"If you want a developed country, we have to let girls study"

Interview With
Naheed A. Ahmadi - member of the Bush Institute's Afghan Education Working Group
Guest Author

The youngest-ever elected politician and lawmaker in Afghanistan, now living in the U.S., continues to advocate for human rights, gender equity, and freedom and democracy in Afghanistan

Naheed A. Ahmadi was elected to Parliament in 2010 as the youngest-ever elected politician and lawmaker in Afghanistan. She worked tirelessly to engage Afghan youth and women in the nation’s political process. In Aug. 2021, Naheed was evacuated to the U.S. and continues to advocate for human rights, gender equity, and freedom and democracy in Afghanistan. Naheed is a member of the Bush Institute’s Afghan Education Working Group. The group helped inform policy recommendations to the administration, Congress, international policymakers, the media, and the private and philanthropic sectors on how they can support Afghan women and children, especially in the education space.


This interview has been edited for length and clarity.


What are you most proud of about your life in Afghanistan?


Naheed A. Ahmadi: As a teenage girl in 1995, the takeover of Taliban … imprisoned me at home for six years.… I didn’t have the right to study, and I didn’t have the right to go out. My face was covered for the first time. I saw [the] Taliban burn my schoolbooks and hopes and cheer and everything. But [then the] 9/11 tragedy happened. Then Afghan women [were] emancipated from the prejudice of the Taliban. So we accomplished a lot together as a Nation for a new Afghanistan. We could become pilots, engineers, doctors. We could become anything. There was no limitation. An ambience of freedom provided so many opportunities for the new generation of Afghanistan. And I’m so proud of being the representative of [the] people of Afghanistan as the youngest member of the Afghanistan parliament – representing this beauty, representing the diversity and civilization and the values of the people of Afghanistan. [For] giving me [this] honor.… Now … [the] people of Afghanistan have the greatest need to be represented, [and] I continue this, to represent them.


What was your experience like as a member of the Afghanistan parliament?


NA: Being a parliamentarian, a young parliamentarian in a conservative society, and at the same time being a woman representing democratic values, freedom, freedom of a speech, freedom of expression, is hard. I was not welcomed. But the thing that kept me [moving] forward is that I opened the door for the new generation of [Afghans] to pass that door. And I have to keep that door open. I still keep that door open. No matter what happens, that next generation of Afghanistan has to pass [through] that door and change the future. And I think the challenge can translate into opportunity. And we become agents of change for the next generation. This is how life goes on.


What has your experience been like being a refugee in the U.S.? What’s been the most challenging part for you?


NA: For myself, it’s very overwhelming because at the same time that I am so connected to the realities on the ground, I see the gender apartheid that is going on in Afghanistan. I see the genocide. I see the sectarian war. I see the atrocities. Forced disappearance[s]. I see this displacement of my people and my constituency, the women that I mentored are at home right now. They don’t have any right[s]. And any access to the basic rights. This is overwhelming. [So is] starting the resettlement in the United States at the same time. Having the family. Starting a new job.


So what makes it easy for me is that I was welcomed by the society. The society was so happy to have me. I received a lot of welcome letter[s] from my community, and many people wanted to help. So this makes it very, very easy to resettle. But still, the majority of Afghans who are resettled in the United States [are] still [struggling] with so many issues regarding employment, learning English, access to the education and universities, and also having their status to be legal status in the United States. So I’m also working on [the] Afghan Adjustment Act. Hopefully it passes soon. So many of those people who are struggling can have a better life.


What do you want the average American to know about Afghanistan and Afghan refugees living in the U.S.?


NA: Two things. In Afghanistan, people of Afghanistan are abducted. Their democracy and freedom [are] hijacked. The Taliban do not represent the diversity, the values, and the civilization of [the] people of Afghanistan. The United States should not continue to appease … the Taliban. Appeasement is not a viable strategy. [The] people of Afghanistan deserve to have a government that they choose.… They decide about it. They elect. And we need [from] the United States solidarity in this regard. So [the] people of Afghanistan can have the government that they deserve. And [the] Taliban should not be recognized. [The] U.S. should not normalize discrimination by engaging with the Taliban, [who] do not represent the people of Afghanistan. I think these are the most important messages. The people of Afghanistan want me to deliver that they deserve to live in dignity and freedom. And we need your solidarity in that regard. The refugees here also need … solidarity. And, also, at the same [time], the support and cooperation and collaboration of their neighbors.… Any Afghan in your community just may need a welcome letter to feel [at] home.


As a member of the Bush Institute’s Afghan Education Working Group, what do you hope the group achieves?


NA: Afghan women are the champions of the movement of women’s rights in Afghanistan. And they have just one weapon. That’s education. And we need this to be done through different strategies, different corridors. So [the] women of Afghanistan and girls of Afghanistan can have access to education.…


Afghanistan is the only country that banned girls from education in the whole world. Even Muslim communities do not do that. But Afghanistan is experiencing this. So girls’ education is the catalyst for the development of the country. If you want a developed country, we have to let girls study. [The] women of Afghanistan are capable of so many activities, so many things. Just, we have to provide this opportunity for them to have a country [on] the earth that prospers and flourish[es]. And … the way to flourish is that we have women on board.


What is your hope for your future of Afghanistan?


NA: So the day that Afghanistan collapsed under the Taliban, I completely lost my hope. But one week later, when I saw women in the streets of Kabul and Herat and Kandahar and Nangarhar holding the flag of the republic to the face of the Taliban. Telling the Taliban that [these are] our values. We will continue to fight. We don’t give up on our values. No matter of what. And we are ready to die for our values. I regained my hope. So every day, I wake up supporting all those women who continue to fight back in Afghanistan.


Is there else you would like to share?


NA: I believe the book of engagement with Afghanistan has turned to another chapter. The chapter of my generation is done. So this chapter produced a lot of women and men that represent the new Afghanistan. But the chapter that we have right now is about that baby girl that was not born [20 years ago]. In the last two decades, she grew up in the ambience and atmosphere of freedom and democracy. And that baby girl is [an adult] now. She’s brave. She’s passionate. She wants to move forward. She needs the solidarity of the United States, the policymakers, the Congress, the members of different policy groups to move forward. And we really need this solidarity for a better new Afghanistan. Those who are in power will not stay in power forever in Afghanistan. We are hopeful that we will retake our hijacked democracy.