For Afghan Refugee Women, There’s No Escape From Violence
Thousands of women have set off on their own for Turkey, but harassment from Afghan men often follows them to their new country.
The WhatsApp messages began in 2016. The first was from Hoor, a 16-year-old girl looking for work in Turkey. In a series of voice clips, she confided that she had run away from Kunduz, Afghanistan, after her uncle sold her as a bride to a man in his 50s. She made it to Istanbul, but as a woman on her own still feared for her safety.
Months later, my phone dinged with more messages. This time, it was 17-year-old Fatima. She and her sister Madiha, 18, had escaped forced marriages in Herat, Afghanistan. They were smuggled into Turkey with their older brother Ehsan, but he had gone missing. Now the two were working on farms in an Anatolian village, facing daily harassment.
Next came the popular Afghan YouTube star Sahar Aryan, who reached out with photos of herself in the hospital after she said Afghan men assaulted her in Kirsehir, a small, conservative town in Turkey where she was waiting for asylum to a third country through the United Nations. She had run from Kabul to escape death threats for singing onstage.
Aryan had been a contestant on the controversial Afghan television show Afghan Star, akin to American Idol. As part of the competition, she had sung “Stoning,” a song condemning the ongoing practice of killing adulterers by bludgeoning them to death with rocks.
The performance—and others like it—had earned her the ire of conservative Afghan men in Afghanistan and in Turkey. In her sparse Kirsehir apartment, Aryan was recovering from the beating that had left her with a head injury, bruises, and a black eye.
These Afghan girls and women, on the run from domestic violence, death threats, sexual assault, forced marriage, and a 40-year war, are by themselves—some for the first time in their lives. Although the 3.5 million Syrians who have made their way to Turkey might make more news, the number of Afghans entering the country is now surpassing Syrian arrivals.
Over the next three to five years, the United States plans to have all its troops out of Afghanistan. The Taliban, eager to return to power, have promised that this time will be different. Officials such as Sher Mohammad Abbas Stanikzai say they will allow women to attend school and work—two activities that the group previously banned. But the fleeing Afghan women have little hope that their lives will be better. Simply put, Aryan told me, “There’s a culture against women.” And changing it will not be easy.
After all, the United States has spent more than $1.5 billion trying to uplift Afghan women since ousting the Taliban in 2001. The results have been mixed at best. Millions of girls went back to school. Thousands of Afghan women went back to work, and some even joined the government, sports teams, and the military. In urban centers and safer rural areas, women thrived, but on the front lines where the war raged, they remained stranded with few resources.
In turn, as airstrikes and suicide bombings continued, scores of refugees—including tens of thousands of women—fled the country. Advocacy groups such as the Afghan Women’s Network and Women for Afghan Women say that if the Taliban revoke rights for women once they join the government, more will be trying to get out. Western governments should prepare themselves: “You’ll have so many Afghans coming to your doors unless you show interest and start talking to the Taliban about the kind of governance you want. You can’t support a government that stones women,” Shaharzad Akbar, a Kabul-based Afghan political activist, told me.
In 2011, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees estimated that about 3,500 Afghan women had registered as refugees in Turkey to seek asylum to a third country. The number increased to about 40,000 in 2017, in part because of the European Union deal with Turkey to stop refugees from crossing to Europe, which meant that more Afghans stayed there. The U.N.’s International Migration Office believes that thousands more are undocumented.
The women who have fled Afghanistan to Turkey have typically done so with the help of smugglers. Although they are looking for safety, they often face even more abuse on the trail or in the conservative Turkish towns they are assigned to once they reach that country’s borders.
With the influx of Syrian and other refugees, Turkey stopped assigning refugees to its bigger liberal towns, which it says are overcrowded. There may be some truth to that, but it means sending women to places where they will lack a support network.
In small towns, foreign women living alone can be mistaken for prostitutes. Fatima and Madiha work in bakeries and farms seasonally, but they’ve been propositioned countless times. One morning, a group of migrant men threw a rock at their apartment window, and the women hid for a month. A Turkish social worker told me that unemployed migrant men also harass Turkish women, leading to fights with Turkish men. Lone migrant men do make up a large population of Afghans entering Turkey, and Ankara has especially focused on deporting and detaining those who are in the country without the proper documents.
For the women, waiting out the violence is still worth it. Eventually, they hope, their asylum applications to other countries will be accepted. Until then, they dutifully show up every two weeks at their local police station to keep their asylum cases active. Hoor, Fatima, and Madiha have completed their first round of interviews and are waiting to be resettled in the United States. That could take a while. Under the Trump administration, decisions on refugee cases are slow in coming. All the women would like to go to New York City and enter university and work. They talk to each other via WhatsApp and want to stay connected once in the United States, but refugees do not have the option to choose their city unless they are sponsored by an American. Hoor is afraid that wearing a headscarf may make her a target of hate if she ends up in a city without many Muslims. “I just want to go where I can feel safe,” she said.
