Afghan women share stories of strength in “Arrows of Light”

The United States completed its withdrawal from Afghanistan on Aug. 15, 2021, amid chaotic frightening scenes at Hamid Karzai International Airport where Afghans desperately sought to board one of the last planes that would lift them away from a desolate future under the rule of the Taliban. 

No one had more to fear than the women of Afghanistan. In two decades since Americans invaded the country and toppled the old Taliban regime, women emerged into the social and educational life of their country. They could go to school, hold jobs and strive toward a future where women were valued and had human rights.

Compared to Western countries with strong women’s rights movements, their gains might seem modest and tentative, but they were real. Suddenly, with the American withdrawal and the collapse of the Afghan coalition government, they were abandoned to the re-emergence of the Taliban. They faced the choice of becoming refugees or staying in Afghanistan to survive under an authoritarian regime that devalues women. For those who had worked for the Americans, the choice was stark – freedom, but also uncertainty, as a refugee or potentially death at the hands of the Taliban.
“Arrows of Light: The Journeys of Afghan Women” is a compilation of personal essays, photographs, and artwork that tells the stories of what happened to Afghan women and their families during and after the American withdrawal. These are women who refuse to be victims. They choose instead to live in hope – and with defiance.

“Their resilience is just remarkable,” says Pamela Varkony, who edited the anthology. 

Varkony is a motivational speaker, world traveler, and an award-winning writer from Pennsylvania. She now lives in Tampa where she is a contributing writer for 83 Degrees. She is eager for readers to hear the voices and understand the aspirations of Afghan women. She recently addressed the American Association of University Women and hopes to soon do the same at Lehigh University.

“Arrows of Light” is one of several anthologies published annually with support from the International Women’s Writing Guild. 

“Every woman was so enthusiastic about the project,” says Varkony. “Everyone wanted to tell their stories. They want the world to know they are out there.”

The cover photo of the lush Afghanistan countryside is the work of Mariam Alimi. One line in a poem she wrote gave the anthology its name: “If you are a girl…you will always find ways to shoot arrows at the light.”

Alimi was born in Kabul during the Soviet occupation of the 1980s. She was one of the first women professional photographers in Afghanistan. After the American withdrawal, Alimi and her family fled Afghanistan and restarted their lives in the United States.

But Varkony says, like many emigrants, Alimi struggled to find employment in her chosen profession. Her first job was as a nurse’s aide, she said. Today Alimi is an award-winning photographer and video journalist.  

Personal but universal stories

Each story in the anthology is personal but also universal to the experience of Afghan women.

Aziza Munji knew life as a refugee for 18 years in Pakistan where her family fled during the 1990s conflicts and the rise of Taliban control. As a young woman, she returned alone to Afghanistan to pursue her dreams of education, a career, and a family. In 2016, she earned an undergraduate degree in psychology. She served as an interpreter and social media specialist for five years with NATO and U.S. military forces in Afghanistan. 

In her essay, she recalls the harrowing journey to a new life in Pennsylvania with her husband, an investigative journalist. As the couple sought to escape the Taliban and certain death, they had the life of their then-one-month-old son to protect. 

At every turn, the Taliban controlled their efforts to reach Kabul’s airport where thousands of Afghans converged seeking escape. One bus ride ended with the Taliban allowing the passengers into the airport only to turn them away with gunfire.

They spent days with no water and no food, even for their baby. It took 12 days and a second bus ride to the airport before an airlift to Qatar, then to Germany, and on to Poland for months. A former supervisor of Munji’s, who was back in America, aided in getting their names onto an approved list.

After more than a year in the United States, Munji says her family no longer feels threatened. But she writes, “We are still worried about our families who are left behind in Afghanistan, for whom we can do nothing but to pray.”

For Meena Habib, leaving Afghanistan was never a choice she would make. She had passionately pursued a career as a journalist, writing stories about Afghan street children, violations of human rights and suicide attacks. Her family disapproved and pressured her to quit.

When she won awards, she hid them away from her family. She was threatened with death by elected officials, attacked by the Taliban and arrested. She worked for two Afghan media companies but later founded Roidad News, the only woman-led news agency in the country.

The fight for equality in Afghanistan

For Sedra Aman, the fight for equality also continues inside Afghanistan.
Aman embraced her educational opportunities and began a career in accounting. She became the social media manager of the first online bookstore in Afghanistan – Kabul Reads.

She loved going to the office. On the day the Taliban took over Kabul, she risked one last visit to the office to savor what she knew would be gone in an instant. She heeded her mother’s advice to be safe and wear a burqa even over her long dress.
Within a half hour of her arrival, she was told to go home. The Taliban ordered the business closed immediately.

Months later, Aman dared to open her own virtual business, Alvaan Online Giftshop. It is possible to find a few photos on a Facebook page of items formerly for sale. But Varkony says, “They (Taliban) shut it down.” 

Varkony, an IWWG member and freelance writer, led the anthology project, which included fundraising as well as collecting and editing the essays. She relied on a network of friends and colleagues to reach out to the women in and out of Afghanistan. Pamela Varkony with staff members of Afghan National Hospital.

“This is the true definition of a real passion project,” says Varkony. 

A place in the heart

Varkony holds Afghanistan close to her heart. She twice visited the country and wrote freelance articles and blogs about life in Afghanistan.

Pamela Varkony with a group of Afghan women entrepreneurs. Her first visit was in 2006 as a writer and volunteer with the Business Council for Peace. The not-for-profit organization seeks to advance women in business particularly those who live in countries riven with conflict, including Afghanistan.

She helped with public relations and marketing and blogged about her experiences and the work done by the Business Council. She returned in 2007 as an embedded journalist with a United States military medical team.

“When I got the chance I didn’t hesitate,” Varkony says. “I just fell in love with Afghan women who are the smartest, bravest, the most impressive group I know.”

Several of the women whose essays are included in “Arrows of Light” are now lifetime friends. When she set about collecting the essays she dipped into “the Christmas card list.” Every woman has one, she says.

“Every woman has a network, so I started working my network, “she adds. 
Each woman in the anthology has her own support network as well.

“That’s how women in Afghanistan survive,” Varkony says. “They support each other. They care for each other. When they call each other sister, they aren’t kidding.”

And, she adds, “People are responding to these stories.”

The Afghan women endure so much but Varkony says, “They are just defiant.”

To purchase "Arrows of Light: The Journeys of Afghan Women” through Amazon, please click here. 
For more information, visit Pamela Varkony, Mariam Alimi; Roidadha Press and International Women’s Writing Guild
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Read more articles by Kathy Steele.

Kathy Steele is a freelance writer who lives in the Seminole Heights neighborhood of Tampa. She previously covered Tampa neighborhoods for more than 15 years as a reporter for The Tampa Tribune. She grew up in Georgia but headed north to earn a BA degree from Adelphi University in Garden City, NY. She backpacked through Europe before attending the University of Iowa's Creative Writers' Workshop for two years. She has a journalism degree from Georgia College. She likes writing, history, and movies.