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Life as a Hazara Woman in Afghanistan: In Conversation with Soomaya Javadi

Updated: Jan 21

Soomaya Javadi is a Hazara human rights activist who fled Afghanistan with the help of the 30 Birds Foundation. Actively advocating against ethnic or gender-based discrimination, she is part of the '#StopHazaraGenocide' movement. Currently, Soomaya is working as an early childhood educator and studying at the University of Saskatchewan.



CJLPA: Welcome, Soomaya Javadi. I’d like to begin by thanking you for taking the time to come and interview with The Cambridge Journal of Law, Politics, and Art. You are truly a remarkable and inspiring figure to all women across the world, as despite the pain and suffering you endured with the return of the Taliban, you continue to fight for human rights both for women and the Hazara ethnicity.

 

I would like to begin by asking you to tell us about your childhood briefly. What was life like before the US pulled out of Afghanistan and the Taliban came to power? And what were your main worries at that point in your life?

 

Soomaya Javadi: Thank you for inviting me, it’s really an honor to speak to you. So, I was a dentistry student before Afghanistan fell to the Taliban. I attended high school in Kabul and then studied dentistry at university. I have spent most of my childhood in the Islamic Republic of Iran and we were Afghan refugees.

 

The condition of Afghan refugees in Iran or in Pakistan is not good. For example, an Afghan refugee does not have the right to study, nor to own a property, a car, or house in Iran.

 

I am a Hazara woman. I belong to the Hazara ethnicity, which is one of the most persecuted ethnic groups in the history of Afghanistan. And I am Shia—Shia Muslims are a minority against the Sunni majority of Afghanistan population. Things are more difficult for Hazara women who are considered twice as inferior because of their gender, race, and ethnicity.

 

When I started university, one of my professors said in the first week: ‘You guys are taking the seats of men. Your ultimate goal in life is just to stay at home and bear children, so why bother?’. He thought that he was giving us advice or something.

 

I think it’s not easy to be a woman anywhere in the world—with all the discrimination—but it was much harder in Afghanistan. And I think that every day that my peers and I went to school or to work, we were fighting against the patriarchy that existed in Afghanistan and exists now.

 

CJLPA: Thank you. I can’t even imagine what that must have been like growing up. Following up from this upbringing, after the US withdrew their troops, the Taliban soon regained the power to establish their authoritarian regime. Can you please tell us about the atmosphere in your community when Kabul first fell to the Taliban?

 

SJ: So, as you know, our President Ashraf Ghani escaped before the Taliban even got to Kabul. He escaped, and that made everyone panic. What is going to happen to us?

 

I remember that, around two weeks before the fall, one of the Taliban leaders said: ‘If we want, we can get all of Afghanistan in two weeks’. I thought that he was bluffing. But maybe that was the only true thing he said, because two weeks later, they got Kabul. I remember that the day Kabul fell to the Taliban, I went to the university to ask for a kind of certificate or a paper showing that I had studied five and half years here because I was a few months away from graduation. I asked the people in charge to give me some paper so that, if anything ever happens, I can show that in a few months, I would be a dentist. They said that I should go to the Ministry of Education. I went to the Ministry of Education. They said I should go back to my university and ask them. I was told to go here and there but nobody was willing to give me that proof of education.

 

Around 3pm, I went to the university for the last time and stopped this professor to ask for his signature on a paper saying that I had studied here. He replied: ‘That’s not my business. I don’t care if you have studied here’.

 

I knew why—because I was Hazara, and I was a woman. He would rather have ignored me than helped me. When I called him earlier, he said: ‘Yes, please come’, because from my voice on the phone, he couldn’t know that I was Hazara. But as soon as he saw my face, he was not willing to help me anymore.

 

Once at home, at 6pm, I saw the Taliban’s flag on the President’s house—which we call ‘Arg’. I couldn’t sleep that night. And two weeks after that, I was sleeping maybe two hours every 24 hours. I just couldn’t believe what was happening to us.

 

That night, my fifteen-year-old brother and I packed our books in big bags because we didn’t know what was going to happen—we had around 500 books in our home. We were told that they were searching house by house. The only thing we had were books so we took them out into the backyard, burnt some of them and buried most of them. At 4am, we were done.

 

I was lying in bed in the dark, thinking I wasn’t dead yet. Beside my empty bookcase, I choked back my tears and thought: ‘Have I ever existed? Has my life ever existed?’.

 

All the things that I have done, all the books that I have read—I was a dentistry student, a free and independent woman. I had my life, and in a second, in one night, everything was done. I was nothing from now on. Since that day, the Taliban have announced eighty-six commands to limit women’s lives.

