The Women Burning Their Degree Certificates

Some of Afghanistan’s most skilled and educated citizens have been forced to flee, while those who remain can no longer be who they are.

People wait to board a military plane.
Staff Sgt. Victor Mancillal / U.S. Marine Corps / Reuters

When the last of the remaining United States forces departed from Afghanistan this week, they took with them more than 100,000 people, some of whom were Afghanistan’s most educated and skilled citizens. For these politicians, artists, scholars, and activists, the withdrawal represented not only the end of their country as they knew it, but the end of any hope they might have had in helping shape its future.

These aren’t the only people Afghanistan has lost over the past few weeks. Perhaps just as important is another group: those still in the country who have gone into hiding in fear for their lives under Taliban rule, some erasing any remnants of who they once were—female journalists who have deleted evidence of their work, artists who have destroyed their creations, and women who have burned their degrees.

The void that these two sets of people leave behind will undoubtedly be felt as the Taliban attempts to reassert its control—a process that includes reestablishing basic services and getting people back to work. It’s perhaps for this reason that the group has discouraged anyone else from leaving, on the grounds that Afghanistan “needs their talents.” The Taliban has pledged not to retaliate against those who decades ago would have almost certainly been among its victims. Yet many Afghans I spoke with, both within the country and across the diaspora, are skeptical. The way they see it, this new Afghanistan holds no future for them.

In some ways, the exodus represents an early blow to the Taliban. As my colleague David Frum noted, the loss of some of Afghanistan’s most skilled citizens is a testament to the attractiveness of the rights and freedoms that are so anathema to the Taliban. But it’s a blow that will hit other Afghans too. Without all those doctors, engineers, academics, and civil servants, many of the institutions and basic services that keep the country going are all but certain to crumble.

“There is a lot of uncertainty,” one Afghan currently in hiding in Kabul, who requested anonymity for his own safety, told me. He sought to leave Afghanistan, fearing that the Taliban would come after him over his affiliation with Chevening, a British-government-funded program that provides funds for international students to study in Britain. He told me that his promotion of the scholarship, particularly in his country’s more rural districts, had earned him threats in the past. Although he had hoped that this would be enough for him and his family to be evacuated alongside the current crop of Chevening scholars, he told me that the British government never followed up on his case. (The Foreign, Commonwealth & Development Office did not respond to requests for comment.)

As a result, he has spent the past few weeks hiding at home, waiting for responses to his unanswered emails or a knock at the door from the Taliban. Prior to the fall of Kabul, he worked as a regional trade and transit expert. Now he doesn’t know what he’s going to do. “You were somebody yesterday,” he said. “Today you are nobody.”

This sense of hopelessness is shared even by many Afghans who managed to flee, including Abdul Ghani Amin, a former United Nations official and human-rights activist who was recently evacuated to Britain as part of the Chevening cohort. “I had big aspirations and big dreams for my country,” he told me from his hotel quarantine in London. “Now it seems like all these dreams are vanishing.”

Those who were once affiliated with Western governments and organizations aren’t the only ones at risk. Former government officials, members of the security forces, human-rights activists, high-profile civil-society figures, women, and members of ethnic minorities are among the most vulnerable, Nargis Nehan, a former Afghan-government minister, told me from Norway, where she and several members of her family fled last week. At the time, she said that she no longer felt like a proud and resilient Afghan, but rather, “a hopeless and helpless refugee.”

In many ways, Nehan encapsulates so much of what Afghanistan has lost. The last time the Taliban was in power, women were not allowed to leave the house without a male guardian, let alone serve in government or lead an NGO advocating for women’s rights, as she has. Though Nehan’s immediate future remains outside Afghanistan (exactly where, she isn’t yet sure), she said that she will continue to advocate for her people—and eventually, ideally, from her home country again. “Once the new government is formed, I will look at the situation,” she told me, noting that if security allows, she hopes to “go back and resume my work.”

A Taliban fighter carrying a gun passes female shoppers at a market in Kabul.
(Hoshang Hashimi / AFP / Getty)

The situation doesn’t look promising. Although the Taliban has attempted to portray itself as a more moderate reincarnation of its previous self, it hasn’t renounced its old ways completely. There have already been reports of the Taliban segregating classrooms at Kabul University by gender (a move that could result in the de facto end of women’s education), persecuting ethnic minorities, and hunting down targets whom the group had previously said would be granted amnesty.

If the international community holds any leverage over the Taliban, it’s that the group is still seeking formal recognition—and any foreign aid that may come with it. At present, the Taliban cannot access the majority of the country’s central-bank reserves, which are held by the U.S. Federal Reserve. Access to funds from the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank has also been suspended.

But many of the Afghans I spoke with who have previously lived under Taliban rule are skeptical that money alone will force the Taliban to change. “Until we see tangible actions from this new government, which will be formed soon, we cannot say anything,” Omaid Sharifi, co-founder and president of Artlords, an Afghan artists’ collective, told me over a Zoom call from a humanitarian compound in the Persian Gulf, where he and his family have been in quarantine since fleeing Kabul. Many of his staff in the Afghan capital were unable to do the same. “From my experience living during the Taliban [era], they banned any expression of art,” Sharifi said. “If this is the same Taliban, which I am sure they are, they will stop any expression of art.”

While many artists have resorted to destroying their work lest the Taliban do it for them, Sharifi said that he can’t do the same. Artlords has painted more than 2,000 murals across Afghanistan. One such mural, on the wall of what used to be the U.S. embassy in Kabul, depicts a group of smiling Afghan children and one young girl holding a sign that reads We are the future of Afghanistan in Pashto. It now serves as his Zoom background.

“Every time I look at this, it reminds me that we collectively failed,” he said. “She will not be the future of Afghanistan anymore. She is just another girl that will sit at home with no voice, no prospect for the future—nothing.”