Interview with Fatema hosseini
By Lily Bertles '22, Lucy Palma '23, Jeremy Young '24
Following the chaos of the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan, stories of heroism emerged of people helping each other and standing up for their beliefs against the Taliban’s oppression. We were lucky enough to sit down with one of these people and talk with her about her own experiences. We spoke with Fatema Hosseini, an Afghan journalist who escaped Afghanistan through her connection with USA Today. She is currently living with the family of junior, Finn Hartman, whose mother is the editor-in-chief of USA Today. Hosseini's story of bravery and defiance in the face of hardship, terror, and even death, is inspiring to all women who face discrimination anywhere in the world. In her interview, Fatema described the panic that ensued after the Taliban took over Afghanistan and told us the harrowing story of how she escaped.
The masses of people pressed down on Fatema all with the same goal: to escape Afghanistan. Everything in between them and accomplishing this goal was a free-for-all. Fatema was alone, unable to move through the crowd of scrambling people. Taliban soldiers began shooting, and pure chaos erupted as Fatema could see the bullets whiz past, out of the corner of her eye.
Fatema’s mother woke her up at 4 am on the morning of August 19th to prepare for a flight that was leaving the Kabul airport for Kyviv, Ukraine; This was her shot to escape Afghanistan before it was too late. She was escorted to the airport by her brother and brother-in-law (whom she later lost), and they were greeted by a large crowd of people trying to get through the first checkpoint. The crowd was so overwhelming that she lost her brother-in-law shortly after arriving. “I pushed people away,” Fatema explained, “and I got to the front line. I wanted to pass that checkpoint and go to the second checkpoint, but there was this militant. He came to me and he was like, ‘I swear to God, if you push, if you take one more step, I'm gonna kill you.’” Despite this threat to her life, Fatema persisted and spoke to another militant. She lied to the militant and told him that her brother was on the other side of the checkpoint and that she was trying to get to him. He allowed her to pass and she ran to the second checkpoint, away from the man who threatened to kill her. At the second checkpoint, she built up the courage to approach a group of Taliban soldiers. She reminded herself that despite their threatening exteriors, they are just human beings. They directed her to an extremely crowded area. While she was walking over to where she was directed, a Taliban officer announced a warning that if people didn’t sit down, he would lash them. Unfortunately, Fatema explained, she didn’t hear the warning and a soldier attempted to lash her, but she moved out of the way and the lash hit a woman behind her. “When I looked back, her clothes were torn and her flesh was out,” Fatema explains. “I could see the blood... I almost fainted there.”
It was 12:30 and Fatema received a message from the Ukrainian forces saying that she was at the wrong gate and needed to get to another one that was a 30-minute car ride away. “I lost all my passion, energy, everything. I was so exhausted and I started crying.” Her backpack with all her money in it was stolen in the chaos of the crowd at the first checkpoint, so she didn't know how she was going to pay for a taxi to take her to the right gate. A man told her to walk to the other side of the airport to get a taxi there. She reached a crowded area and approached a shopkeeper to ask him to help her get a taxi. According to Fatema, he said, “I don't know what you women are thinking. Just go back home, wear your burqa, do the chores, stay at home, and the Taliban are not going to find you.” In response to his remark, she began to cry, knowing that she couldn’t simply live her life under Taliban rule like he said.
She managed to get a taxi. The driver stopped at a mosque with several fully-armed Taliban militants standing outside of it. The driver began saying hi to the militants and telling Fatema that they were his relatives. “They were all looking at me in a way like, okay, ‘we're gonna come and kill you,’” Fatema explains. She was mad and confused about why the driver took her there- maybe to scare or intimidate her? He drove her through a series of back roads and alleyways before they made it back to a main road. At this point she thought she was being abducted. “I have to think of a plan,” she said to herself. “I didn't have anything sharp with me and I knew that the Taliban was abducting women: knocking door to door saying that if you have a single girl who's aged above 13 we have the right to marry her.” Fatema is 27 and knew that she was at risk of becoming a Taliban sex slave, which was the last thing she wanted. “So I was like,” Fatema continues describing her thoughts at that moment, “I'm gonna find the sharpest stone and I'm gonna cut my throat as hard as I can. That's the last chance left for me.” The car stopped and the driver told her that the gate was a 15-minute walk away and pointed her in the direction of flags for Turkey and Afghanistan marking the gate she was trying to get to. She ran to the gate and there was a crowd double the size of the crowd that she saw at the first gate. The US army was throwing tear gas into the crowd and people were sitting because the Taliban soldiers threatened to shoot people if they didn’t sit down. Fatema got trapped in the middle of a large family. She eventually stood up, but a man grabbed her in between her legs, preventing her from being able to move. His wife saw this assault and did nothing. A Taliban soldier began firing bullets right past her ear, hitting a woman right beside her. “I didn't have the guts to look at that woman,” Fatema explains. “I think she died.”
