Adela Raz went to bed on Aug. 14 as Afghanistan’s chief envoy to the United States. She woke up on Aug. 15 in the ambassador’s residence in D.C. as a woman who watched from her TV like everyone else as the senior leaders of her government fled her home country.
In the past few weeks, she had been making dozens of phone calls from her extensive contact list and tearful pleas — even physical knocks on powerful doors late at night — in an effort to stall the Taliban’s complete takeover. Now she was a mother, wife, sister and daughter on WhatsApp, texting and calling every relative and friend she knew back home.
Up until Aug. 15, Raz, 35, had been one of the most powerful women in the Afghan government, in the entire country. A passionate, shrewd and secretly educated 15-year-old when the Taliban was last driven from power, Raz felt she had done “everything right” the past two decades to advance women’s rights in Afghanistan. And the weight of the failure she now felt bounced around in her throat, alternating as sobs and disgust.
When the Taliban seized power of the Afghan government, many advocates sounded the alarm about women’s rights. Although Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid said there “will be no discrimination against women,” many remain skeptical: There have been reports of discriminatory practices and the group resorting to its old, brutal ways. Fear of the rollback of women’s rights has led many people and organizations to rally support for Afghan women and girls in the aftermath.
For years, the United States latched on to the idea of fighting the Taliban to safeguard Afghan women’s rights, a cause first championed by President George W. Bush. America has spent more than $780 million over about two decades to promote those rights.
Raz — who was the first woman to be a Permanent Representative of Afghanistan to the United Nations — has spent her career trying to remind the world that Afghanistan’s women and girls can be the bridge to an entire region’s evolution.
“It’s a very unfair judgment to say the women of Afghanistan are just used to tyranny and brutality and darkness,” she said. “If this was the end of the story and our inevitable reality, then why did we even struggle 20 years ago? We actually did the right thing, and now we need to continue to do everything right. This might be the close of a chapter but it’s not the end of our story.”
Raz had been Afghanistan’s ambassador to the United States for only three weeks before her government collapsed. Sitting in the embassy in D.C. days before the fall, she spoke about her frustration with a pervasive story line that somehow the Taliban embodied Afghanistan’s cultural and historical legacy — that their rise was inevitable and even a return to normalcy.
Her work, her family and her very existence rebuked this rationale, she said.
“It’s this narrative that Afghanistan is a traditional society and the Taliban is just the reality,” she said on Aug. 10, just days before the group seized control of Kabul. “And in the last 20 years, if a woman has advanced, it was imposed by the West.”
For Raz, an inherent sense of worth and a desire to move through the world with respect, access to education and work preceded the Taliban’s original rise to power in 1996. She was not a victim in need of Western empowerment, she said.
As Raz put it, Afghan women “want respect that has nothing to do with our backgrounds. We want access to education, politics and knowledge, and we want equal treatment. It’s a natural instinct for us all.”
Raz said she wants the world to understand women’s place in Afghanistan’s culture as something different. The eldest of four children, she spent the first years of her life relishing a familial tradition in which the oldest wields the most power.
“My mom remembers a very prosperous country with respect to women,” Raz said. “Tradition and respect is different in each society, but in our tradition, the respect was not based so much on gender but age. I have three younger brothers, but I had the respect of the elder because I was the oldest and not my younger brother because he was a man.”
Raz’s eldest daughter is named Gauharshad, and her youngest, Nurjahan, is also named after a queen. As Raz sees it, their existence and legacies go back far beyond a 20-year-old empowerment “experiment” since the Taliban’s fall.
Despite Afghanistan often being cast as far behind Western countries in terms of women’s advancement, women have had an impact when it comes to diplomacy, Raz said. In 2019, Raz formed what she named the Group of Friends of Women of Afghanistan within the United Nations. The group kicked off with 20 member nations, including the United States, and had support from international unions such as the African Union.
At the kickoff event, Raz said: “During the last 18 years, Afghan women have risen as leaders of change and have started to shift the narrative from victims to partners.” She added: “It is an important time in our political history where our gains matter more than ever, and our investment in Afghan women must continue to be strengthened.”
What came next, though, was devastating for women leaders in the country, according to Raz. In early 2020, the U.S.-Taliban peace deal, struck by the Trump administration, offered no protections for women.
The expectation had been that President Biden’s administration would come in and try to protect women’s rights in a more substantive way, Raz said, but six months into the new president’s term, Afghan officials in Washington remained nervous — and confused. It’s partly why Raz had moved in July from her post with the United Nations to Washington, where other leaders hoped she could expand support for Afghan security forces.
But the Biden administration ultimately made no attempt to renegotiate a deal that would have guaranteed the preservation of women’s rights or civil liberties.
Raz used the term “gaslighting” to describe what it felt like hearing Taliban spokesman Mujahid assure at an Aug. 17 news conference that the insurgents would be “committed to the rights of women within the framework of sharia.” From 1996 to 2001, she said, the Taliban also argued that women were enjoying all rights “granted by Islam.”
A week after the sudden — seemingly almost effortless — takeover of Afghanistan, Raz said she feels empty, devoid of the sense of purpose that had guided her entire life.
“Until now, I always thought my darkest time in life was when I lived in Afghanistan during the Taliban regime and even in that time, there was some sort of hope,” she said. “It’s almost like everything of 35 years is erased totally overnight. … It’s beyond pain, beyond tragedy.”
She doesn’t know what will happen next or what her role will be, only that she can’t imagine working in public life again because she’s “lost trust in others to be able to make change.” Mostly, she feels she failed her daughters, she said.
“I’ve lost trust, my confidence,” she said. “It would be a lie to fight for women to be empowered. We were empowered … and everyone walked away. They just walked away.”