Nazira Karimi was a prominent journalist in Afghanistan and an outspoken critic of the fanatical militia groups that have terrorized educated, modern Afghans.
In 1994, when she got word that the group now known as the Taliban was plotting her murder, she and her husband and two children fled to Pakistan, where they lived in hiding for months, before she settled in Peshawar and began working for the British Broadcasting Co. In 1996, when Taliban militia took over Kabul, they promptly imposed severe limitations on women's freedom and mobility, forcing Karimi's sister out of college and her mother, a professional banker for 30 years, out of the work force.
Karimi's denouncements of the regime, along with her photograph, were widely published in Afghan newspapers, and both she and her family began receiving death threats. She tried to get the United Nations high commissioner for refugees to grant her family asylum only to be told there was no refugee resettlement program for Afghans. When Karimi's husband was severely beaten by Taliban militiamen in Pakistan, Karimi took him to the home of a UNHCR protection officer to show him what the Taliban had done. The officer promised to help, and on April 28, 1998, Karimi and her husband and two children were resettled in the United States. That's when her troubles really began.
Her relatives who were in Kabul received death threats. Two Talibs broke into her mother's home and tried to rape her younger sister. Her brother intervened, and mother and daughter fled, but the intruders shot her brother in the feet. He escaped to Pakistan, as did mother and daughter. Taliban authorities issued the first edict ordering its partisans in Pakistan and Afghanistan to capture and kill Karimi's entire family. In March, the family applied for refugee status. UNHCR denied it.
Desperate for help, Karimi contacted the Feminist Majority Foundation, which has been running the Campaign to Stop Gender Apartheid in Afghanistan. The foundation retained the help of the Tahirih Justice Center, which filed an appeal with the UNHRC in June. In July, the Taliban issued another order to capture the entire 16-member family. Shortly thereafter, the UNHRC protection officer said the appeal for asylum had been granted, but the Karimis would have to wait until at least October for the next circuit rider to arrive in Pakistan to interview them for resettlement. Then, they would have to be processed.
In August, the Taliban seized seven friends of Karimi's family to interrogate them about the family's hiding places. Karimi "kept thinking maybe she has to go back," says Eleanor Smeal, head of the Feminist Majority Foundation. "We said, `You go back and they'll kill you and your family, too.' "
At the end of August, Karimi's mother was hysterical on the phone. Smeal, deeply concerned Karimi might do something rash, began calling top officials in the Immigration and Naturalization Service, including Jeff Weiss, who was in charge of asylum. "He said there really should be a rescue here," Smeal recalls. Members of the foundation and the Tahirih Justice center also contacted the State Department, members of Congress, the UNHCR in Washington and the White House in an effort to get emergency resettlement for the Karimis.
"Once the decision was made, action was taken in days rather than a matter of months or even years," Smeal says. The INS sent an officer to interview the family, and the UNHCR placed them in a hotel in Islamabad under guard. The Feminist Majority Foundation paid the hotel bill. The Karimis arrived at Reagan National Airport on Sept. 8.
"I don't think I've ever seen anything like it," Smeal says. "When they saw their sister, they were all crying with relief, joy, all at the same time. They were very grateful to those of us who had worked so hard to get them here. The little boys had on these Mickey Mouse outfits. It just drove it home how small the world is, but also how terrible some people have it." The family's luggage consisted of two little bags and a carry-on that a 5-year-old could pick up, Smeal says.
The Feminist Majority Foundation also has helped in the rescue and resettlement of 21-year-old Maryam Shams. The Afghan woman's mother, who was dying of cancer, had married her daughter to an Afghan-German doctor in a desperate move to get her out from under Taliban rule. The mother's sister, ZiebaShorish-Shamley, is president of the Women's Alliance for Peace and Human Rights in Afghanistan and had lived in the United States for the past 20 years. Maryam's mother asked Shorish-Shamley to make sure Maryam was okay. When Shorish-Shamley then went to Germany to check on her niece, she discovered that Maryam was being tortured by her husband, Smeal says. The aunt and her niece spent months hiding in a German apartment owned by a friend of comedian Jay Leno's, whose wife chairs the campaign to stop gender apartheid, until Maryam could be resettled in the United States.
"These are the lucky ones," Smeal says. Partly as a result of the Feminist Majority's campaign, the ceiling on the number of Iranians, Iraqis and Afghans who can immigrate to the United States will go from 4,000 in the fiscal year that just ended to 8,000 this year. The INS had closed processing centers in Pakistan for security reasons but is opening one later this month to process Afghan refugees in Islamabad.
The human rights abuses against women in Afghanistan are, to use Smeal's word, horrific. Women with college degrees are forced to beg to feed their children. Gender oppression touches every aspect of their lives. While more and more people are becoming aware of this, these human rights violations have yet to provoke the international outrage they warrant. What is encouraging, however, is that the INS is taking steps to grant more of these victims asylum. The rescue of the Karimi family is something that should make all of us proud.