“The Taliban has destroyed two decades of progress in Afghanistan in a matter of weeks. No matter where I am, I will continue to fight for the rights of my people and work to save those who are in mortal danger under this new regime.”

Hamida Ahmadzai, Former Member of Parliament, Islamic Republic of Afghanistan

“Clean Monday,” also known as “Pure Monday” in Greece, marks the beginning of Lent for the Eastern Christian Orthodox tradition. Another word for Clean Monday in Greek is koulouma, which literally means abundance, but has grown to signify a pilgrimage to the countryside, where on this day, many Greek families celebrate by flying kites, which are meant to symbolize freedom and purification of the soul.

But instead of sharing it with Greeks, I am accompanying an Afghan family, most likely feeling the opposite of abundance and freedom, as I watch Hamida Ahmadzai and her six-year-old niece, Urzula attempt to fly a rainbow-striped, kite high into the overcast sky. Urzula’s small hand grips tightly to the spool of string, not about to let go. Taking after her Aunt Hamida, she exudes the strength of someone twice her age. But a gust of wind suddenly picks up the kite. It’s too much for Urzula and she lets go, watching it dip and dive then fall directly into the sea.

Until six months ago, Hamida Ahmadzai was a fiery, outspoken Afghan Member of Parliament and leader of her people, the Kuchis. The Kuchis are traditionally a semi-nomadic people making up over a third of Afghanistan’s internally displaced people.  Born into privilege, she was not bound by tradition. Although Hamida and her brothers lost their parents when they were young, they all got educated and became ministry heads, foreign diplomats and military commanders.  Still, she came to power under extremely difficult circumstances, as the Kuchis have never really been involved in political leadership. 

Since she was Urzula’s age, Hamida dreamt of becoming a leader. She used to sit in front of a mirror at home and recite the latest political issues, practicing every word over and over, asking herself, can she be someone? “This is the wish I had for every Afghan woman when I was in office, that they can be whoever they want to be.”

According to a Forbes article, since the fall of the Afghan Islamic Republic, 64 of the 69 former women MPs have escaped the country with international support, along with 4,000 women police, 800 attorneys, 300 judges, 242 prosecutors, 13 women ministers, and eight deputy governors.

At first, Hamida was not planning to leave, but day by day it became clear to her that those who had worked hardest for democracy were the first to be targeted and were in grave danger, especially the women MPs, judges, lawyers, activists and journalists that had worked alongside Hamida to build the country the last twenty years.  The Taliban repeatedly came to her home searching for her, harassed and beat her private guards, then confiscated her car and belongings. After two months in hiding, she was finally able to escape, joining the hundreds of other women leaders at risk, part of an extraordinary humanitarian rescue effort that resulted in five different flight evacuations last year. The evacuations were spearheaded by private funding and NGOS, including the Ahmed Khan Foundation, International Women’s Bar Association, The Melissa Network in Greece and  Mina’s List, a U.S. based NGO that worked very hard to train women like Hamida to run for political office in Afghanistan. 

Clearly the struggle for women’s rights and leadership in Afghanistan has been a long battle, fraught with many setbacks.  But with a quota securing close to 30% of female members, the Afghan Parliament of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan, known as the “Wolesi Jurga,” or ‘House of the People,” was a beacon for female political representation in the region, indeed ahead of many EU countries, even Greece.  

Young, single and outspoken, Hamida led a breakaway group of younger Afghan female lawmakers who were pressing hard for reform, all of which was brought to a stunning halt on the fateful day of August 15th, 2021 “a day no Afghan will ever forget,” she tells me, warming her hands in front of a gas heater in the empty hotel lobby in Greece where I first met her. She quietly showed me on her phone a video she took of her office, the last day she visited, forced to wear a full, black hijab. “I cried when I saw my office for the last time,” she admits.

Tanya Henderson, an international human rights lawyer and Founder of Mina’s List, explained how she realized from working with multiple grassroots women’s organizations that real change on the ground was often blocked at the legislative level. Training more women to enter the political arena was a gamechanger, not just for women’s rights but democracy in general. 

“Afghan women are very organized internationally,” Tanya tells me. Instead of waiting around for asylum, these women have been very active, mounting an alternative parliament they are calling the Global Parliament in Exile. They have held several meetings in Greece and intend to broaden the coalition with the help of the Canadian, U.S. and EU governments. Their goal is to build and create an international coalition through other women’s democratic caucuses and to pressure their governments to consider human rights when working with the Taliban. 

For the past four months Hamida, her brothers, their wives, and kids have been housed along with other Afghan women MPs at the Marathon Beach Hotel, a large, downscale tourist hotel in Nea Makri, about 40 kilometers outside Athens. It’s an odd if bittersweet site, this community of strong, Afghan women, their husbands, brothers, children, strolling past shuttered tourist cafes and docked fishing trawlers, biding their time while they wait for their asylum papers to be processed. When I met them, they had already been in Greece for six weeks. Some had been transferred to apartments in Athens and as far away as Thessaloniki. Hamida stands out as the leader of the group in Nea Makri, trying to keep the women’s spirits up, helping to solidify the momentum they need to continue their journeys.

I share Hamida’s 39th birthday with her in a local fish taverna, watching her bravely keep a smile on her face for her young nieces, eager to blow out the candles on her cake. A Greek woman at the next table approached, and on learning who she was, shared that Greek women have also faced an uphill battle when it comes to protecting women’s rights, the past year marking the highest rate of reported femicides in the country. Together they agreed a serious international movement was not only needed, but long overdue. This is precisely Hamida’s dream.

