From Kabul to Montclair State: How Roya Saqib fled the Taliban and continued her prophecy

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“If you asked me [where I see myself in 20 years] in August – on August 15, 2021 when I was in Afghanistan I would not have an answer.”

The accomplished daughter of a diplomat and a kindergarten teacher, Roya Saqib, a former technical assistant to former Afghan President Ashraf Ghani, was in elementary school when the Taliban said she could no longer get an education because she was a girl. Now, 20 years later and just over seven months since the extremist group regained control of Afghanistan, those fears for women and girls in their country have returned.

“It’s not just my story, it can be for every girl in my country and some boys,” Saqib said. “But mainly for girls because they were often expelled from school; During the civil war, the new regime changes [and] the Taliban are coming.”

Saqib attends a presidential meeting in Kabul, Afghanistan.
Photo courtesy of Roya Saqib

Born and raised in Kabul, Afghanistan, Saqib recalled moving around as a child due to the civil war and the first Taliban regime, which lasted from 1996 to 2001. During this time, the Taliban enforced a strict interpretation of Sharia, killing many Afghan civilians, banning television and music, and banning women and girls from school and most outside employment opportunities. However, the Taliban did not prevent them from continuing their education.

“Ever since I was a child I was very interested in education. I was the kind of kid who would cry for a school,” Saqib said, recalling how happy she felt at taking the risk of attending a secret homeschooling facility, only to be followed by sadness when it was closed a week later.

Due to her hard work, after the Taliban’s final withdrawal, Saqib was promoted to the ninth grade by passing talent tests and taking advantage of government-provided opportunities for girls. Within a few years, she had received a full scholarship to Jami Millia Islamia in India, where she received a bachelor’s degree in Political Science and Economics, graduating at the top of her class.

According to Saqib, it was not common for girls to get scholarships and leave the country because of the many changes in regimes that resulted in unsafe and harsh social norms for women and girls.

“The social structure had changed so much,” Saqib said. “There was so much fear to send yours [daughter] study, let alone send them to another country as a teenager.”

She then received a master’s degree in International Relations from Jawaharlal Nehru University New Delhi in India, then a second Master of Science in Management from Simmons University in Boston, Massachusetts on a Fulbright scholarship, where she graduated in 2015.

Saqib returned to Kabul and worked in many jobs, from leading a communications and outreach team that promoted women in government to serving as the director of the Women’s Economic Empowerment National Program, finally landing a job at the age of 29 as Technical Assistant to the President of Afghanistan, where she coordinated with other government agencies, conducted research and submitted reports to the President.

Saqib (far left) is a former technical assistant to the former President of Afghanistan

Saqib (far left) at a meeting as the technical assistant to former President of Afghanistan Ashraf Ghani, pictured in the center chair.
Photo courtesy of Roya Saqib

This lasted for a year and two months before the government collapsed and the Taliban took power again.

“People were getting scared every day, they thought [the Taliban was] come to share power,” said Saqib. “They couldn’t imagine that they could get their hands on the whole government.”

When she first received the call from her driver on August 15, 2021, saying the Taliban were approaching Kabul, she dismissed it as a rumor. However, when all the phone lines were busy and she saw people rushing home to safety and rushing to get visas to leave the country, she knew it was real. She later found out that the President and his team had fled the country.

“That was the time I believed nothing is normal and now it’s all gone,” Saqib said.

Saqib speaks at a steering committee meeting at ministerial and deputy ministerial level.  Photo courtesy of Roya Saqib

Saqib speaks at a meeting of the Ministry of Labor and Social Affairs.
Photo courtesy of Roya Saqib

According to Saqib, she couldn’t even imagine staying alive since they had been killing government employees for so long.

“It was a nightmare for me,” Saqib said. “I thought I lost all the effort, all the hard work, all the ambition that I had. I sat at home and just did nothing, now what? At least if I don’t get killed.”

However, she feared neither her own death nor the violence she had become accustomed to all her life, such as airstrikes, rockets and at least one suicide bombing or explosion a day in Kabul and every other province; It was the fact that all the records of her immediate family and relatives, along with their addresses and phone numbers, were stored in a database in the President’s office when she first began work there.

