Many Afghan women forced to quit careers, country in hopes of better life for their kids

Since the Taliban took over control of Afghanistan last year, the future of the country's women has been in peril. Many girls are barred from receiving an education, and women are prevented from holding many jobs. Back in 2019, special correspondent Jane Ferguson met with a female doctor in Kabul, and she recently returned to find that same doctor now faced with a previously unimaginable choice.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    Since the Taliban took control of Afghanistan last year, the future of the country's women has been in peril. Many girls are barred from receiving an education, and women are prevented from holding a number of kinds of jobs.

    Back in 2019, special correspondent Jane Ferguson met with a female doctor in Kabul, and she recently returned to find that same doctor now faced with a previously unimaginable choice.

  • Jane Ferguson:

    Long before the Taliban seized power in Afghanistan, Dr. Najmussama Shefajo's expertise stood out.

    One of the country's top gynecologists, she offered a crucial service to thousands of women, advised the government, and, from the clinic she built in the capital, Kabul, pioneered advanced medical technology for expecting mothers.

  • Dr. Najmussama Shefajo, Gynecologist:

    We reach to the diagnosis soon, and there is no need to go out of the country.

  • Jane Ferguson:

    So it saves lives?

  • Dr. Najmussama Shefajo:

    Yes, of course.

    This is the nose. This is the mouth.

  • Jane Ferguson:

    To Dr. Shefajo, interaction with her patients is important.

  • Dr. Najmussama Shefajo:

    Here, the mother sees the baby, her own ultrasound.

  • Jane Ferguson:

    And how do they react?

    (LAUGHTER)

  • Dr. Najmussama Shefajo:

    Yes. They are very happy. Right now, they know this is the head, this is the heart, this is the stomach, because I teach them.

  • Jane Ferguson:

    That was Dr. Shefajo in late 2019 speaking with us in her clinic. Her calling card? A passionate, collaborative physician.

    She began her career delivering babies in secret on mud floors, when the Taliban was last in power in the mid-1990s. When we first spoke with her in 2019, that all seemed like a fading memory.

    When you were working underneath Taliban rule, did you ever imagine that, one day, you would have a clinic like this, equipment like this?

    (LAUGHTER)

  • Dr. Najmussama Shefajo:

    I was — I had hope.

  • Jane Ferguson:

    A hope faded overnight when the government of Afghanistan collapsed last year. On August 15, 2021, President Ashraf Ghani and his aides fled the country, and the Taliban overtook the capital city.

    Thousands of panicked Afghans, many who worked with U.S. and allied forces, rushed to the airport, as a chaotic American-led evacuation took place, among them, many professional Afghan women.

    Not Dr. Shefajo. She was here at her clinic.

  • Dr. Najmussama Shefajo:

    All the patients who came to me on that day, they were — really, really needed people, needed women. They needed health care services. And some people with very severe depression, even when they lay on the bed, they started to cry. It was really terrible.

  • Jane Ferguson:

    Fearful the country's medical care would collapse under Taliban rule, women begged her to induce labor right there.

  • Dr. Najmussama Shefajo:

    So, most of the women, even their pregnancy period was not completed, they pushed me to do Cesarean and take the baby out from the womb. Otherwise, if the situation deteriorates, there will be no doctors, so, who will do this operation or delivery for us?

  • Jane Ferguson:

    They were asking you to push the delivery forward?

  • Dr. Najmussama Shefajo:

    Yes, yes, by force of — and — the delivery.

  • Jane Ferguson:

    Because they were afraid of?

  • Dr. Najmussama Shefajo:

    Not having the doctor, not having the services in the hospital. That's why .

  • Jane Ferguson:

    When we first met Dr. Shefajo, the Trump administration was in talks with the Taliban about leaving the country. At the time, women like her were worried about what might happen if the insurgent group returned to power.

  • Dr. Najmussama Shefajo:

    We want our right as a woman, as a doctor, as a mother, and as an Afghan, as a Muslim.

  • Jane Ferguson:

    You have daughters. What do you hope for their future? How do you picture it?

  • Dr. Najmussama Shefajo:

    For my elder daughter, I want her to be a pilot.

    (LAUGHTER)

  • Dr. Najmussama Shefajo:

    She is also interested to travel a lot. But, for the others, they are interested to be a doctor.

  • Jane Ferguson:

    Like their mom.

    (LAUGHTER)

  • Jane Ferguson:

    We came back to Kabul several months into Taliban rule to find Dr. Shefajo changed, her spirit diminished, the futures she dreamed of for her daughters gone.

    After their takeover, the Taliban banned all girls from attending public school. A few months later, they relented, allowing those under age 12 to go for an education. Dr. Shefajo decided to send none of her girls, encouraging solidarity among the sisters.

    You're an educated woman working in an elite field with a 14-year-old daughter who's not allowed to go to school. How does that feel?

  • Dr. Najmussama Shefajo:

    My two kids are small. They are allowed to go to school. They are under the sixth class. But…

  • Jane Ferguson:

    Under sixth grade?

  • Dr. Najmussama Shefajo:

    Yes, under sixth grade.

    But my eldest daughter is at eighth grade, so she is not allowed to go to school. That's why I do not allow the two youngest ones as well. She will feel that I am at home and not study, and these two, my sisters are going to the school. That's why she will be disappointed.

  • Jane Ferguson:

    She pushes them to study independently at home, but knows an even more painful choice lies ahead.

  • Dr. Najmussama Shefajo:

    Although I love my country, I love women, I love my patients, and I love my job a lot, and lot — a lot like my kids, like my heart, my body, but, still, I have to go outside country because of my kids.

  • Jane Ferguson:

    Dr. Shefajo never feared the Taliban and chose to stay in Kabul to provide services to her patients. But she fights two battles now, a mother's love for her children and a dedication to her patients.

  • Dr. Najmussama Shefajo:

    I love both of them a lot. But, in comparison, my career and me are one person, but my kids are three, and they should have bright future. And, because of them, I can leave everything.

  • Jane Ferguson:

    It's impossible to overstate what she leaves behind, as an Afghan, as a doctor, and as a self-made professional.

  • Dr. Najmussama Shefajo:

    It took 48 years to reach my goal, and I will not have this much life to start from zero until I reach my goal. So it will take so, so much time.

    One of my friend went to Canada, and she was very good, very famous and very professional doctor in Afghanistan. Over there, she is nothing. But she went because of her kids.

  • Jane Ferguson:

    That is all too common for many here fleeing for Western countries, once top specialists in their field, now trying to get qualified for assistants' work.

    Dr. Najmussama Shefajo Right now, also, I am depressed, and I take medication for depression.

    My condition will deteriorate a lot and a lot. And I know, I know I will lose everything, because I invest a lot, invest all my money in my hospital. I do not have anything in my hand. But, still, I am thinking about my kids.

  • Jane Ferguson:

    Dr. Shefajo doesn't know yet when or where she will go. Getting visas to move abroad is tough for Afghans, but she is resolute about getting her daughters out of here and into a classroom anywhere.

    The choice she is making, the sacrifice is one countless Afghan men and women will continue to make, as they flee for the sake of their children, surrendering their whole life's work, in hopes their sons and daughters will never have to make the choices they did.

    For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Jane Ferguson in Kabul, Afghanistan.

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