Afghan academic rebuilds life in Italy, dreams of returning

Dec 9, 2022, 9:35 AM | Updated: Dec 10, 2022, 6:39 am

Batool Haidari, 37, talks during an interview with the Associated Press on a train taking her from ...

Batool Haidari, 37, talks during an interview with the Associated Press on a train taking her from her home on the outskirts of Rome, to the capital's center, Monday, Dec. 5, 2022. Batool Haidari was a prominent professor of sexology at a university in Kabul before last year’s Taliban takeover of Afghanistan. She used to lecture mixed classes of male and female students and look after her patients struggling with their gender identity. That comfortable life came to an abrupt halt on Aug. 15, 2021, when the ultra-religious group swept back into power. (AP Photo/Andrew Medichini)

(AP Photo/Andrew Medichini)

ROME (AP) — Batool Haidari used to be a prominent professor of sexology at a Kabul university before the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan. She taught mixed classes of male and female students, and helped patients struggling with gender identity issues.

Her husband owned a carpet factory, and together they did their best to provide a good education for their 18-year-old son and two daughters aged 13 and eight.

That comfortable life came to an abrupt halt on Aug. 15, 2021, when the former insurgents who adhere to a strict interpretation of Islam swept back into power following a costly two-decade U.S.-led campaign to remake the country.

Haidari, 37, was among the many women who fled the Taliban, fearing a return to the practices of their previous rule in the late 1990s, including largely barring girls and women from education and work. She reached Rome at the end of 2021, after a daring escape through Pakistan aided by Italian volunteers who arranged for her and her family to be hosted in the Italian capital’s suburbs.

She is among thousands of Afghani women seeking to maintain an active social role in the countries that have taken them in. Haidari and her husband are studying Italian while being financially supported by various associations. She keeps in touch with feminist organizations back home and tries to maintain contact with some of her patients via the internet.

“Being alive is already a form of resistance,” she said, adding that she wants her children to contribute to the future of Afghanistan, where she is sure her family will return one day.

“When my son passed the exam to access the faculty of Medicine at a university in Rome, for me it was good news,” she said, during a commute to her Italian classes in central Rome. “Because if I came to a European country, it was mainly for the future of my children.”

After they overran Afghanistan in 2021, the Taliban initially promised to respect women’s and minorities’ rights. Instead, they gradually imposed a ban on girls’ education beyond sixth grade, kept women away from most fields of employment, and forced them to wear head-to-toe clothing in public.

Haidari tried to stay in Kabul with her family after the Taliban took over. She became an outspoken activist of the Afghanistan Women’s Political Participation Network to fight for women’s education, work and political involvement.

But the risks soon became too high. Haidari was not only an educated female activist, but also a member of the Hazara ethnic group.

The Hazara minority has been a frequent target of violence since the Taliban takeover. Most are Shiite Muslims, despised and targeted by Sunni militants like the Islamic State group, and discriminated against by many in the Sunni majority country.

Haidari received death threats for her research on sexual abuse of children in Afghan society, and in December 2021 decided to leave. She crossed to Pakistan with her family, and an Italian journalist, Maria Grazia Mazzola, helped her get on a plane from Pakistan to Italy.

“We heard that Taliban were shooting and searching houses very close to their hiding place,” Mazzola said. “We were frantically in touch with the Italian embassy in Pakistan, with confidential contacts in Afghanistan, and we decided together that they had to change their hiding place every three days.”

The Italian government evacuated more than 5,000 Afghans on military planes right after the Taliban takeover. Later, a network of Italian feminists, Catholic and Evangelical Churches and volunteers like Mazzola kept organizing humanitarian corridors and set up hospitality in Italy throughout the following year.

Mazzola, who works for Italian public RAI TV and is an expert on Islamic fundamentalism, created a network of associations to host 70 Afghans, mostly Hazara women activists and their families.

Now that the refugees are in Italy and gradually getting asylum, Mazzola said, the priority is to secure for them official recognition of their university degrees or other qualifications that will help them find dignified employment.

“A woman like Batool (Haidari) cannot work as a cleaner in a school. It would be a waste for our society too. She is a psychologist and deserves to continue working as such,” Mazzola said.

Haidari agreed. While she said she misses the streets and alleys of Kabul, and the easy life she used to have, “most of all I miss the fact that in Afghanistan I was a much more useful person.”

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Afghan academic rebuilds life in Italy, dreams of returning