“I was afraid not so much for my life, but for the life of my family,” said Saqib. “I remember hearing people running on the stairs [at my apartment] …my heart rate went up and I thought they were knocking on my door.”

Despite everyone telling her to destroy her degrees for fear the Taliban would find out she had studied abroad, which her father did during the civil war to hide that he had studied in the United States, she did not.

“I said, ‘No, I won’t do that even if I die,'” Saqib said. “Because for every degree I’ve earned, for every certificate I’ve earned, I’ve worked so hard for it.”

Because of the connections she made while studying abroad, she was eventually able to evacuate, and even as she left Afghanistan behind, she knew she wanted to continue serving her homeland.

“[If I leave], I can pursue my greater goals of serving humanity and serving my country from another place,” Saqib said. “[In Afghanistan under the current circumstances]I couldn’t track anything – if I stay alive.”

In September 2021, Saqib and her mother were given the opportunity to fly out of Afghanistan to a nearby country, although it meant leaving her father and sister behind, which she says was a difficult decision. While the rest of her family was evacuated two months later, only Saqib and her mother were flown to the United States on October 29, where they stayed for three months at the Fort Dix military base in New Jersey.

As things are in Afghanistan now, Saqib says public schools have still not reopened, and when they do, girls will be admitted differently than during the previous Taliban rule. However, women are still excluded from senior positions in government, which Saqib said will result in women being less ambitious to pursue an education with a career goal.

“Killing with a knife is one thing and we have an expression; Killing with cotton is killing the person, still, but gently,” Saqib said. “In terms of women’s rights and so many civil rights, they kill people with cotton.”

Saqib hands out certificates at a gender statistics workshop.  Photo courtesy of Roya Saqib

Saqib hands out certificates at a gender statistics workshop.
Photo courtesy of Roya Saqib

Saqib says her role as a women’s rights activist is not her job, but her prophecy.

“When you’re in a position as a girl in Afghanistan where you’re leading and managing so many men, it’s not a smooth process,” she said. “You must have encountered so many challenges and obstacles on your way. You encountered all of this and fought and removed them to get there. When you think of so many other girls not being able to fight it, you become more determined to fight for their rights.”

Roya Saqib speaks at a National Program for Women's Economic Empowerment event attended by the First Lady, Ministers, Deputy Ministers and international organizations.  Photo courtesy of Roya Saqib

Roya Saqib delivers a speech as organizer of an event on the National Women’s Economic Empowerment Program attended by the First Lady of Afghanistan, ministers, deputy ministers and international organizations.
Photo courtesy of Roya Saqib

Now Saqib has found a home at Montclair State University as a teaching specialist who will teach in the political science and law departments, where she hopes to encourage people to go deeper than the media says before passing judgment on matters related to deal with international affairs.

In her lectures this summer, she will use events in Afghanistan as a case study, discussing everything from peace processes and war to the politics of developing countries. In the fall she teaches Intro to International Relations Theories and Special Topics in Politics. She speaks about this in an open discussion at the Feliciano School of Business on March 30.

“I like the friendly atmosphere here and all the people around me, especially the people I know on faculty and staff,” Saqib said. “They were really nice and I think they didn’t make me feel uncomfortable and new.”

Peter Kingstone, Dean of the College of Humanities and Social Sciences, said that apart from Saqib’s outstanding academic and professional achievements, she has had an impressive and inspiring journey.

“Our students are fortunate to be able to learn from someone who has applied academic knowledge to solve real-world problems in really challenging circumstances,” Kingstone said.

This is my favorite of the new horizontals I just added

Saqib is a teaching specialist in the Department of Political Science and Law and will be teaching two classes in the fall semester.
Lynise Olivacce | The Montclarion

Where she sees herself in 20 years, Saqib, who thrives on a good challenge, now has a clear vision.

“[There are] three things: advancement of women, especially in developing countries and countries like Afghanistan … and global poverty reduction, not only in my country. And work for peace,” said Saqib. “Those are the things I’ve suffered from [from] and I want to address these challenges.”

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