Afghan legal scholar discusses the situation in Afghanistan following the return of the Taliban

Nasiruddin Nezaami, a legal scholar from Afghanistan and a visiting professor at Stanford Law School, spoke at the annual Stanford Global Studies Student Dinner this spring.

“It’s hard to say how you feel after what’s happened in Afghanistan, and maybe a word that could sort of summarize that is … devastated,” said Nasiruddin Nezaami while describing the aftermath of the Taliban’s takeover of Afghanistan in 2021. “We did expect a little bit of what was to come, but we never expected the speed of how it happened or the level of how it happened.”

Nezaami, a legal scholar born and raised in Kabul, fled to the United States after receiving funding from Stanford Law School and the Institute of International Education’s Scholar Rescue Fund. Before that, he was a professor of law at the American University of Afghanistan, where he served as chair of the law department.

In his opening remarks, Nezaami painted a bleak picture of the situation in Afghanistan. Under Taliban rule, malnutrition and food instability have skyrocketed, women have been stripped of their rights, and more than 97% of the population is now below the poverty line.

While he was able to leave, many vulnerable Afghans are still in the war-torn country fighting for their lives and rights. Now, Nezaami is focused on continuing his scholarship and helping many of his former students, especially his female students, who have been hit the hardest since the Taliban took control.

The rise and fall of the Taliban

During his talk, Nezaami reflected on growing up in the 1990s when the Taliban first rose to power following more than two decades of civil war and instability. “I was a small kid back then,” Nezaami said. “I remember I was sitting on our rooftop, and white cars with white flags came in. I asked my dad what was happening, and he said that the Taliban were coming.”

For the next five years, the Taliban launched a war against women, banning them from working or attending school. Then in 2001, the U.S. and allied forces invaded the country to oust the Taliban, and for the next 20 years, the situation for women improved, and they were granted the right to education.

“When education reopened, the percentage of females attending universities in Afghanistan was 2%, and by 2018 that number had increased to over 50%,” he explained. Women outnumbered men in his university’s law program, he added, and many of his female students were his highest performers.

The aftermath of withdrawal

Yet in 2021 when the U.S. withdrew its troops, the Taliban immediately surged back to power and plunged the country into a deep political, economic, and humanitarian crisis.

Nezaami described what unfolded in the days and weeks following the U.S. withdrawal, recalling that many of his students, friends, and colleagues were in a state of shock. “I would repeatedly receive calls from students … who would just call and cry for minutes and minutes and minutes. Then, they would speak up, and the question that you would get is, ‘What do we do now?’” he said. “Most of my students were born after 2001. I remember the Taliban, but most of my students had only heard the stories of what was happening when the Taliban were there, so they were terrified.”

Many of his former law students wondered if their degree would even matter now that the Taliban were in power. “If I’m studying political science, if I’m studying business, if I’m studying specifically law – is it relevant? Am I going to use it at any point, ever, in Afghanistan?” his students asked him.

Helping women on the ground

Nezaami is currently working with more than 50 female students in Afghanistan to help them continue their education. He is helping them enroll in online English courses, pairing them with mentors who can assist them with applying for scholarships, and connecting those who were not able to graduate with partner institutions where they can complete their degrees.

He is also focused on empowering female entrepreneurs. While acknowledging that it is difficult for women to find opportunities to work in an increasingly oppressive environment, they are not giving up. “One of the main things we focus on is how to help women in these different communities to find ways to make money so they can sustain for the moment,” he explained.

The future of Afghanistan

Despite his efforts to affect change, Nezaami is not hopeful about the future. “I personally see it less possible to reopen education,” he said. “I fear that [the Taliban] are eventually going to close primary schools for girls,” having already closed secondary schools and universities. “The future seems to be very dark, very unclear. It’s hard to predict what’s happening.”

Following his remarks, students and faculty reflected on the challenges of the situation in Afghanistan in conversations over dinner. During the Q&A portion of the event, Nezaami fielded questions from moderator Robert Crews, professor of history, and students across SGS’s centers and programs. They asked him about the recent UN meeting on Afghanistan in Doha, the Taliban’s ideology and why they were able to successfully regain power, and the future of Afghanistan’s economy once foreign aid dries up.

“To think that there’s going to be an overnight solution for the conflict in Afghanistan is just absurd,” Nezaami said, in response to a question about what he would do if given a seat at the policymaking table. “I think what the UN should do is prioritize the key elements they want the Taliban to ensure. Two of the things that would be really important at the moment are education and employment for women and ensuring that people have economic independence.”

In his parting words he shared, “Thank you so much for the opportunity to speak and everyone for your attention and interest in issues in Afghanistan. I know that, at times, it can be disturbing to hear some of these issues, but we have to speak and listen. These are realities in our communities.”

The annual Stanford Global Studies student dinner was inaugurated to foster a sense of community among students and faculty from across the division’s 14 centers and programs. The dinner provides a forum in which students engage a range of influential and thoughtful leaders who are actively engrossed with issues of global importance.

Watch the video of the event via the Stanford Global Studies YouTube channel, and view photos from the event below.