 

CJLPA: It seems like you were very proactive when the Taliban took back power and Kabul fell. You went immediately to get your papers from Dentistry to prove that you are a student. You and your family were quick to bury the books in any sort of evidence to suggest that you were an educated strong woman. Was that a preparation for the worst case scenario? Or did you have a feeling that the situation would get as bad as it did?

 

SJ: I knew the history, so, yes, I think I knew what was going to happen. The Taliban killed 2,000 to 8,000 Hazaras in Mazar-i-Sharif in 1998. During three days, they entered the city and shot anything that moved. This is the Taliban. I knew how they treated women last time, how they treated other ethnicities other than Pashtuns.

 

In the first week, I saw photos of Hazara male journalists who were tortured. They published photos of their bodies full of bruises and blood everywhere. My father was a journalist and I feared for his life and for every member of my family. You know, when humans decide to do bad, to be evil, there’s no limit for that. And the Taliban now are breaking a new misogyny record.


CJLPA: Thank you very much for sharing this horrific and terrifying situation happening. I would also like to ask you what was the reaction of the men in your community when they first learned that the Taliban had come to power?

 

SJ: I’ve been asked this question a lot. The Taliban may be the most misogynist government in the world today, but they don’t just act against women. They are a group of people who represent only one gender, one ethnicity, and one religion.

 

I will give you an example of what happens to men in my community: Raja is a Hazara Shia man who has been married for the last 15 years to a Sunni Pashtun woman.

 

They were arrested and tortured when the Taliban came. Their children could hear their parents’ voices as they were being tortured in the other room. Raja explained that they put a pipe in his mouth, hit him, kicked him, and used electric shocks on him. When he asked what his crime was, the Taliban told him it was because he was Hazara and married to a Pashtun woman, so he should suffer the worst. They then tortured him, killed his brother, and forced him to leave his religion as Shia and to become a Sunni. Only then they released him.

 

This is the way they treat all people, not just women—it’s much more complicated than that. So men and women were scared when the Taliban came because they all knew they were going to treat people would be terribly.

 

CJLPA: Was there defiance in Afghanistan when the Taliban first came to power? Did people try to do anything or were they just hiding?

 

SJ: So the first thing that happened was then the President escaped, so people panicked and went to the airport. You may have seen photos and videos on social networks of people clinging to planes. But since then, women have been protesting in the streets asking for their rights back. The Taliban hit and arrest them, but they don’t stop. Alia Azizi—a Hazara woman—was the head of the prison in the city of Herat before the Taliban arrived. One of the Taliban commanders told her to come and see him or she would be arrested. She goes there but she never came back.

 

She has a husband and children. A year later, photos of her appeared on social media and certain news platforms, showing that she had been forced to marry a Taliban commander. It’s a very familiar story, like Margaret Atwood’s Handmaid’s Tale—being forced to marry when you have your own children, your own husband. This is how women are treated. But, even beside those kinds of treatments, women were protesting on the streets with their bare hands and no guns, just demanding the Taliban to give them their rights back.

 

When they were arrested, I remember in the spring of 2022, I saw this video of women being forced to confess and say they were being hired by the foreign countries to go on the street and protest. It was obvious they were forced to confess. There were these news reports and photos published on various news platforms showing that women that went to protest, their dead bodies were found in the trash. The Taliban don’t even bury when they kill—they put the bodies in the trash so that people can see them and be afraid. They just want that fear to grow among people. But despite those kinds of treatments, women are still going on the street and are still demanding their rights from the Taliban. But nobody hears them. They have no other support.

 

CJLPA: Those stories are completely awful and it’s hard to believe that it’s all happening in the 21st century. Could you please tell us what are the worst crimes occurring in Afghanistan to date that go unaddressed and unaccounted for by the international community?

 

SJ: The women’s situation in Afghanistan is something that people talk about, and people address, but they don’t take action about it. It’s as if the Taliban had taken women hostage and were threatening to the world to accept the Taliban’s power, otherwise they will harm women. It should be the other way around. It shouldn’t be the Taliban using women’s situation as a leverage on the international community. That’s one of the problems that have been raised but people don’t react or take action against it.

 

Another problem is that, after the Taliban came, the Kuchis—the Pashtun nomads—another ethnicity in Afghanistan—they force people to leave their ancestral lands and they are backed by the Taliban and they go to to different cities in different provinces in Afghanistan especially, they force Hazara people to leave their lands, or they would be killed.

 

When Hazara people go to the authorities—which are the Taliban—to say that this is their land, the Taliban will not listen to them and they’ll back the Pashtun nomads becuase the Talibans are also mostly Pashtun.

