When Afghanistan’s government fell to the Taliban on Aug. 15, 2021, Laila Naseri knew her life was going to be upended. Most Afghans’ lives were in different ways, but the threats to her were immediate.

As a single woman in her early 20s, she’d be compelled to submit to the strictures of the brutally misogynistic Taliban regime, which is bent on enforcing a radical form of Islamic fundamentalism on women. Suddenly, the now 23-year-old was relegated to home and hijab, the head covering mandated for women by the ruling party. In recent months that has morphed into mandatory head-to-foot coverings in public, including over the face.

Anywhere she goes, a woman must now be accompanied by a male relative. There are no exceptions — even if she’s fleeing domestic violence. Only old women and young girls are exempted from wearing the burqa in public. Violations can result in prison for the father or closest male relative, who can also be fired from government jobs.

This clothing decree was depicted by Afghanistan’s supreme leader and Taliban chief, Hibatullah Akhundzada, as “traditional and respectful.” Its purpose, he said, was “in order to avoid provocation when meeting men who are not mahram [adult close male relatives].” In other words, if men can’t control themselves in a woman’s presence, the onus is on women for dressing provocatively.

Laila Naseri

So imagine how the Taliban feels about female fashion models, strutting down runways, sometimes in Western clothing, sometimes striking sultry poses for television commercials, or even flirting.

That had been Laila Naseri’s profession for three years when the Taliban took over.

“If the Taliban knows about the modeling girls, they will kill them,” the 23-year-old told me through an interpreter in Des Moines. “I couldn’t leave the house.”

Within days she heard women in media jobs were getting evacuated from Afghanistan, so she and a friend went to the Kabul airport to try to tell officials about their situations. She was clutching her modeling documents to show she was legitimately at risk. The security guards they spoke with outside the airport told them to wait while they went inside to confer with superiors.

From there it was a whirlwind. When they returned, the men let the women into the airport where, the next day, they were flown to Dubai for four days for processing. Naseri, not expecting such fast action, had no luggage, nothing but the clothes she wore. Her passport had gone to Germany with someone else. They entered the U.S. through Washington, D.C., on Aug. 29 and ultimately arrived in Des Moines via Wisconsin.

Naseri was one of some 700 Afghans to be relocated here. Since leaving Afghanistan, she received word that two of the women she had modeled with had been shot to death while leaving Kabul by car. The founder of Modelstan, the first of Afghanistan’s modeling agencies, fled to Germany after being warned he would be killed. Hamed Valy had studied in India, and said he returned to Afghanistan hoping to make fashion and glamor more accepted in his home country.

Now they bring death threats.

Laila Naseri shows how she used to make her living back in Afghanistan.
Laila Naseri shows how she used to make her living back in Afghanistan.

In Des Moines, life for Naseri is assuming some semblance of normalcy, and she feels safe and free here. But it was a rocky start, as the Register documented previously, and the future isn’t guaranteed. Resettlement of many Afghans was fraught with problems. Many lacked adequate food and services, were living in temporary substandard housing and couldn’t get caseworkers from the resettlement agencies to respond to their calls for help.

More: Des Moines volunteer group alleges resettlement agencies aren’t meeting Afghan refugees’ needs

More: Why some Afghan refugees have fared better in Sioux City, Cedar Rapids than in Des Moines

Laila Naseri felt threatened in her homeland of Afghanistan, but feels safe in Iowa.
Laila Naseri felt threatened in her homeland of Afghanistan, but feels safe in Iowa.

Naseri said it was particularly rough being one of few single women in the group. “I’m very sad. I’m broken. I’m suffocating in this room,” she told the Register in April. Things have improved since she moved into better housing and has a job. But far from the glamorous, highly competitive one she had posing for the camera, she’s doing an overnight shift packaging car parts. During the day she sleeps, and three days a week at 5:30 p.m. she takes English lessons at DMACC through Lutheran Services in Iowa’s program for refugees.

She doesn’t speak English, so this interview was done with a friend interpreting.

