ROME (AP) — Before the Taliban took over Afghanistan, Badul Haidari was a prominent professor of sexology at Kabul University. She taught mixed classes of male and female students, and helped patients struggling with gender identity issues.
Her husband owned a carpet factory and they did their best to provide a good education for their 18-year-old son and two daughters, aged 13 and eight.
That comfortable life came to an abrupt halt on August 15, 2021, when former rebels who adhere to a strict interpretation of Islam returned to power following a costly two-decade US-led campaign to reform the country.
Haidari, 37, is one of many women who fled the Taliban in the late 1990s, fearing a return to the practices of the previous Taliban regime, which largely excluded women and girls from education and work. He reached Rome at the end of 2021, after a daring escape through Pakistan, with the help of Italian volunteers who arranged for him and his family to be hosted on the outskirts of the Italian capital.
She is one of thousands of Afghan women trying to maintain an active social role in their host countries. Haidari and her husband are studying Italian while receiving financial support from various associations. She keeps in touch with feminist organizations at home and tries to maintain contact with some of her patients via the Internet.
“Being alive is already a form of resistance,” she said, adding that she wants her children to contribute to the future of Afghanistan, where she is sure her family will return one day.
“When my son passed the exam to enter the medical faculty at a university in Rome, it was good news for me,” she said during a trip to her Italian classes in central Rome. “Because if I came to a European country, it was mainly for the future of my children.”
After taking over Afghanistan in 2021, the Taliban initially promised to respect the rights of women and minorities. Instead, they gradually banned girls’ education beyond the sixth grade, excluded women from most fields of employment, and forced them to dress head-to-toe in public.
Haidari tried to stay in Kabul with his family after the Taliban took over. She became an outspoken activist of the Afghan Women’s Political Participation Network to fight for women’s education, work and political participation.
But the risks soon became too great. Hydari was not only an educated feminist activist but also a member of the Hazara ethnic group.
The Hazara minority has been a frequent target of violence since the Taliban took over. Most Shiite Muslims are hated and targeted by Sunni militants such as the Islamic State group, and are discriminated against by many in the Sunni-majority country.
Haidari received death threats for her research on child sexual abuse in Afghan society and decided to leave in December 2021. He traveled to Pakistan with his family and helped an Italian journalist, Maria Grazia Mazzola, board a flight from Pakistan to Italy.
“We heard that the Taliban were shooting and raiding houses very close to where they were hiding,” Mazzola said. “We were in touch with the Italian embassy in Pakistan, with secret contacts in Afghanistan, and together we decided that they should change their hiding place every three days.”
The Italian government evacuated more than 5,000 Afghans on military planes soon after the Taliban were captured. Later, a network of Italian feminists, Catholic and evangelical churches, and volunteers like Mazzola organized humanitarian corridors and set up hospitality in Italy throughout the following year.
Mazzola, who works for Italian public RAI television and is an expert on Islamic fundamentalism, created a network of associations to host 70 Afghan, mostly Hazara women activists and their families.
Now that the refugees are in Italy and gradually gaining asylum, Mazzola said the priority is to get official recognition of their university degrees or other qualifications that would help them find dignified employment.
“A girl like Badul (Hydari) cannot work as a cleaner in a school. It will also be a waste for our society. He is a psychologist and deserves to continue working,” Mazzola said.
Hydari agreed. Although she says she misses the streets and alleys of Kabul and the easy life she was used to, “most of all I miss the fact that I was a very useful person in Afghanistan.”
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