“This is not the beginning or the end of our struggle,” Hamida shares. Bundled up against the gusty winter wind in a camel cashmere coat and headscarf, she’s never without her cellphone, constantly fielding calls from other Afghan women in exile. “We came to Greece, and from here our goal is to move to Canada, where we will be meeting with leaders and calling on the international community of women’s rights defenders, human rights and children’s rights to not forget Afghanistan.”

Corey Levine, a softspoken but fierce Canadian peace advocate, writer, and gender specialist, has worked in Afghanistan for the last 20 years. Her most recent posting there was in 2020-2021, where she worked for UN Women in support of Afghan women MPs. When I met her, she had just returned from Afghanistan to assess the situation on the ground, one of very few female Western women to enter the country after the Taliban takeover. She speaks of “gender apartheid,” and is appalled at how the international community has all but ignored the mounting humanitarian crisis there. 

In a series of reports Corey recently wrote for the Ottawa Citizen, based on her recent trip, she interviews the five remaining MPs in Afghanistan who didn’t make it out and remain in hiding. One of those left behind, Mursal, age 29, wants to stay, and restart the NGO she founded to provide emergency assistance to over 4,000 people. “The international community supported us for 20 years and encouraged women that we could have a role in our society. I want to continue to have a role, but I need help,” she told Levine. 

Canada has committed to taking in at least 40,000 Afghan refugees, the highest per capita number of all the donor countries that were involved in Afghanistan over the last 20 years. The complex Canadian asylum program includes a special humanitarian program to bring in Afghans at risk, human rights leaders, persecuted religious minorities, LGBTQ individuals, and female journalists, lawyers, judges and women MPs, but not all of them have arrived. At least half of the original group slotted to receive Canadian asylum are still “in process,” many frustrated with the months of uncertainty and waiting, and according to Levine, only nine of the sitting female MPs when the government fell have made it.

Luckily, Hamida and her family got the clearance and to leave Greece for Canada on the 9th of March. They landed first in Toronto and were taken to Regina, but the family had relatives in Vancouver and preferred to settle there, for now.

I catch up with her two months later in Surrey, British Columbia, a predominantly immigrant community outside Vancouver, where she is now settled with her four brothers, their wives and one child. Her beloved niece, Urzula, unfortunately is still stuck in Greece with her father, who was a former military officer in Afghanistan, which Hamida has been told is the reason for the extra delay by the NGO sponsoring them in Greece.

Hamida is visibly different here. Quieter, she has lost weight, and shares with me her frustration and feelings of isolation. Most of the other MPs who have arrived in Canada are in Toronto, already meeting with government officials, while Hamida is yet to be assigned to much-needed English classes by her immigration officer. Shespends her days making phone calls back home, trying to help her people inside Afghanistan. Despite brave civil activists and even protests, women are losing ground in Afghanistan. She shows me a video of a woman being beaten openly in the streets by the Taliban. On August 14th, marking the one year anniversary of the takeover, women protesting in Kabul are dispersed by gunfire.  The ban on girls education past grade six continues, along with the ban on women’s right to work, except in a few areas such as the health (male doctors are not allowed to examine female patients) and the restrictions on women’s movement and clothing.  International sanctions and the suspension of foreign assistance to Afghanistan have had dire consequences on families, and the hardest hit are young girls. According to a report by Save the Children , girls are twice as likely to go to bed hungry, and face increased risk of child marriage and child trafficking.

Cooking a delicious Afghan lunch for me one afternoon with her two sisters-in-law, Hamida admits she appreciates being in Canada, and how beautiful she finds the people and the city of Vancouver, “but only my body is here, my soul is in my country, my spirituality, I can’t ever feel comfortable here, I should be in Afghanistan, helping my people.”  

She is adamant the international community cannot abandon Afghanistan, she insists the U.S. government releases the frozen aid and demands women’s rights. The world needs to focus on Afghan women not as victims to be saved but having their own agency and leadership, not as political pawns. As journalist and doctoral candidate Lima Halima Ahmad writes, “ a lot has been written about Afghan women but very little has been written by the women of Afghanistan themselves.”  

After all Hamida tells me, she was elected by her people, she knows what is needed better than anyone, and the first thing for her is to force the Taliban to restore women’s rights. 

This is the goal behind the coalition as well. 

She tries to stay in touch with colleagues from the coalition who are spread across the country, some still in Greece, Turkey and Albania. But with the core group based in Toronto, Hamida feels alienated from the coalition, stripped of her identity, and alone in a strange country.  She has plans to move to Toronto in the next months, but finances are stretched thin, the monthly allowances under her resettlement assistance from Canada is not enough to sustain an apartment in Toronto for the entire family. She will hopefully find an affordable apartment and move there with her young brother Qais, who still acts as her political advisor.

“Whatever I was in Afghanistan, I am here and there is no change. I am strong and will always proceed with the struggle. No politics can be done without women and no government can be run without women,” she says.

She sees her time here as temporary and is determined to return, it is her right. “We have a poetic saying in my language, that once water has flowed through a place, it will return there again…” 

About the Author: Amie Williams is an American documentary filmmaker and journalist, living in Athens, Greece. She is currently working on a documentary film with the Canadian Broadcast Company and a Canadian production team about Afghan women MPs and activists rebuilding their lives in Canada.