With neither a driver’s license nor a car, Naseri depends on others to go anywhere she can’t walk to. The Register’s Lee Rood has taken her under her wing since witnessing her struggles, and Naseri has many friends. She just wishes her parents and siblings were with her.

The Taliban first took over Afghanistan in 1996 after both the U.S. and the former Soviet Union pulled forces out. It remained in control until 2001, when the U.S. invaded in search of Osama bin Laden, following the attacks of Sept. 11.

After that, some women’s rights were restored so Naseri hadn’t personally experienced such repression before. A new constitution was passed, strengthening women’s rights, and an Elimination of Violence Against Women law was passed in 2009. But the former Ministry of Women’s Affairs has now been replaced by the Ministry for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice, which gives you a sense of the priorities.

In 2009 we at the Register had a visit from a different 23-year-old Afghan woman who had suffered under Taliban extremism when both her parents were killed. She had gone on to write the 2003 book “Zoya’s Story,” using only her first name because of threats on her life. Though she had moved to Pakistan with her grandmother, she wrote and spoke of joining the Revolutionary Association of Women of Afghanistan and returning to Afghanistan to help organize underground schools for girls, among other things.

But with the Taliban back in power, girls above sixth grade are now barred from attending school. “Is it a sin to be girl, is it sin to seek education?” asked a tearful one captured on  a news video.

Zoya’s trip to America at the time was to encourage the government to pull U.S.  troops out. Many Afghans felt the U.S. had turned its back on Afghanistan after the fall of the former Soviet Union, leaving a void into which the Taliban stepped; they didn’t want to see history repeat itself.

Sadly, it has.

Some of the newest refugees believe last year’s outcome could have been avoided had the U.S. done more, earlier, to help create a more stable Afghan government and better equip it to resist the Taliban. When NATO troops withdrew last August, the Taliban vowed not to reimpose the same strict rules on women as during its previous tenure. But it has proceeded to do exactly that, prompting the U.S. and other countries to cut development aid there and impose sanctions on the banking system.

The newest Afghan emigres are here on two-year “humanitarian parole” status. That’s granted by the Secretary of Homeland Security to people deemed ineligible for refugee status. But it’s given only for emergency, humanitarian and public interest reasons. Everyone must apply within the first year for political asylum to stay on. That requires proof that they’d be targets if they returned. But many lack access to lawyers.

Laila Nesari is shown at work with her team in Afghanistan.
Laila Nesari is shown at work with her team in Afghanistan.

Naseri has been lucky enough to get one, and given her past as a model, she should have a strong case.

When she’s seriously homesick, Naseri says she prays. In Afghanistan under Taliban rule, women aren’t even allowed to go to mosques. Demanding extreme piety of women without even letting them into places of worship is just another cruel hoax of a government that should never have made a comeback. Yet for all the bloodshed, upheavals, years of foreign intervention and vows to do right by women, and for all the courageous resistance, this  brutal, extremist regime is free to victimize women again.

Russia, when it was the Soviet Union, helped establish education and jobs for women when it controlled Afghanistan. Now it’s busy invading Ukraine. And in America, which went into Afghanistan 21 years ago talking about women’s rights, women are bracing for the loss of the most fundamental right over our own bodies.

It may be too late to reverse some of the damage done in our wake, but our government can and should grant long-term status to Afghans here who fled. They shouldn’t be required to prove they were specifically threatened when we know that Afghan women as a whole are threatened. And so are the men who helped the U.S. military there. There is still time to do the right thing by those forced to flee, and our government should.

Rekha Basu is an opinion columnist for The Des Moines Register. Contact: rbasu@dmreg.com. Follow her on Twitter @RekhaBasu and at Facebook.com/rekha.basu1106. Her book, “Finding Her Voice: A collection of Des Moines Register columns about women’s struggles and triumphs in the Midwest,” is available at ShopDMRegister.com/FindingHerVoice.

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This article originally appeared on Des Moines Register: OPINION: Her life at risk, how former model fled Taliban, came to Iowa

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