 

The Hazara people are forced to leave their lands while they have nowhere to go and no money because they can’t even take anything with them—their animals, or their possessions. Besides that, they would come and ask people for money. They would say: ‘Someone’s brother was killed in that village 30 years ago so you and the whole village have to pay for it’. And there is no investigation on that. The Taliban just back those people. That’s the way other ethnicities are being treated in Afghanistan.

 

But where were they in the last 20 years? Why now? Because the Taliban now have the power, the Pashtuns also have the power. That’s something that is not addressed properly. The genocide against Hazara people that is going on in Afghanistan is not addressed properly. In 2020, there was a terrorist attack on a maternity hospital in Dasht-e-Barchi, Western Kabul —a Hazara resided area. The terrorists attacked pregnant women who were hours or minutes away from labor. They killed two newborns. In 2021, there was a terrorist attack on the Sayed ul-Shuhada school—a girls’ school. Around 80 little girls were killed, and many were injured and disabled forever. In 2022, the same thing happened at a boys’ school—Abdul Rahim Shaheed.

 

In my neighbourhood in Kabul, in Dasht-e-Barchi, there are numerous terrorist attacks and killings every month, and the Taliban and the terrorists can do anything they want with impunity. They kill mothers, children, and newborns. This is genocide and no one is holding them accountable.


CJLPA: You mentioned that many people had to leave their houses. The 30 Birds Foundation helped you and your family escape Afghanistan. Before you had to leave Afghanistan, did you bring anything with you?

 

SJ: When leaving our home, we were so afraid so we didn’t take too many things. We just had one suitcase for all of us—we were a family of five at that time. I think we just got a pair of clothes for every one of us, toothbrushes, some things that are necessary. And the only thing that I took that was very dear to me was my diary, and some documents to prove that I was educated. I didn’t take any of my books or anything. We couldn’t get many things or it would have been too heavy for us. We wanted to be lighter to move faster.

 

We went to Mazar-i-Sharif, which is a seven to ten hour journey, where we were told that an airplane would take off. We stayed in Mazar-i-Sharif for around two weeks but that airplane never took off because there was some change in the Taliban’s leadership at that time. The 30 Birds Foundation told us to go back to Kabul as there was no way we could fly from Mazar-i-Sharif. We were so hopeless. We were trying to find a way to get out, but it was impossible. We headed back to Kabul, but on the way, our bus broke down because of bad luck. We were in the middle of nowhere, surrounded by mountains. There was no other car or bus that could take us. We had to walk through those mountains for several hours. We could see the Taliban’s vehicles with their guns. I was fearing for my life and my family’s lives.

 

I still have the videos and photos of those hours. My brother was carrying the big suitcase. It was summer, it was hot. I had this black hijab and this was humiliating because I didn’t believe in that hijab, I was just scared and I had to have that. It was forced on me by the Taliban. I remember that my dad told me: ‘Walk like if they’re not here, don’t look at them, just walk’. We managed to find another car and went to the next city. What was supposed to be a seven-to-ten-hour journey to Kabul took us a day. The next morning, we had to be at the border. We went there at night to make sure we weren’t late. We had nothing. Some of us slept on the dirty ground, others slept in the car.

 

I was so hopeless, so dreamless, and I wasn’t even sure we could get somewhere. I thought that my mind was very empty. I was just losing everything, leaving everything—my home, the places that I loved, the people that I loved, my friends, the objects that I liked, books, diaries, everything.

 

And it’s funny because after a month—when we finally came to Canada—the first thing the officer told us when we landed and came out of the airplane wasn’t ‘Hello’. He said: ‘Happy birthday’, like if we were born again. I felt dead the night I was sleeping on the ground at the border. And when the officer said ‘Happy birthday’, it was another life.

 

CJLPA: Thank you Soomaya for sharing that experience. That’s just absurd trauma for you and it’s just outrageous that you and so many individuals in Afghanistan had to suffer such gruesome atrocities in so many different forms. So I appreciate you going into detail to spread the awareness because these are things that people do not know about that’s happening. So it’s really important that we address this.

 

I want to shift a little bit to discuss some of the points you mentioned earlier about talking about accountability and the international community needing to know what’s happening and needing to respond to the Taliban. And, not negotiating with terrorists, because as you said, they are using women as leverage, but it should be the other way around. The first question I want to ask you specifically is in respect to the United States. With all the political discussions around it, what were your thoughts when the US first pulled out?

