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Biography & Autobiography Arab & Middle Eastern

We Are Still Here

Afghan Women on Courage, Freedom, and the Fight to Be Heard

edited by Nahid Shahalimi

foreword by Margaret Atwood

Penguin Group Canada
Initial publish date
Aug 2022
Arab & Middle Eastern, Women, Human Rights
  • Paperback / softback

    Publish Date
    Aug 2022
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A collection of first-hand accounts from courageous Afghan women who refuse to be silenced in the face of the Taliban.

After decades of significant progress, the prospects of women and girls in Afghanistan are once again dependent on radical Islamists who reject gender equality. When the United States announced the end of their twenty-year occupation and the Taliban seized control of the country on August 15, 2021, a steep regression of social, political, and economic freedoms for women in the country began.

But just because a brutal regime has taken over doesn't mean Afghan women will stand by while their rights are stripped away. In We Are Still Here, artist and activist Nahid Shahalimi compiles the voices of thirteen powerful, insightful, and influential Afghan women who have worked as politicians, journalists, scientists, filmmakers, artists, coders, musicians, and more. As they reflect on their country's past, stories of their own upbringing and the ways they have been able to empower girls and women over the past two decades emerge. They report on the fear and pain caused by the impending loss of their homeland, but, above all, on what many girls and women in Afghanistan have already lost: freedom, self-determination, and joy.

The result is an arresting book that issues an appeal to remember Afghan girls and women and to show solidarity with them. Like us, they have a right to freedom and dignity, and together we must fight for their place in the free world because Afghanistan is only geographically distant. Extremist ideas know no limits.

About the authors

Nahid Shahalimi's profile page

Margaret Atwood was born in 1939 in Ottawa and grew up in northern Ontario, Quebec, and Toronto. She received her undergraduate degree from Victoria College at the University of Toronto and her master's degree from Radcliffe College.
Throughout her writing career, Margaret Atwood has received numerous awards and honourary degrees. She is the author of more than fifty volumes of poetry, children’s literature, fiction, and non-fiction and is perhaps best known for her novels, which include The Edible Woman (1970), The Handmaid's Tale (1983), The Robber Bride (1994), Alias Grace (1996), and The Blind Assassin, which won the prestigious Booker Prize in 2000. Atwood's dystopic novel, Oryx and Crake, was published in 2003. The Tent (mini-fictions) and Moral Disorder (short stories) both appeared in 2006. Her most recent volume of poetry, The Door, was published in 2007. Her non-fiction book, Payback: Debt and the Shadow Side of Wealth, part of the Massey Lecture series, appeared in 2008, and her most recent novel, The Year of the Flood, in the autumn of 2009. Ms. Atwood's work has been published in more than forty languages, including Farsi, Japanese, Turkish, Finnish, Korean, Icelandic and Estonian. In 2004 she co-invented the Long Pen TM.
Margaret Atwood currently lives in Toronto with writer Graeme Gibson. 

Margaret Atwood's profile page

Excerpt: We Are Still Here: Afghan Women on Courage, Freedom, and the Fight to Be Heard (edited by Nahid Shahalimi; foreword by Margaret Atwood)

INTRODUCTION by Nahid Shahalimi

For as long as I can remember, we have not had time to mourn. One disaster has succeeded another. We have lost loved ones, our homeland, our freedoms, and our hopes. Now an entire nation and its youth are being denied what they require to even feed themselves and their families.

My Afghan friends and I do not have time to mourn because we want to help those who remain in our homeland and give voice to those who go unheard and may never be heard again. Radical repressive forces are now at work in Afghanistan, and this is of significant concern to all people of the world, but especially to women. Although Afghanistan is physically distant from Germany, which I call home today, radical ideas know no borders.

It is only by telling you about the past that you can truly comprehend what we once had and what we have repeatedly lost. And what we have lost once again with the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan on August 15, 2021.

My first trip back to Afghanistan in 2011, on Ariana Afghan Airlines, was twenty-six years after my family and I fled our beloved homeland. There were years when it was not possible to travel to Afghanistan, especially from the 1980s to 2001, because it had become too dangerous. My mother, who had visited Afghanistan before 2011, and subsequently more often than I did, joined me on the trip. I was very excited. Over the past three decades, I had dreamed of what it would be like to return to my native land, but I could not imagine what my arrival would feel like in reality. To my surprise, there were many exiled Afghans on the plane—both men and women. Why were they going back to Afghanistan? Was this also their first flight back? These were questions I would have liked to ask the passengers. My fashionably dressed Western seatmate was twenty-five years old, born in Germany of Afghan parents, and had just completed her master’s degree. Apparently, she wanted to see her fiancé, whom she had met at a large Afghan family gathering that is so common. It was her fifth trip to the country, and she had not a trace of fear.

I was overcome with a sense of belonging, and a feeling of happiness coursed through my entire body. I didn’t realize how much I had longed for that feeling. For the first time, I understood what it meant to have a birthright. Among the other Afghans on the plane, I was not an outsider. We spoke one language, and I was on my way home at last. I not only wanted to see and visit the country of my birth after so many years, but I wanted to return to help: to get involved in building social and artistic projects, to advise, document, and report. Above all, I wanted to support women whose situations I could relate to and best empathize with. My destiny had always been clear; since I was twelve years old, I had longed to go back home.

