Afghan Girls Fear For Their Future As Taliban Gain Foothold, Education Minister Says

Aug 13, 2021

Updated August 13, 2021 at 6:32 PM ET

As of Friday, the Taliban have captured more than a dozen of Afghanistan's 34 provincial capitals, and are estimated to hold two-thirds of the country.

According to a memo obtained by NPR, the Biden administration is carrying out emergency preparations to send nearly 3,000 U.S. troops to provide security and help evacuate its embassy in Kabul, signaling fear that Afghanistan's capital may fall sooner than expected and escalating concerns about human rights and safety across the country.

Rangina Hamidi, Afghanistan's acting education minister, is still in Kabul — for now. Hamidi is originally from Kandahar, the country's recently fallen second-largest city, and her father, Ghulam Haider Hamidi, was assassinated by the Taliban in 2011, when he was mayor of that city. She says that it's been "quiet so far" where she is in Kabul, but she's receiving many messages from friends and family in her hometown who tell her that armed Taliban members are "walking all across the city, and nobody knows what they're planning to do or what is going to happen next.

"There is a lot of fear among girls and women," she says. "I have had many messages from my female family, friends calling me, asking me what I know and what they should expect. And I wish I had an answer for them."

Women were denied education and employment opportunities when the Taliban last held power in 2001. At the time, Afghanistan's student population was around 900,000, all of whom were male. But gender equity in education was one of the top areas of progress in the country over the last 20 years: Girls accounted for 39% of Afghanistan's estimated 9.5 million students last year.

Many fear all of that progress could be lost if the militant group takes control again.

Hamidi spoke to All Things Considered's Ailsa Chang about the difficulty of educating children in an environment of destruction and her hopes for Afghanistan's future.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.


Ailsa Chang: Do you have a sense at this point how these gains that the Taliban are making across the country, how that has affected the education system in Afghanistan?

Rangina Hamidi: The reality is, in general, that the psyche of the Afghan population, be it adults or children, has changed drastically. I can assure you that when you're living in the war zone, no matter what system of education you try to bring to that environment and no matter how much focus you put on quality to make a great curriculum and provide the great service, if children are haunted by images of destruction and the sounds of destruction on a daily basis, I don't know which society on this earth can really operate in any normalcy, if we can call it that. It's honestly very, very difficult.

And I'll tell you personally, I have a young daughter who is in fifth grade. And in my house, we have other kids living with us and today they were playing outside in the garden. As I was looking at them, they're oblivious to what is happening in Afghanistan, but me, as a mother sitting in my home feeling the unease, it struck me to think and look at them and say, "God forbid, but something can happen any minute." And these joyous little girls playing in the garden, [their lives] may end in a second. That's what millions and millions of Afghans, unfortunately, face every day.

And may I ask, what are you personally telling other government officials right now? What is your view of what should be happening?

I wish what I said could be heard ... because I think at this moment, my government is under a lot of stress and under a lot of pressure and with the lives that we're losing of our brave soldiers who continue to fight this unjust war and the incredible amount of pressure from many international partners or international presence. I honestly, I'm lost, I have no words to say to my government because, I mean, to be quite fair and honest, I think it's been an unfair conversation from the international community forced upon my government and my people.

Do you believe this pullout after 20 years is a mistake?

I don't think the answer to Afghanistan's problem is the continued presence of any international troops, be it American or others. My assessment of the past 20 years is that the international community made some really major mistakes in the decisions that they made in terms of who they aligned themselves with in Afghanistan. And I remember very vividly and very loudly in my youth days, I was speaking loud and clear and screaming to the international forces, as they align themselves with warlords and drug lords, that the results of this relationship are not going to be pretty. And unfortunately, that fear has proven to be true. And 20 years on, with thousands of lives lost, both on the international end as well as the Afghan national end, and billions of dollars wasted, we've come back to point zero where we began in 2001.

"If children are haunted by images of destruction...on a daily basis, I don't know which society on this earth can really operate in any normalcy," Rangina Hamidi, Afghanistan's acting education minister, tells NPR.
Jorge Silva / Reuters

You were educated in the U.S., you returned to Afghanistan in 2003. And I'm wondering, at that time, what was your hope for the future of your country?