 

SJ: I felt like a character in a video game who thought they had a life and a goal, but then, I was just played by others. When Afghanistan fell to the Taliban, there was nothing I could do to change anything. I felt betrayed. I thought that I had a life, but no, I was not born to live. On 23 August, I wrote in my diary: ‘I wish I had never heard that all humans are equal. I am not equal. And there is no way I can be equal. I wish that I had never been taught that I am a human, because I’m not when I don’t have the rights. I wish that I wasn’t lied to when I started to study, when I learned how to read, when I learned how to write, when I learned how to dream’.

 

In Geneva, you were in Geneva, I mentioned this little girl I know who is in Afghanistan and who is one of the most remarkable young ladies I have ever seen in my life. The way she sings, the way she talks, I remember her and I think she has no choice about what she wants to do with her life. It’s the Taliban who determine who or what she will be. Do you trust the Taliban enough to leave your own daughter to them? Do you trust the Taliban enough to leave countless lives to them? That was how I was feeling.

 

CJLPA: Thank you for sharing that. It is such a heartbreaking situation and as we speak, that is just ongoing and continuous. This is why it’s so important that we continue the dialogue because at the end of the day, politicians need to know what’s happening, individuals need to know what’s happening to pressure their governments to respond.


On that note, I know this is a question for politicians to address, but from your perspective, what kind of things would you like to see actioned from the international community that you think could scare the Taliban or pressure them to slowly move away from these human rights abuses that they’re committing out of fear?

 

SJ: The first thing that I want to say is that we are not a project. We are people, and this is our lives. It’s not some kind of project that you work on for some time and then you stop. We are not projects, we are people. I’ve been seeing some efforts to engage with the Taliban.

 

I am asking the international community: Do not engage with the Taliban! Do not engage with the Taliban! Do not engage with the Taliban! I ask you and I urge you: please, do not engage with the Taliban! What Taliban? The Taliban who kill women? the Taliban who kill children? the Taliban who confiscate people’s land and who represent only one gender, one religion and one ethnicity, while ignoring the others and everything else? The Taliban who say that women are not allowed to go out of their homes without a male chaperone? What do you have in common with the Taliban to engage with them? I ask every influential woman, influential politician who is a woman: the Taliban are breaking a new record of misogyny every day, and you should stop them. It’s not only about Afghan women, it’s about women.

 

Yes, there is a gender apartheid in Afghanistan. But if you look closely, it’s more than that—a woman in Afghanistan is equal to nothing. When you don’t even have the right to go out of your home, you’re treated like you are nothing. And that’s about women, not just about Afghanistan.

 

I come from a family who has been suffering from genocide, deprivation, and exile for generations. My great grandfather’s family was killed by Abdullah’s army when he was around 12 years old. He was forced to leave his land and he went to northern Afghanistan to start his own family. And then my grandfather and my uncle were killed by the Soviets, and when I say Soviets I mean the Afghan people who became communists.

 

My father was forced to leave his homeland when he was 15 years old. He lost his father when he was two, his mother when he was eight, his brother when he was six. Despite this, we stayed in Afghanistan for a long time because my parents wanted to see their children raised in this country and have freedom and equality. I, as a woman, was fighting for equality. Every day I went to school, every day I went to work, I was saying: ‘No matter how hard it is, I am here. I am a Hazara Shia woman who is equal to you’.

 

The international community must hold the Taliban accountable for all the crimes, atrocities, and killings they have committed. They must be held accountable. I was asked why the Taliban are so scared of women and I answered it then. But now, I think the Taliban are not afraid of anyone. They do what they want because they have total impunity for the way they treat people.

 

So my plea to the international community is to hold the Taliban accountable for what they are doing, especially for the way they treat women, and for the Hazara genocide. We want the Taliban to be accountable for what they are doing to Hazara people.

 

CJLPA: That’s a brilliant response and I think that needs to be spread in that discussion because at the end of the day if the dialogue keeps continuing, you’re just speaking to terrorists. They’re not going to respond. They’re not afraid of us. They’re just going to take advantage of the fact that we’re trying to make peaceful discussions and they’re going to continue with their human rights abuses. So I think the way you just framed that so perfectly really hones in on that.

 

Following up on that, do you think that cutting off the dialogue with the Taliban and not engaging with them could become dangerous for all the Afghan people, now that there’s no oversight of what’s going on? Or do you think that if we cut off the dialogue with the Taliban, they will feel pressured to minimise the abuses that are occurring and succumb more to international standards?

 

SJ: I know that the Taliban are using international humanitarian aids to support themselves, their soldiers, and allies. The international humanitarian aid going to Afghanistan is not helping people who are in need. It is supporting the Taliban and their allies.

