Reports that Iranian religious authorities have disbanded the feared “morality police” following more than three months of massive anti-government protests by women across Iran have given a ray of hope—though not much more than that—to Afghanistan’s Roya Rahmani.
“Should this news be true, I think it would definitely be a good step forward for the region, though I’m not sure that whatever happens in the world really matters to the Taliban” now running her country, she said. “They seem to be functioning in a vacuum.”
A well-known figure on Embassy Row, Rahmani, 44, served from December 2018 until July 2021 as the first female ambassador ever to represent Afghanistan in the United States.
And encouraging though the latest developments in Iran may be, the situation there is infinitely better than in neighboring Afghanistan, where women who protest in the streets of Kabul and other cities are “basically committing suicide,” Rahmani said.
“Afghan women wish they had similar unanimous public support, as well as support from their male counterparts,” she told us. “In Iran, even with all its difficulties, there’s still some system of checks and balances. It’s probably harder for the Iranians to punish and torture their women than it is in Afghanistan, where women protesting are out there alone. Anything can happen to them.”
Notably, Rahmani no longer wears her headscarf as she did while serving as ambassador. It’s a deliberate act of defiance, she says, “in solidarity with all my sisters who are forced not only to wear it, but also told what colors they may wear. It’s a choice, and my choice is very important because it’s the basis of democracy—and my hair is not part of the equation.”
In a lengthy interview earlier this month with The Washington Diplomat, Rahmani spoke of her life before entering as an ambassador and what she’s done since stepping down nearly a year and a half ago as her term was nearing an end.
She would have quit anyway, she said, even if the Taliban hadn’t overrun her country.
“For months, I had been very frustrated with the way the government I represented was conducting itself. It was in shambles,” she told us. “It was inevitable the Taliban would take over. The best scenario was that the US would pull out and the Taliban only would be part of a transitional government.”
Rahmani: Private sector key to ‘breaking vicious cycle’
Of course, that didn’t happen. In August 2021, as Taliban fighters advanced on Kabul, then-President Ashraf Ghani and his entourage fled the country in three helicopters carrying an undetermined amount of cash. A recent independent US government probe put the amount at around $500,000—not the $170 million Ghani was widely reported to have stolen at the time.
“The abruptness contributed to the chaos that we witnessed,” she said. “It was no secret that US troops were bound to leave, based on the Doha agreement that the US and the Taliban had negotiated. Part of that agreement was transition to an inclusive government which was also not fulfilled because the former president and his aides escaped from the country. So the chaotic withdrawal and the evacuation process was not all the fault of the Americans.”
She added: “The combination of bad leadership by the Afghan government and the lack of better strategies by the US and its NATO allies resulted in the Taliban gaining territory very fast.”
Perhaps only 10 countries still maintain embassies in Kabul. “They all function at the minimum level, basically just to have a presence there,” she said. “No country has recognized the Taliban.”
In Washington, the State Department eventually closed the cash-strapped Afghan Embassy on Wyoming Avenue and put the building under its protection; it remains shuttered until further notice. Some former embassy staffers moved to Canada, while others sought asylum under a specific US immigration clause that’s available for foreign diplomats whose lives would be endangered if they returned home.
Along with staffers working at Afghanistan’s consulates in New York and Los Angeles, and their families, this came to between 160 and 170 individuals.
Rahmani herself didn’t request political asylum, since Georgetown University provided her a work visa; US authorities later approved her application for US residency. The former ambassador is currently affiliated with the Georgetown Institute for Women, Peace and Security.
She’s also assumed the role of vice-chair for public policy at Delphos, a DC-based global financial advisory firm, and has done work on behalf of the Atlantic Council, the New America Foundation and the Albright Stonebridge Group.
“The key to breaking this vicious cycle of conflict, misery and insecurity is economics,” she said. “I believe in the power of the private sector. Therefore, it was my intention to join the private-sector world after my tenure as ambassador, because I want to see results—and see them fast. That’s why I joined Delphos.”
Instability nothing new for long-suffering Afghanistan
Rahmani was born in 1978, one year before the Soviets invaded Afghanistan. Since then, her country has never known a moment of peace and quiet.
“In my own life, I’ve seen regime change five times,” she said. “I remember our flags changing back and forth during my own childhood. That speaks to the extent of our instability.”
Following the Soviet withdrawal of forces from Afghanistan and a civil war that lasted from 1992 to 1996, her family fled to Pakistan, where the young girl attended a Saudi-funded school for refugees in the town of Peshawar. The school was so crowded that she and her classmates had to study on the roof for an entire school year.
By the time Rahmani returned to Kabul in 1998, the Taliban were in charge, and she refused to leave her house rather than put on a burqa as required under strict Islamic law.
But a scholarship from World University Service in Canada changed her life. She enrolled at Montreal’s McGill University and earned a bachelor’s degree in software engineering. In 2004, Rahmani returned to Afghanistan representing a Canadian nonprofit dedicated to educating Afghan women and girls.
Eventually Rahmani got a master’s degree from New York’s Columbia University and joined her country’s government, first at the Ministry of Education and then at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Before her December 2018 appointment by Ghani as ambassador here, she was posted to Jakarta as ambassador to Indonesia and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN).
Besides her native Dari, she speaks Pashto and English, with a basic understanding of Urdu and French. She’s also married and has a daughter, Bareen.
“I have had very close encounters with bombings and shootings,” Rahmani said. “My own house was bombed, so my threshold for feeling threatened is pretty high.”
‘We are so hungry for peace and stability’
One word comes to mind when describing the current status of women in Afghanistan: misery.
The country ranks dead last in the latest Hologic Global Women’s Health Index, which surveyed 127,000 people in 122 nations and territories; Taiwan, Latvia and Austria scored highest.
According to the study, overwhelming numbers of Afghan women reported feeling worried (85%), stressed (83%), sad (78%) and angry (62%) the day before the survey, and a record-high 96% of Afghan women evaluated their lives so poorly that they could be considered suffering.
In addition, relatively few Afghan women reported getting tested for high-blood pressure (23%), diabetes (14%) or sexually transmitted diseases (13%) in the 12 months prior to the survey. Not a single woman surveyed had been tested for breast or ovarian cancer. It’s a moot point anyway, since only one hospital in Kabul bears the treatment burden for all of Afghanistan, whose population exceeded 39 million in 2021.
“The Taliban killed our healthcare sector, and now women bear the brunt of the burden,” Rahmani said. “They have literally taken women out of all public spaces in Afghanistan.”
On Dec. 20, the Taliban reportedly banned all female students from attending universities. This ban on higher education comes less than three months after thousands of girls and women sat for university entrance exams across the country, with many aspiring to choose teaching and medicine as future careers.
No surprise, then, that the former ambassador wasn’t the least bit shocked by a recent video showing a woman being savagely flogged by Taliban thugs for shopping without a male escort.
“We’ve seen this movie before,” Rahmani said, referring to the first time Taliban forces ruled Afghanistan, from 1996 to 2001. “There are no words to express what these women are going through. I can’t compare it to Iran, because the Iranians show their unity in the thousands. The Afghan women go out in the streets protesting in the tens and dozens. They do not have the support of Afghan men, and restrictions are way more severe than those in Iran.”
The risk, said Rahmani, is that the longer Taliban forces remain in power, the harder it will be to undo the damage they’ve caused.
Even so, she said, “I definitely see hope. I know we have had major failures as a nation, but the current generation—half of them women—are looking for a better life. They are not extremists or terrorists, but very gracious people in search of better lives, like anyone else around the world. We are so hungry for peace and stability.”