In the words of Mahbouba Seraj: “We are the hope, we are the power keeping Afghanistan together”.

My name is Mahbouba Seraj. I am 74 years old. I am an activist and women’s rights defender and I live in Afghanistan. A historian by education, for the last 12 months I chose to stay in Afghanistan to witness what was happening to my country and its people and to work for a better Afghanistan—one that belongs to all of us. 

In the words of Mahbouba Seraj: “We are the hope, we are the power keeping Afghanistan together”.

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Mahbouba Seraj, one of the world’s most prominent women’s rights activists, at a meeting with UN Women on implementing a women-centred response to the humanitarian crisis, Kabul, Afghanistan, January 2022. Photo: UN Women/Olguta Anghel.
Mahbouba Seraj, one of the world’s most prominent women’s rights activists, at a meeting with UN Women on implementing a women-centred response to the humanitarian crisis, Kabul, Afghanistan, January 2022. Photo: UN Women/Olguta Anghel.

On 15 August 2021, I was in Afghanistan, in my office. I witnessed everything from the minute it happened. The first nights and days were especially horrible. Afghanistan was turning into chaos—people were running everywhere; offices were closing. It was all happening in front of my eyes: in 24 hours a democracy we worked for for 20 years crumbled. The first thought I had in mind was what is going to happen to the women of Afghanistan? What were we going to do? 15 August was the day the women of Afghanistan started to become non-human, the day when we knew there was no place for women’s rights anywhere anymore.

I was forced once in my life to leave my country, in 1978. I was young, I had a lot of energy and I wanted to stay in Afghanistan; but because of the forces that came to power I had to leave. This time, it was different—now, I am an Afghan American citizen. I felt it was not time to leave Afghanistan, to leave my sisters, to leave everyone I loved and cared about. I knew they had nothing else. I thought my presence would give them strength—that is why I decided to stay; I decided not to be a refugee again.

In my life, I have also always wanted to be a witness—a lot of Afghanistan’s history happened in front of my eyes. I am 74 years old; I’ve seen beauty and disasters, achievements and destruction, and everything in between. I wanted to stay and remind everyone that, like everything else in history, this too shall pass.

The lives of Afghan women have changed 180 degrees. As I saw the democracy that we worked so hard for over the last 20 years disappear, it was also the work that we did as Afghan women for our country disappearing at the same time. The women of Afghanistan went from existence—from being part of society, from working, from being part of every aspect of life as doctors, judges, nurses, engineers, women running offices—to nothing. Everything they had, even the most basic right to go to high school, was taken away from them. That to me is an indication that they do not want us to exist. Our brothers are not helping us; we are left alone and what is happening is that we are becoming extinct.

Afghan women are some of the most resourceful and strong women in the world: their resilience is unbreakable. But there has been a lot of work done, and every time we need to start over and over again from zero—and this is what is absolutely killing us. But we have to do what we have to do, and we are going to do it. Simply because they do not want us to exist does not mean that we will stop, because we do exist, and we are here. We are going to do anything in our power. And we have the world standing by us—the world has not given up on us. We are receiving help: UN Women is supporting me to run a center in Kabul, for example. The Afghan women diaspora is helping; our women friends all around the world are helping.

There is one point that I want to make very clear: what is happening to the women of Afghanistan can happen anywhere. Roe v. Wade destroyed years of progress, taking away the rights of women over their own bodies. Women’s rights being taken away from them is happening everywhere and if we are not careful, it will happen to all the women of the world.

Every single woman in Afghanistan is doing something extraordinary—just by staying alive, just feeding their family and by keeping their hope up that maybe, one day, things will be okay for them. I am impressed by every single Afghan woman: the ones who are inside the country, and the ones who are outside the country with their hearts broken, who are also crying day and night as their work, as everything they’ve built, and everything we’ve fought for, is dismantled day by day.

The world must look at us as the women of Afghanistan, not as just second-class citizens somewhere. We are the women of a country to which a lot of wrong has been done. The world knows us. For the last 20 years, we have proven to the world who we are. Help us stand up again. The ones of us that are standing up in Afghanistan, help us stand up in Afghanistan. The ones of us who cannot live in Afghanistan anymore, help us get out so we can stand up outside our country. The world should not think they are giving us crumbs— stand up behind us, next to us, and see what we can do.

We are the hope, we are the power keeping Afghanistan together. Let's do it, but let's do it now with all the soul, the heart and the head it takes. The world should give us the respect that we really deserve. We are stretching our hands out and we ask you to help us.  

There were times when the world has gone into dark and bad places, when we thought that the sun would never rise again. But nothing lasts forever—this the philosophy I believe in with all my heart. I am hopeful; I have to be. I have a lot of hope for a better Afghanistan, an Afghanistan which belongs to its people, to all of us.

I will not be here anymore one day, but my hope for the world is that young brave women around the world will tell my story and they will raise generations and generations of women that speak up, like I did, for centuries to come.