One of the newest members of the pioneering Afghan Girls Robotics team wants to let the world know that after the Taliban takeover, women in her homeland are still striving for their rights and thirsting for education.
Afsana Ahmadi, a 19-year-old girl, also said that she misses her father a lot.
“When I left Afghanistan, that was the last time I saw her,” she said in a Zoom interview with NBC News to mark International Women’s Day.
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Ahmadi, from the western Afghan city of Herat, said her father had accompanied her to Kabul last summer and wept when he was taken to Qatar, where most of the team now lives.
“He cried with me and told me, ‘Dear Afsana, never lose heart and continue on your way,'” she said. “I really miss him.”
Known at home as the “Robot Girls”, Ahmadi is part of a women’s team that has become a symbol of Afghan progress by participating in worldwide competitions where budding scientists showcase their latest robotic creations.
The team became famous in 2017 when the United States twice denied the members visas required to compete in the country. Then-President Donald Trump stepped in and he was able to attend.
When the Taliban returned to power in 2021, most of the team fled to Qatar for fear that the ultra-conservative Islamic regime would once again impose harsh rules that would prevent women from attending school or working outside the home. The Taliban, who initially said they had modernized during their 20 years out of power, soon began making it impossible for women and girls to go to work and school.
The Taliban say they support women’s education and employment “within the purview of Shari’a”, or Islamic law. Interpretations of Sharia vary widely, and some Afghans and experts accuse the hardline Taliban of imposing tribal traditions specific to the Taliban on the rest of the country.
On Wednesday, the foreign ministers of the United States, the European Union and dozens of other countries issued a statement saying that since the return of the Taliban, “Afghan women and girls have been denied access to secondary education, higher education and given to public and political places and employment opportunities.”
Ahmadi, who won’t leave for Qatar until 2022, has been under Taliban rule for almost a year, which was previously in power from 1996 to 2001.
“So it was shocking news to me and going in that way I didn’t know what to do,” she said.
Sadaf Hamidi, a 19-year-old member of the fellow team that left for Qatar in 2021, said she had received dire reports from her family about how the Taliban had changed women’s lives.
“One of my sisters used to be a medical student, the other a high school student,” Hamidi said. “But right now they have to stay at home and cannot continue their education. … It is heartbreaking for me and for them.
Team captain Florence Pouya, 17, said she constantly “thinks about the other girls in Afghanistan who can’t even go to school.” She said it motivates them to try harder.
“We are not just a robotics team; We’re not just making robots,” he said.
Ahmadi said that while “Afghan dreamers” were making their mark on the international stage, their scientific exploits in Herat were talked about because the Taliban were making life difficult for women.
“It was like a hope,” she said. “It was a kind of light within you that inspired us not to surrender to life. Continue, this is not the end point.”
Inspired by his example, Ahmadi was determined to join “this amazing team”, a younger generation of which was still working in Herat. And after going through a series of interviews and tests, they made the team.
But as the Taliban tightened its grip, it became clear to Ahmadi that if she wanted to become a scientist, she would have to leave Afghanistan and say goodbye to everyone she knew and loved. And he has to do it himself.
“No, I left the country alone,” she said. “So just like it was difficult for girls to leave the country, and it’s still difficult to leave the country, you know, without a person going with them.”
For now, home is a compound in Qatar that she shares with other team members.
Ahmadi said, “I am very grateful for this opportunity.” “Also, I want my friends and all my classmates to have this opportunity as well.”
Ahmadi said he is in contact with family and friends and that life in Afghanistan right now is “obviously difficult”.
But as a member of the robotics team, Ahmadi said she has been able to show the world that Afghan women are capable of doing “wonderful” things.
“I can be the voice of my friends and I can do something from here that can help them,” she said.