Afghanistan’s Gen Z Is Fighting Back

Younger Afghans are on a mission to change how their country talks about life, death, and freedom.

Attendees stand next to portraits of women who suffered violence at an exhibition in support of women in Afghanistan, in Faizabad, Badakhshan province, on Dec. 9, 2019.
Attendees stand next to portraits of women who suffered violence at an exhibition in support of women in Afghanistan, in Faizabad, Badakhshan province, on Dec. 9, 2019. Sharif Shayeq/AFP/Getty Images

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KABUL, Afghanistan—There were few things that scared Fatima Khalil, a 24-year-old human rights activist who torpedoed her way across an increasingly volatile and patriarchal landscape of Afghanistan. One of them, Lima Ahmad, her older sister, told me in July, was “that Afghanistan will take away her happiness; it was something she always talked about.” Ahmad is now picking up the remnants of a life after Khalil was killed in an attack on her vehicle in Kabul on June 27.

Through the digital crumbs left behind by a member of Generation Z, who documented everything through Facebook posts, photos, video clips, tweets, Instagram stories, and more, Ahmad draws a vivid picture of her baby sister. Khalil, known to her family as Natasha, was a rising star among young Afghans, whose future is increasingly under threat by ever worsening conflict.

In one video clip, Khalil and her friends are parasailing in the Kyrgyz capital, Bishkek, where she was studying. In the background, her friend says, “Natasha, we might die.” She responds, “It is better than dying in an explosion in Afghanistan.” In the end, Ahmad says, “she faced her biggest fear.” She could have stayed away from Afghanistan—in Kyrgyzstan, where she had studied, or in the United States, where she had opportunities to go—but even grave physical risks were not enough to keep her away from Afghanistan, a country she loved and one that frustrated her in equal parts.

Khalil was born as a refugee in Pakistan, sixth of seven siblings, to parents who were forced to flee their homeland in the 1990s due to civil war. “We did not come from a rich economic background, but when we moved to Pakistan, life became more difficult. My parents were both teachers and also did not speak the local languages and so could not find enough work to support the family. We had many ups and downs, and Natasha was born in this time,” Ahmad said, recalling how the midwife had walked out during her sister’s delivery because they could not afford to pay her fees.

Khalil survived and, from an early age, seemed wise beyond her years. “She already spoke three languages by the age of five. Her excellence in school ensured that she was awarded a scholarship to study at the Afghan Turk school when we moved back to Kabul. After she graduated, she secured another full scholarship to study anthropology at the American University of Central Asia and later pursued another degree in international human rights,” Ahmad said. “She loved to dance and was annoyingly good at it. I often told her to keep her options open in case she wanted to choose to work in a field other than human rights. We discussed the possibility of her opening the first dance school in Afghanistan.”

Still she was most passionate about human rights, particularly about women’s freedoms. At one point, Ahmad recalled, Khalil got into an argument with a government official who refused to take her photo for the electronic ID cards until she agreed to cover her head with a chador. “She raised a furor and demanded the officials show her where in the Afghan Constitution it says that a woman needs wear a chador for taking ID photographs. She always had her own way of doing things. And eventually she got an ID card with a photo of her without a chador because that is who she was.” A childhood friend, Zuhal Ahad, an Afghan journalist with the BBC, concurred that Khalil would advocate for women’s education even in school, urging married classmates to continue or pursue higher education. “I was sure she was going to be a future leader of Afghanistan,” she added.

In September 2019, Khalil joined the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission (AIHRC), and immediately delved into field work. It was while on her way to work that she was killed by a roadside bomb believed to have been targeting the AIHRC vehicle. The blast killed not just Khalil but also the driver, Ahmad Jawed Folad. Although no group has claimed responsibility, Afghans have attributed a recent of spate of attacks in Kabul to the Taliban, who have been known to disregard civilian lives in their attacks. In just the first quarter of this year, the U.N. Assistance Mission in Afghanistan documented 1,293 civilian victims—533 killed and 760 injured.

Khalil’s death has accentuated the multigenerational nature of the Afghan conflict, now threatening young people who have never known peace. The latest generation, though, appears ready to fight back in new ways. “She was never happy with the status quo. If it did not satisfy her, she demanded change with a sense of entitlement. She didn’t feel the need to be in the system that was made by others for her. I have noticed this characteristics among other Afghans of her generation, too,” said Ahmad, whose Ph.D. thesis explores the potential of Afghanistan’s Gen Z, a topic that was inspired by Khalil herself. “Even though we were raised by the same parents in the same family, with the same economy, her approach to life was uncomplicated. She was outspoken and did not care to wear layers of social and emotional norms.”

Afghanistan’s Gen Z has had some advantages that shaped its worldview differently than its predecessors’. “For one, they are so connected to the rest of the world. Growing up in my generation, Afghanistan was so isolated from the world. But for Natasha it was normal to socialize with friends from other countries or cultures,” Ahmad explained. In turn, the increasing sophistication and accessibility of technology have played an important role in allowing the current generation of Afghans to aspire for a better life. “In my opinion, their exposure and interaction with the rest of world, where people of their generation lived peacefully, make them entitled to the same comforts and [they] adopted the same values,” Ahmad added.

The sense of entitlement to peace has also meant that the current generation is willing to take bigger risks. “We were both raised in war, but she was not scared of breaking social taboos like I was. Natasha’s generation is bold in their opinions, thoughts, and actions, irrespective of the criticism that comes their way,” Ahmad said. Like many of the educated elite of this generation, “Natasha had the opportunity to live in other countries if she wanted to, she was very intelligent, but she chose to come back here to work here for our future,” Ahad added.

From Ahmad’s ongoing research, she has found less shame around the choice to live freely. She added that if the Taliban do return, they will have to take into account this generation, which will not submit to their will as the previous ones did.

Khalil’s rage about the increasing violence in Afghanistan makes Ahmad think that she would have hated being called a shaheed—martyr—as many are currently eulogizing her. “She was murdered. As someone who loved life like no one else, I know she would have been very angry. I can feel this immense energy within myself that she is mad, she is really mad … and I can feel it.” Terms like shaheed glorify death, Ahmad concluded. “It normalizes a horrible thing … one where you don’t even have the agency. This glorification of death is making our children feel like if you die in the way that Natasha and so many other young people died, then you will be a hero,” she said. “I don’t want Natasha to be a symbol of death. I want her to be the symbol of life.”

Afghan and international organizations are closely following the investigation into Khalil’s death. Amnesty International has launched a petition asking for Afghan President Ashraf Ghani to take proactive measure to provide protection and justice to human rights defenders like Khalil. Ahmad hopes that by keeping the issue alive, the way Afghans view life and death in the country will change.

Ruchi Kumar is a journalist in Afghanistan.

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