 

If you engage with the Taliban, if you approve of them, they will not change, they will not remove all the rules they have put in place to limit women’s lives.

 

I think that the international community must stop helping the Taliban with this aid and assistance, and that it must put bans on the Taliban. That’s the way you engage with a bully. You shouldn’t invite them and talk to them. You shouldn’t take them on private jets to talk to them. They are terrorists. The only way that they will understand what you’re saying is to put pressure on them, to have diplomacy with them, to put bans on them, and to use leverage on them. They want the international community to approve of them, so they have to try for it. It’s just the international community talking about engaging with the Taliban, but the Taliban are not doing anything. They are just continuing with all the atrocities. That’s what makes me angry.

 

CJLPA: Thank you. After everything you’ve endured, you still stand here today as a strong Hazara and Shia woman. How do you overcome this loss and empower yourself as a woman to continue fighting for this battle?

 

SJ: The other day, I was biking—I live in Saskatoon, Canada—and I remembered that when I was 16 years old, or 15 years old, I thought I didn’t want a job. I didn’t believe in it anymore. But I also remembered that one of my dreams was to bike, but without a scarf on my head.

 

In September 2022, there was a terrorist attack at the Kaaj educational centre in Dasht-e-Barchi, Western Kabul—the neighbourhood where I used to reside. In that attack, many Hazara teenagers were killed. One of them was Marzia, a teenage girl whose diary and things she was writing were vastly shared on social media. On one page, she mentioned her dreams, which included riding a bicycle and listening to music, visiting the Eiffel Tower, eating pizza in an Italian restaurant, meeting the Turkish writer Elif Shafak. So I told myself: Don’t ever dare to take this moment for granted. You are biking without a scarf, and you have freedom. So it’s on you to fight for people’s freedom’. I know what is happening to them, I was in their situation. I didn’t want that for myself, and I don’t want that for any other woman, for anyone. I think that I need to tell their stories, because if I don’t, who would?

 

CJLPA: I think that’s exactly the point: if you don’t, who will? It’s unjust that that burden is put on you, but you have been voicing the voices of so many Afghan women and the Hazara and spreading awareness about what’s ongoing. Further to all the work you’ve been doing, how do you think we, as a society, can help empower women, specifically in Afghanistan, but also all around the world where misogyny is taking place?

 

SJ: I think the world needs more compassion. As I said before, we should start seeing people as people, not as projects. When Afghanistan fell to the Taliban, I thought that I was not born to live as a human being. I was born to be on the casualty list on some kind of news. When you see in the news that a terrorist attack has caused around a hundred victims, that hundred could be 101, so that one person was even ignored in the news.

 

So I think the world needs more compassion. We should listen to the stories and, whatever our position, we should try to stop it.

 

I ask everyone, regardless of their position, to do whatever they can to prevent the world from engaging with the Taliban. Maybe I’m not expert enough to know what the right way is, but I know that engaging with the Taliban doesn’t help. It will just make them more powerful. And when they have enough power, they will do what they did 20 years ago on 11 September.

 

CJLPA: On a final note, what is the lasting message you want readers and viewers to think about for the current situation in Afghanistan?

 

SJ: I want you to know that people in Afghanistan, women, and men, are people. There are many people who are fighting against the Taliban. They could be women who protest on the streets every day, they could be girls who are still studying at home, who are being tutored by their family members. There are even underground schools in Afghanistan, and after what happened to the Sayed ul-Shuhada school, people were still sending their daughters to school because people in Afghanistan—especially Hazara people—believe in education and want it for their daughters and sons.

 

So I appeal to you to stand with the people who want freedom instead of standing with the Taliban or standing impartial.

 

CJLPA: Thank you Soomaya for your time today and for answering these very personal, difficult, and painful questions. We are truly inspired by your heroic work and for standing by your people as you continue to fight for human rights and democracy in Afghanistan. And by exposing these outrageous and shocking international crimes, we will continue to spread your story and this message in our upcoming publication. Thank you.

 

SJ: Thank you so much.

 

This interview was conducted by Nadia Jahnecke and Angelina Spilnyk. Nadia is Legal Editor and Founder of Human Rights Volume of CJLPA 3. In addition to her role at CJLPA, Nadia is currently working as a Trainee Lawyer and will qualify as a lawyer in England and Wales in March 2024. Angelina is a graduate of the Ivan Franko National University of Lviv, Ukraine, in 2022 with a major in International Public Law. Alongside her position as a Legal Researcher at CJLPA, she is pursuing a Master's in Maritime Law at the University of Southampton.

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