My hope was what America offered me, a young child growing up. My family and I immigrated to the U.S. in 1988 when I was about 11 years old, and I went through school, high school, college — had the freedom of choice. I made the decision myself to not be a medical student and instead focus my studies on humanities because I had a deep interest in women's issues and international issues that affected women.

And I thought that by coming [back] to Afghanistan, having brought that experience and having brought whatever knowledge that I had gained in my life as a refugee child outside of Afghanistan, I thought I could give back. That was really the hope that contained me here. I initially planned on being in Afghanistan for only one year, but after being here for one year, we Afghans or anybody who really likes and loves Afghanistan, we always use this notion that this country has some sort of a magnetic force that once you come here, you're pulled by its natural forces. And so 18 year onwards, I'm still here, obviously in a very different position. And I believe I've done a lot, not only me, but everybody who did their best to make the best out of our opportunity — our limited opportunity and limited resources that we've had recently — but we were hoping to still have a peaceful and a slowly progressive, prosperous life. And unfortunately, all of those dreams and hopes seem to be ending. As the situation unfolds itself, holding on to that hope is becoming grimmer and grimmer, day by day.

I hope you and your family do remain safe.

I hope so, too, and I hope and look forward to potentially having another conversation. And if this is my last one, may the world know that the Afghan people have suffered tremendously. And I hope that the international community, and all the great powers that exist, can see the reality of how our neighbors are ruining our past, present and future as we speak.

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AILSA CHANG, HOST:

You know that feeling sometimes when you're wondering, is it all just in my head? Well, that unsettling feeling takes on a life of its own inside the mind of Mrs. March, a woman who has spent her entire life adhering to the rules of high society on the Upper East Side of New York. One day, her tidy, respectable life is thrown into disarray when a shopkeeper wonders out loud if Mr. March, a famous novelist, based the main character of his new book on his wife. Mrs. March is aghast at this because...

VIRGINIA FEITO: (Reading) The main character - isn't she - Mrs. March leaned in and, in almost a whisper, said, a whore?

CHANG: That is Virginia Feito, the author of the new novel "Mrs. March," a story that walks a sometimes blurry line between what's real and what's imagined. Virginia Feito joins us now. Welcome.

FEITO: Thank you so much for having me. I'm so excited.

CHANG: We're excited to have you.

FEITO: Thanks. That was my drama degree speaking before, by the way.

CHANG: I love it.

FEITO: So sorry.

CHANG: I love that you channel your inner actress. So first, just set us up with a portrait of the marriage at the center of this story. Like, what are George March and Mrs. March like as a couple?

FEITO: Well, I don't think they're a very happy couple, for starters. So he's a very successful author. She is his doting, prim, pretty anxious wife. And they've been married for quite a few years. But, I mean, they don't seem to know each other very well at all. This might be, I think, both their faults. Mrs. March has been pretending to be the best version of herself she can possibly kind of put on for him ever since they met, and George just doesn't seem super-interested in her to begin with, either.

CHANG: And it becomes really clear at the outset that Mrs. March is also this woman who is obsessed with appearances. Like, her mother taught her, quote, "a healthy marriage is built from the outside in, not the other way around." What do you think her mom meant by that?

FEITO: Well, firstly, that's kind of the opposite of what my mom has always told me. You know, marriage is hard work. And you should always focus on the important stuff, what's inside and emotions and feelings, and talk it out and whatever. And obviously, Mrs. March's mother has taught her the very opposite. You know, maybe the important, you know, therapy side of it - feelings and talking and all of that - isn't really worth it. You know, it's more about what people can see.

CHANG: Well, you know, I have to say at first I wanted to feel sorry for Mrs. March because she's, like, this woman who's really weighed down by people's expectations. But then as you're reading this novel, it becomes very clear that while she's afraid of judgment, she also kind of revels in judging others, doesn't she?

FEITO: Oh, absolutely. She's not a very nice person at all.

CHANG: No.

