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Opinion How I’m trying to change Afghanistan by speaking up and occupying space

A Taliban fighter holds a pistol during celebrations in Kabul on Aug. 15. (Wakil Kohsar/AFP via Getty Images)

Obaidullah Baheer is an activist and academic in Kabul.

For many Afghans like me — young activists, journalists, writers, academics — Aug. 15 marks the anniversary of the day we saw our dreams collapse like a Jenga tower. And yet, here we are.

After the Taliban took full control of the country, many of us decided to stay — far from disappearing, we vowed to take up space so that the Taliban would be forced to acknowledge us. That meant participating in aid efforts and asserting our presence on international platforms to promote engagement.

For me, facing Taliban rule meant going from teaching nonviolent political action to university students to practicing it myself. Every day, I grapple with tough questions: Should I take to the streets in protest? Should I ask others to do the same and risk their lives?

The Taliban’s ban on girls attending high school brought urgency to these questions. But in a country so used to pursuing change through violent means, it’s clear we have a lot of groundwork to do before we grow and become an effective nonviolent opposition.

First, we must learn from others. I take inspiration in the resistance work of Mohandas Gandhi and Nelson Mandela. Gandhi not only chose to use nonviolence against colonizers but also believed in challenging structural violence within society. No path for Afghanistan will produce long-lasting results unless the structures that produce ideologies such as the Taliban’s are dismantled.

Mandela, for his part, was criticized for studying his captors and learning the language of the colonizers. He was hated for preaching reconciliation. His goal was to work with his enemies and make them partners.

These strategies clearly have a lot to offer Afghans.

Of course, Afghanistan today is very different than British-ruled India and apartheid South Africa. Despite what interventionists and others would want us to believe, members of the Taliban are not outsiders. They are Afghans who were indoctrinated to fight violence with violence. Decades of conflict birthed an intense sense of othering between the Taliban and Afghanistan’s educated urban population.

So how do we begin closing the gap?

I’ve joined others in organizing events to foster dialogue, using online tools such as Twitter Spaces. In one, we had a female lecturer challenge the Taliban narrative of the educational system being immoral or un-Islamic during the republic.

We have also questioned policies toward Afghanistan on national and international media outlets. Since we have the attention of institutions and actors who could play a vital role in Afghanistan, the Taliban has sought to sit across from us in dialogue sessions in which we have advocated for rights and openness. That’s why we must continue to make our voices heard on Afghan assets freeze, counterterrorism and diplomatic relations.

I realize that change won’t happen overnight — that’s why I fill my days with the kind of activism that might not be seen internationally but that makes a big difference. That means getting a former Afghan soldier in captivity his blood pressure medication, providing aid to areas that organizations are not able to access, and even calling Taliban members who were threatening families over the phone to try to get them to stop.

A digital campaign against the forced veil, under the hashtag #FreeHerFace, got the Taliban’s attention — Taliban members criticized us during a meeting we held but did not arrest us or threaten us with violence.

So here we are. Still speaking up, occupying space, trying to be acknowledged and heard. We have built bridges with the Taliban on different levels — but we have not compromised our values.

Of course, there’s fear. I often wonder whether I am pushing too much and whether the Taliban’s patience will finally run out.

I just hope that if Taliban fighters do come for me, many more Afghans — inspired by my nonviolent actions and eagerness to change society through dialogue and cooperation — pick up where I left off.