Unabashed and Unbroken

Afghan-American Women Reclaim Their Stories
Interviews: Zainab Mohsini | Artwork: Zainab Ahmadi

As we approach the one-year anniversary of the fall of Kabul to the Taliban during the chaotic U.S. troop withdrawal, the memory of the War in Afghanistan is starting to fade from public discourse. Despite headline coverage of the tumultuous evacuation effort during the last two weeks of August 2021, the U.S. media industry has reared its head to Ukraine. The endless coverage of white Ukrainian refugees has exposed the racist bias of journalists who have claimed that Ukraine “isn’t a place, with all due respect, like Iraq or Afghanistan [...] This is a relatively civilized [place]”.1 Despite the lack of mainstream media or political discourse about Afghanistan, the legacy of decades of U.S.-endorsed geopolitical conflict is still negatively impacting Afghans, and particularly Afghan women, all across the globe. Listening to Afghan women, now more than ever, is essential.

Afghan women have been a central justification for the development of the expansive U.S. military-industrial complex during the era of the War on Terror. Very explicitly, Laura Bush, during the first presidential radio address presented entirely by a First Lady2, stated, in reference to the War in Afghanistan, that, “The fight against terrorism is also a fight for the rights and dignity of women.”3 At the very beginning of the Bush presidency, the U.S. government was planting the seeds of a cynical political and social discourse that placed Afghan women at the very center of a racist and paternalist reasoning for the “War on Terror”. The use of Afghan women as a rhetorical tool to justify very uncivilized U.S. wars and imperial expansion was an act of intentional historical amnesia.

Contrary to popular belief and knowledge, U.S. involvement in Afghanistan predates 2001 by over 20 years. In the late 1970s, the CIA began providing support to anti-Soviet mujahideen forces with the intention to “goad the Red Army into invading” Afghanistan so that the U.S. could pull the Soviet Union into a drawn out, bloody conflict similar to the U.S. war in Vietnam.4 Throughout the 1980s, the U.S. government regularly provided hundreds of millions of dollars worth of military support to the mujahideen every year.5 Branches of the mujahideen would use the training and weapons from the U.S. and its allies to form the Taliban, which brutally took over Afghanistan in the 1990s.6 The entire U.S. policy towards Afghanistan in the late twentieth century was to actively support a prolonged, brutal conflict to tear apart Afghan society as a part of the proxy war in the greater geopolitical struggle with the Soviet Union. Throughout these years of extensive, if covert, involvement, the U.S. contributed to a cycle of violence that displaced millions of Afghan women.

The women who I interviewed for this project have been caught up in these conflicts that have extended over the past 40 years. From those whose families were forced to flee in the late 1970s to those who escaped last year, there are eerie echoes of pain and struggle that carry through each successive generation of women refugees. Despite President Biden’s promise to, “speak out for basic rights of the Afghan people, especially women and girls,” the concerns facing Afghan women in the U.S. and across the globe are continuing to escalate. In Afghanistan, the Taliban are successively placing more restricting on women’s rights while about half the population in general is at risk of starvation. Meanwhile, efforts to provide permanent status to Afghan parolees in the U.S. have stalled.

Though the U.S. government and the media have spilled much ink on the importance of supporting Afghan women, political and journalistic actors rarely center the voices of those women. My SAADA project fights to break this cycle of repeated violence, disenfranchisement, and paternalism by asking Afghan and Afgan-American women to speak candidly about their own experiences. Unfortunately, the limited scope of my project inhibited me from focusing on the voices of all marginalized groups within communities of Afghan women. However, my hope is that my project builds a space for future research into other aspects of Afghan womanhood. Unsurprisingly, the interviews yielded a diverse array of perspectives, with women discussing gender, ethnicity, immigration, class, discrimination, resistance, and a range of other topics. Not all of the women agree on the attitudes towards U.S. intervention or on their specific role within the South Asian American community. However, all of the women agree that Afghan women are the ones who should have the leading role in deciding their own futures.


“Even a lot of Afghans here [Afghan-Americans], in the first year when I came here, they thought that women who live in Afghanistan are uneducated and are ignorant. For example, that they aren’t smart, for example that they don’t have any ideologies.”

Freaba Morrad

“I think up until the evacuation [in August 2021] people started seeing more of like these Afghan women that like were professors and teachers and like taught and they travelled, and they worked in the embassy.”


“Misconception? One of the things is that very often the faces of success are rare, but the faces of misfortune are very visible. People think that they [Afghan women] are really conservative, closed-off and ignorant, that all of them are victims.”


“I think they are really strong, Afghan women, I think they are faced with so much bullsh*t that’s being thrown at them constantly, but they still rise up above it.”


“If someone wants to support me, they should come have a dialogue with me. Let’s go over the details of what caused us to get here […] what mistakes did we make, what setbacks did you face that you are successful now. Let’s exchange opinions like this not with pity.”


“I used to sew, embroider pant hems, embroider chaderi, but I wasn’t allowed to spend my earnings I used to give it to your dad (her husband).”

1. “They are ‘civilised’ and ‘look like us’: the racist coverage of Ukraine,” Moustafa Bayoumi, The Guardian
2. “Laura Bush Addresses State of Afghan Women,” James Gerstenzang and Lisa Getter, Los Angeles Times
3. “Radio Address by Mrs. Bush,” The White House
4. “Afghanistan: The Soviet Union’s Vietnam,” Al-Jazeera
5. “History to Trump: CIA was aiding Afghan rebels before the Soviets invaded in ’79,” Tim Weiner, The Washington Post
6. “A Look At Afghanistan's 40 Years Of Crisis — From The Soviet War To Taliban Recapture,” Hannah Bloch, NPR

Zainab Mohsini (she/her) is an Afghan refugee, community organizer, social justice advocate and former Congressional candidate. As a working-class woman, Zainab has held a variety of jobs throughout her life, ranging from being a restaurant server, retail employee, AmeriCorps service member, political canvasser, Dari interpreter, and currently a legal coordinator at a reproductive justice non-profit. Zainab is passionate about centering the voices of those who are the most marginalized. She has organized protests to advocate for oppressed communities including to increase protections for the incoming Afghan refugees. Zainab’s SAADA project focuses on telling the stories of Afghan women in their own perspectives to showcase their diversity, resilience, and humanity. In the popular narrative Afghan women are either fetishized like Sharbat Gula, whose beauty graces the cover of National Geographic, or are objectified as “victims” whose imperialistic rescue justifies a two trillion-dollar, decades long war. The stories of Afghan women are too often told by white people who use them as symbols to justify their own geopolitical agenda. This project will demonstrate that Afghan women are often the breadwinners and leaders in their families and communities with complex lived experiences and stories.

The Archival Creators Fellowship Program is made possible with support from The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation and the Institute of Museum and Library Services.

Read Zainab's writings about her fellowship project in TIDES:
• I Am My Own Savior