Aryan, the singer, has taken a different path.
With long dark hair and ruby red lipstick, Aryan has a nervous laugh and a penetrating voice. She sits on her bed and sings in the middle of the night, sometimes waking her Turkish neighbors with Persian poetry and Turkish sonnets.
Born in Iran to an Iranian mother and an Afghan father, Aryan’s childhood was grim with violence. Her father abused her mother, and they divorced; he took the children to Azerbaijan, where he kept them under strict control. Fluent in Turkish and Farsi, Aryan said she secretly joined a choir in Baku because her father wouldn’t let her sing. Like the Taliban, he believed that music, especially a woman singing, was haram.
In 2013, Aryan, which is her stage name, made a dangerous move. She traveled to an unlikely place to pursue her music career: Afghanistan, where she had family but would be free of her father’s restrictions. There, she performed songs dedicated to women’s rights. For any young artist in Afghanistan, the pinnacle of success is being able to sing on Afghan Star, and Aryan was thrilled when she made the cut. She lost the competition but gained recognition.
“After Afghan Star, I was followed on the street. I had to move six times. Finally, I came out with full hijab. I was speaking about feminism in Afghanistan on Instagram and received many threats,” Aryan said. In Kabul, she was living with her paternal aunt, but her cousin beat her with his fists and kicked her in the stomach after her stage performance. She moved out, but when men recognized her in public, they taunted and insulted her too. Aryan said she talked back, and they became violent.
“It’s not one person that’s after me. Men who are Islamists and hate women and want women to sit at home, and want to use women as slaves, they are after me. They didn’t want me to sing. They didn’t want their mom or sister to learn from me,” she said.
To their dismay, however, Aryan became a role model for some younger urban women. Sahar means “dawn” in Farsi, and her fans began using the slogan “Sahar nazdikast,” meaning the dawn or change is near. As her popularity grew, Aryan knew she couldn’t stay in Afghanistan.
Aryan didn’t expect the violence to follow her to Turkey, though. Once there, the Turkish government assigned her to Kirsehir, a tiny town in the center of the country. She moved in with other Afghan refugee women and worked in a Turkish restaurant. But they weren’t the only Afghans in town—migrant Afghan men, also traveling alone, would loiter in the town square catcalling to women.
On one cold December night, Aryan was leaving a friend’s house with her laptop when three men yelled at her in Farsi, saying she had given Afghan women a bad name, dishonoring them as men. As usual, Aryan shot back, telling them to mind their own business. Instead, they attacked her—one held her throat as the other hit her head. The men ran as police and an ambulance arrived. Aryan was hospitalized for two days, traumatized and in pain.
“The biggest danger to me in Turkey is the same Afghans I was running away from have come here,” she said. Aryan requested reassignment to Istanbul, where she believed she would be able to more safely continue her music, but she said she was denied. She moved anyway, forsaking her chances of asylum in the West. She is now seeking residency in Turkey, making more music videos and working for a real estate agency. Her music is no longer as dark.
Aryan said she misses her friends in Afghanistan, but now that the Taliban are seeking a comeback, her hopes of returning are slim. She said peace will come when every Afghan woman rises to fight back. Her fight is the message of power in her music. “I’m singing about a country that’s being battered and beaten, and I’m being battered and beaten for it. Am I worse than those men who rape women, who kill others? I don’t think I’m that much of a sinner just for singing,” she said.
In Afghanistan, women are banding together to lobby the U.S. government for continued help, protest violence on social media, and call on the Taliban to include them in the peace talks. Marjan Mateen, Afghanistan’s deputy education minister, told me she traveled to provinces across the country to speak to women in urban and rural areas about what they want for their future. She found that their opinions were colored by their experiences of violence and poverty. In safer areas, women wanted development. In war zones, security was the priority.
The West has invested too much in Afghan women to allow the Taliban and other extremist groups to crush their hopes. If there’s peace, women must be a part of it, but they need international allies. And their message has been loud and clear: If you don’t want us in your countries as refugees, then help us make Afghanistan safe and free.
As long as the war rages, women will be a target of violence—and not just in their own country. Male violence among refugees is another dark impact of the fighting, and it will haunt host countries like Turkey until the problem is fixed at the root. That root is in Afghanistan, where there are no quick fixes, just a long process of cultivating a durable peace.