From there she was half carried half pulled across the street to the next checkpoint. Halfway across the street, Fatema couldn’t go on anymore and fainted. The first time she woke up, a man was holding her but she lost consciousness immediately. The second time she woke up because someone had poured water over her face and the man told her that someone had called her phone. The third time she woke up, her brother was there. Fatema was completely done, zapped of energy, almost having been shot to death minutes before, and been assaulted, she was ready to call it quits and go home. Just then she received a phone call, it was from the Ukranians saying that they had given a bribe to an Taliban militant to take her inside. She had no choice but to continue on, but what she didn’t know was that in the process of giving her phone number to the militant, her number had somehow been given to all of the other desperate Afghans at the airport. Her phone was constantly being called by hundreds of other people in the same situation as her; she even met another passenger on the same flight. Fatema and her brother pressed on until they saw the Ukrainian flag. Then, with a group of six other Afghan families, they continued walking towards the next checkpoint. The Taliban began shooting and firing tear gas, and when Fatema turned around, only one family was left and her brother. When they made it to the checkpoint, Fatema came up with a plan to convince the Taliban soldiers to let her through. She told them that the Ukrainian forces across from them were waiting for her and if they beat her or hurt her, the Ukrainian forces would fight back. Her pent up frustration spilled over as she let the Taliban soldier hear it, “shame on you. You are beating your own Afghan people. You see those foreign forces? They are not beating girls. And you are the one who is beating us. I was like, why do you need to [do] this? You don't need to beat us...” She noticed how the Taliban soldier was similarly aged as her, but he didn’t take too kindly to what she had said. He used his gun to push her across the checkpoint and then pushed her brother across. Fatema wasn’t in the clear yet, as she didn’t recognize the Ukrainian soldier who was going to bring her to safety. When the Ukrainian soldier did help her to safety, the Afghan soldier back at the checkpoint pointed his gun at her because of the Taliban belief against men coming in contact with women. Fatema had finally reached safety.
One major issue that women all over the world face on a daily basis is discrimination in the workplace. This sad reality is especially present in Afghanistan, where women often do not even have the opportunities to work alongside men in a corporate environment. Fatema, however, did. In order to get a high position in the work environment she wanted, she had to apply. When applying for jobs she was asked questions that were in no way appropriate for the workplace, and would never be asked to a man applying for the same job. Fatema knew that the jobs that were asking her these inappropriate questions were “not safe.” At Fatema’s job as a reporter for the Afghan newspaper Kabul Now, she was hired after passing both a written exam and translating Farsi for the paper; she took both exams in a room with men, one of whom left because he realized he could not bribe his way into the job. Reflecting back on that, she thinks one of the reasons she got hired was “they needed a woman working at the office, because 90% of employees at that office were men.” At her job as a reporter, she continued to face discrimination on a daily basis. Fatema wrote about other women who were getting harassed in the workplace, to the point of death or rape. She hoped to interview and publish a story about a woman who was tricked out of her work place by male colleague suggesting to have a meeting outside of the office, then was led to a different location and raped. This harsh and sad reality of the workplace environment affects women in Afghanistan every day, and Fatema hoped to capture that reality in her articles. However she ran into many problems, when her interviewees refused to talk out of fear. Fatema explained to the interviewee that “If you don't raise your voice, tomorrow it’s gonna be your turn,” but still no one talked. Finally, she got a hold of a male colleague who worked in the gender department. He told her they could meet outside the office and he would give her information for her article. She understood the risks but was confident in herself to be “brave enough, smart enough to not get harassed,” so she said she would meet the male colleague. She met him in a public place and interviewed him successfully, but as she prepared to publish the article, she got a text from him calling her a name only close friends call her, and asking her to go out with him. He harassed her, texting her things like “Oh, your hair looks so nice. I really want to touch it.” She told her male colleagues what was happening and they were dismissive of it, simply telling her to block him. She could not just block him; she was relying on him for information to publish her story. Finally, she went to a male relative who worked in the government and told him this man was harassing her, and the relative tried to get the man to apologize. Instead of saying sorry, he texted her saying things like “you women are so wasted, you think that everyone is harassing you, you're not even my type.” Being a woman in Afghanistan is challenging to begin with, but trying to educate yourself and work among mostly men is even harder. On top of simply doing their jobs when Afghan women go to work, they have to work extra hard to present themselves and make decisions that will not get them harassed by their male colleagues.
Fatema also shared her thoughts on the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan. Since the withdrawal has been a hot button topic in the U.S., it was interesting to see the perspective from someone who was in Afghanistan as these events were taking place. She said that the feeling in Afghanistan was that the U.S. was never going to leave, which was regarded as a good thing, even though the U.S. kept pouring in billions of dollars into Afghanistan that didn’t help the country at all. “We had the U.S. giving billions of dollars to Afghanistan...but it did not work. Because it made the government and its people who are involved in the government more corrupted.” When Biden was elected president Afghanistan gave a sigh of relief, according to Fatema, hoping that Biden would bring stability to Afghanistan. But when the US pulled out of Afghanistan, Fatema said everyone knew “it's not going to go well... they know that the Taliban, if they gain more power, they're gonna do something really bad, like really bad, as they did in 2001.” Once the U.S. did withdraw, the Taliban took over in the blink of an eye. The Afghan army that the U.S. had appointed and poured billions of dollars into disappeared instantaneously.
Fatema’s story and journey are full of hardships and discrimination in all forms. She had to be brave and fight for herself when no one else would. That bravery she showed not only on her journey to America, but also throughout her everyday life both in Afghanistan and in America should be honored. Now that Fatema is living in America, she plans to pursue her master’s in Investigative Journalism at the University of Maryland in the coming year. As she shared parts of her future goals, she wants to become a journalist and investigate the corruption cases that have been happening in Afghanistan. She wrote that she “will disclose the cases of government employees, high ranking officials, and politicians who continuously robbed people,” and in the longer term, she hopes to “investigate the individual cases of the Taliban leaders, who are the murderers of hundreds of thousands of innocent people.” Despite leaving her country, Fatema said she will not stop fighting for her people, particularly girls and women in Afghanistan.