I was lucky to live a few carefree years of my childhood in my country during times of peace and unity. When Mohammed Zahir Shah (1914–2007), the last king of Afghanistan, was overthrown in 1973, everything changed for my family. This overthrow ushered in the demise of our peaceful and united coexistence, at least as far as the forty years before the coup were concerned. The Soviet-backed communist government of the day was overthrown in 1978, and in December 1979, the Soviet army invaded Afghanistan, believing it could control the country. The Soviets became embroiled in a war with Afghan religious freedom fighters, also known as the mujahideen. The United States of America then stepped in, supporting the mujahideen with money and weapons. Afghanistan became the sad scene of a proxy war between the U.S. and the Soviet Union, with various other actors (such as Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, and Iran) also fighting for their interests and against the West. Over a million Afghans and about fifteen thousand Soviet soldiers died. When the Soviets left in 1989 after ten years, we did not have time to mourn the dead. A civil war followed between 1992 and 1996, in which another 1.5 million people lost their lives.

In the early 1990s, after the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan, the Taliban movement emerged in northern Pakistan; the word taliban means “students” in Pashto, one of the official languages of Afghanistan along with Dari. Upon assuming power, the Taliban pledged to restore peace and security in Pashtun areas along Pakistan’s border with Afghanistan, as well as to enforce its own strict interpretation of Sharia, or Islamic law. It is thought that the movement originated from the harsh forms of the Sunni Islam religious Madrassas (religious schools) heavily funded by Saudi Arabia.

Because of the bloody civil war, the Taliban gained strength, and in 1995 and 1996 it introduced a radical and anti-human form of Islam promoted by Pakistan and Saudi Arabia. News that reached us in Europe then took on a new quality of terror.

Between 1996 and 2001, the Taliban terrorized Afghanistan and made no secret of its disregard for women. During that time, everything that could be considered joyful was banned: music, dance, sports. Women were only allowed to work in the health sector, and that was only because the mortality rate of women and children, especially in childbirth, had skyrocketed. Education for women was banned. Today, the rate of illiteracy among women in Afghanistan is still the highest in the world, especially in relation to the literacy rate of men. Education has proven to be an effective means of lifting both women and their families out of poverty, but that proved inconvenient to the Taliban.

The terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, on the U.S. changed the world. Two passenger planes hijacked by bombers were flown directly into the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center in New York City, reducing the buildings to rubble. Two more hijacked planes set course for the nation’s capital. One of those planes crashed into the Pentagon, and another crashed in an open field. Nearly three thousand people died. The terrorist network al-Qaeda and its Saudi Arabian leader, Osama bin Laden, who was hiding under Taliban protection in Afghanistan (and later killed in Abbottabad, Pakistan in 2011), claimed responsibility for the attacks. U.S. president George W. Bush declared a “War on Terror.” Among other things, this war was intended to rid Afghanistan of al-Qaeda and Taliban networks. The fall of the Taliban in late 2001 brought us hope for a new beginning.

Although it was seldom reported by international media, Afghanistan changed as a new, young and dynamic generation came of age. In the years that followed, girls and women reclaimed many of their freedoms and rights. We truly believed there was a bright future ahead for them, free from the burdens of Taliban rule. In 2003, the new government even ratified the Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women, which obligated all thirty-four provinces to make gender equality part of their legal framework. It was not unusual for women to become ambassadors, ministers, governors, and members of the police and security forces. In 2009, a new law was introduced to prevent forced underage marriages and violence against women. At the same time, a promising democratic system began to take shape, and women from all corners of Afghanistan became increasingly active members of the country’s social, political, and economic life.

As of August 15, 2021, there is little hope. The images on television and social media were like a slap in the face to me, and to everyone who feels connected to Afghanistan. The pain and shock were and are overwhelming.

The Taliban took control of the country under the watch of a stunned public. With control of the country, the Taliban took control of the fear of the people. Women did not dare to walk the streets, and those who aspired to education, participation, and personal freedom were safe only at home, as were those who worked for the allied forces and relied on the protection of those alliances. The images of the local forces attempting to reach Kabul airport in droves in August 2021 made headlines around the world. So did the news that men and women, old and young, could no longer leave the country. There were desperate attempts to reach neighbouring countries (Pakistan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Iran), but most borders were initially closed. The Taliban’s inability to feed more than 38 million people means that Afghans are prisoners in their own country and dependent on world hunger aid. In addition, there is a risk of renewed civil war, sparked by radical currents from the Islamic State (ISIL), which carries out attacks and aims to gain influence and power in the country.

While there have been nationwide protests by the population, even some initiated by women—and one of those women has her say in this book—the protests are life-threatening acts. The punishments for participating in them are draconian and the methods of punishment medieval. The Taliban, for instance, has been known to beat demonstrators and reporters with whips and cables. When I hear about these protests on Twitter, Instagram, and YouTube, and through other channels, I hold my breath, fearing the worst.

I remember very different years that seem like a distant utopia to me today. I was born in 1973 into a family where it was normal for . . .

Editorial Reviews

“The title says it all. The Taliban may try to make Afghan women disappear, and the world may be distracted by crises in other places, but the women who have been the backbone of Afghanistan still exist; they have things to say and they need to be heard. We Are Still Here is an important book that brings together the voices of powerful, articulate, talented women who need to be allowed to do the work they've been called to do. It is an inspiration. It is a call to action. It is a demand for us to create a better, kinder, more just world. Thank you to all of the writers for sharing their stories.”
Deborah Ellis, #1 bestselling author of The Breadwinner

“Provide[s] important detail and fascinating personal narratives that highlight how Afghan women and girls embraced the opportunities afforded them over the past 20 years . . . I remain in awe of their resilience.”

“An inspiring portrait of perseverance in the face of cruelty and injustice.”
Publishers Weekly
“An impassioned testimony to women’s determination.”
Kirkus Reviews

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