stuck in it," says Sofia.
Born in 2000, university graduate Sofia – not her real name – was too young to have experienced the first period of Taliban rule in Afghanistan.
When the group returned to power in 2021, she had just one year left of university.
“The stories I heard of the Taliban in the ‘90s were like tales for me,” Sofia says.
“Then it turned out to be true again, the same fate that my mother faced – I was going to face it, too.”
Growing up in Badakhshan province, known in Afghanistan for its high literacy rates, Sofia excelled in her studies, earning the highest score in her district for the university entrance exam, “Kankor”, before moving to Kabul to study Economics.
During her degree, Sofia began writing, and two of her articles were published in local newspapers. She says writing provided an outlet to express her feelings on gender inequality.
Sofia is from Badakhshan's Eshkashem district, and explains that while people were open-minded and education was valued, gender inequality persisted.
“These were just words – in reality, families in Eshkashem preferred the education of their sons to their daughters.”
The Taliban’s takeover
Sofia returned to Badakhshan during the Covid-19 lockdown but describes the situation back then as “terrifying” – an IS-claimed attack targeted Kabul University in November 2020, killing at least 22 people and wounding dozens.
The following summer, the Taliban began to capture key districts as foreign forces prepared for withdrawal.
On July 9, 2021, Radio Free Europe (RFL) described “a blistering offensive” in which the Taliban reportedly “seized control of 26 of Badakhshan’s 28 districts” and “encircled the provincial capital, Faizabad”. According to the article, thousands of civilians were displaced.
“When my district fell to the Taliban, I was there. From that moment, I realised it was over for me.”
Sofia returned to Kabul to resume her studies and in the first week, became busy helping people who were internally displaced from the north.
When Kabul fell in mid-August, Sofia says she “lost all hope”.
“I thought the central government would liberate our district,” she adds.
Restrictions on Education
Sofia returned to Badakhshan again in late 2021. The Taliban granted her permission to teach girls who were deprived of education while their schools were closed.
When the Taliban reopened universities in March 2022, Sofia returned to Kabul to study for the remaining three semesters. In the months that followed, female students faced segregated classes, a strict dress code, and restrictions on which subjects they were allowed to pursue.
"Some girls were complaining about the dress code imposed by the Taliban, but I told them, 'be happy that you still can study'," Sofia recalls.
In December, the Taliban announced that female students were no longer allowed to attend university, a move that triggered international condemnation.
Sofia says she was lucky enough to finish university just a few days before the ban was announced.
“I finished university without any graduation ceremony – I heard that it was the last exam that female students were taking."
Barriers to leaving Afghanistan
Sofia had been hoping to gain a qualification in English as a foreign language so she would be eligible to apply for Master's scholarships abroad.
However, the day after the university ban, she says the Taliban turned her away from another educational institute, stating that women were no longer allowed to study English.
Sofia remembers this as the last day she stepped into an academic environment.
"I can’t find the words about what will happen to the future of girls – those who worked extremely hard to achieve their goals and get good grades,” Sofia says.
“I see the current situation as a vortex – the women and girls of Afghanistan are stuck in it. No one can even shake their foot from it. All their dreams and goals are outside."
Refusing to lose hope
Sofia says she considers herself “the luckiest” of the students in her class. She is currently working remotely, but she says her classmates are hopeless and have nowhere to go.
“At the moment, leaving Afghanistan is like a piece of bread for a starving person."
“Everyone wishes to leave Afghanistan, and I am one of them. I still try to give hope to myself, but uncertainty haunts me.”
Sofia tries to stay focused on what she loves the most: reading and writing.
"I try to find comfort in reading and writing to relieve the pain," she says.
While she is not optimistic that the situation will improve, she remains determined.
“We’ve come all this way, but we were stopped – we should still keep going."
Interview by Afghan Witness