FEITO: I love to see how sort of far I could push it so - to see, you know, how much sympathy people could feel for her in the end. I mean, to me, she's absolutely unredeemable by the end of the book. But there are a lot of people who are finding her very sympathetic. And, I mean, I understand. You know, it's not her fault. She hasn't been taught, you know, how to live, basically. And she's so insecure. And her mother has taught her all these very horrible, misguided things about marriage and lives and relationships. So I do feel for her. I do. And yet, you know, I also stuffed her with, like, all of my horrible qualities that I dislike about myself and blew them up and did not give her any of my - what I hope are my redeeming qualities. So I really just really dislike her. So, you know, I'm glad you do, too.

CHANG: Well, you know, what happens over time after this suggestion that the main character of her husband's new book is based on her is that Mrs. March starts to lose her mental faculties. And can I just say, I was trying to picture this character as a man, like, a man with the same brittleness and paranoia. And I struggled to picture that because unfortunately, the Mrs. March archetype is so recognizable as a woman, right?

FEITO: Yeah. It's so funny you say that because it would be - I'd love a Mr. March sort of remake of it and see what problems he faces in the surrounding - you know, and the pressures that men face, I guess, in the privileged world sphere. But, yeah, absolutely I can recognize, you know, a lot of her insecurities and traits in women that surround me and in myself as well. They're very feminine - aren't they? - to do with their weight and their bodies and their...

CHANG: Right, and the whole reliance on a man for stature and belonging. I'm just wondering, now that we're in a post-#MeToo world, how do you want readers to take in a character like Mrs. March today, a woman like Mrs. March?

FEITO: That's interesting you say that because I did have the #MeToo thing in mind when I was writing it because there were a lot of books that were being written - I don't know quite how to say this without - no spoilers, I guess. But, you know, there's a lot of literature that was being written that had this trope about the woman who is kind of going crazy. And, you know, it is revealed more often than not, in the end, there's a man behind it, and she is innocent. And I kind of - I knew I wanted to set out to write a book that was a little bit different, that will maybe set those tropes a little bit on their head. I didn't want to have the female character driven crazy necessarily by a man. I thought, you know, we don't need men to gaslight us. We can gaslight ourselves.

CHANG: But when we are talking about the archetype that Mrs. March represents, I mean, is that a woman in control or totally out of control? What kind of power do you think she does have?

FEITO: Definitely she has been a victim of her upbringing and, you know, very cold, distant relationships throughout her life that haven't taught her how to establish any true connections. I mean, they say that scientifically, very young children and babies don't actually form physical connections in their brain when their relationships aren't warm enough throughout their childhoods. So there is that for sure. But also, you know, I think Mrs. March has come to a point where she kind of could be taking control of her own life a little bit or her own decisions and could kind of say, [expletive] this. You know, I'm going to therapy. I'm going to save myself.

And actually, there's a reason that I put Mrs. March in front of a mirror constantly throughout the novel repetitively because I'm kind of - I'm trying to get her to look at herself and to kind of see that she can save herself. And she repeatedly walks away from the mirror, or she stops looking at herself, or she avoids her reflection altogether. So I think there's definitely a mix. She's not just a victim here. You know, she's also kind of played into this victimhood, and she's refusing to crawl out of it, basically.

CHANG: Yeah. Well, you don't give Mrs. March a first name until the very last sentence of this book. Why was that?

FEITO: Mrs. March is defined throughout her life by, well, first her father when she's a young child and then her husband. And, of course, she's named Mrs. March throughout the entire book, even in flashbacks to her - to scenes from her childhood. And it's only when her very real, very core identity finally comes out, the real Mrs. March - that's when we finally learn her name because that's her. That's the one we haven't seen throughout the whole book. And unfortunately, she just comes out at the very, very end. So I guess maybe I should write a sequel now (laughter) as - like, to show the how her personality finally only then comes out.

CHANG: Only then emerges - it was such a delicious read. Virginia Feito's new book is called "Mrs. March."

Thank you so much for being with us today.

FEITO: Thank you so much for having me. I'm so excited. Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF LITTLE DRAGON SONG, "FEATHER") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.