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Afghan chemists are afraid and uncertain

After the Taliban takeover, chemists struggle to see their future in the country

by Andrea Widener
July 23, 2022 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 100, Issue 26


Four people walking in a street, all of them wearing head coverings, and three of four wearing face coverings.
Credit: Associated Press
Female and male students and faculty are no longer allowed to be at Afghan universities at the same time. These students walk toward their university in Kabul, Afghanistan, on their first day of classes after the Taliban took over.

A year ago, women chemists in Afghanistan were excited about the future. Young girls had started to think they didn’t have to be teachers or doctors, which until recently many people had considered the only options for girls interested in science.

“We had enough female students in all fields, even in engineering and computer science and pharmacy and chemistry,” that female faculty were feeling optimistic about the prospects for women in science, says a female biochemist who works at a university in the country’s capital, Kabul. Around 40% of her university’s biochemistry students were women in 2021.

But that hopeful future changed in an instant in August 2021, when the Taliban suddenly took over Kabul after the US withdrew its military troops from Afghanistan. Almost all humanitarian and development organizations also left the country, along with international government agencies, taking their funding with them.

Suddenly university chemists who had been busy teaching classes and doing research were hiding in their houses, away from the chaos and violence. Women, especially, were scared for their lives because the government did not acknowledge the rights of women to get educated or to work.

It’s been nearly a year since the Taliban retook control of Afghanistan. But the lives of academic chemists in the city are still almost as uncertain as they were during that terrifying period in August 2021. And the regime’s continued attacks on education and the rights of women have extinguished many people’s hope that their lives could continue as before.

“Right now, I’m totally broken, totally disappointed,” the biochemist says. C&EN has chosen not to name this researcher and most others in this story out of fear for their safety.

Right now, I’m totally broken, totally disappointed.
Unnamed university biochemist from Kabul, Afghanistan

Before the Taliban takeover, the biochemist had been spending long days teaching and doing research toward getting her PhD from a university in a different country. She had chosen to do her doctoral work in Afghanistan because she didn’t want to interrupt her research once her PhD was completed to return to her home country. But the regime change resulted in the university’s losing electricity for months, and all her samples were lost.

Many universities reopened in the spring, but that return to campus was not a return to pre-Taliban normal. The government ordered that female and male students could not be on campus at the same time. At the biochemist’s university, they first split each day, with women coming in the morning and men in the afternoon. Now women and men each go to school 3 days a week, separately.

Before she returned, the biochemist was not sure if her female students would come back. “It’s hard for families to allow their daughters to go to university or go outside,” she says. Even her own family encouraged her to stay home, but she feared that would leave her students without a teacher. She wants them to be able to pursue their dreams as she has hers. “To me, a PhD was my dream, and I don’t want to leave it,” she says.

So she went back. And so did about 90% of her students. Most of the other women faculty returned too. But the situation for women in the country is getting worse: new restrictions are introduced every day, the biochemist says. Women can no longer attend lectures given by men, and vice versa. In early May, the Taliban said that women must be completely covered, including their faces, whenever they leave the house. If they don’t, the government will punish the men in their families.

A year ago, when the biochemist was getting ready for the day, she thought about what experiment to do or how she could best teach her students. “But now I am just thinking about what I should wear today that would be safe for me and would not create any problems,” she says.

And her students feel the same, she says: “They are studying without hope and energy.”

Little help available for those left behind

Afghan scholars by the numbers


Applications in the last year from Afghan scholars to the organization Scholars at Risk. Normally it would receive 500–700 worldwide in a year.


Proportion of the Afghan applications that are from women


Proportion of the Afghan applications that are from physical or life scientists


Proportion of the Afghan applications that are from Afghans still in the country

Source: Scholars at Risk.

The biochemist is relatively lucky—she got support from Scholars at Risk, a US-based organization that helps international scholars who are in danger. The group found her a short-term research position at a lab in Switzerland. It is working on getting visas for her, her husband, and her children. But she feels torn. Her husband’s sister and parents, who have been living with the family, will not be able to come.

“The need from Afghanistan has been unique,” with a huge number of requests for assistance in a short period, says Rose Anderson, director of protection services at Scholars at Risk. Scholars at Risk gets applications from scholars and attempts to place them with one of over 550 member organizations, including the American Chemical Society. (ACS publishes C&EN.)

So far, Scholars at Risk has received over 1,500 applications just from Afghanistan since the Taliban took over; in a normal year, it would receive 500–700 worldwide. About 20% of the Afghan scholars’ applications are from women. And 20% are from physical or life scientists, according to Anderson.

At the beginning of the Taliban takeover, many of the requests were urgent as desperate people tried to leave the country, Anderson says, though Scholars at Risk can’t help people escape. “Many scholars were incredibly fearful of what was to come,” she says.

Now that the Taliban have been in power for almost a year, Anderson and her team have heard that the government is targeting scholars not just for their research but also for activities like promoting women’s rights, working with international organizations, and trying to secularize their university’s curriculum. Women face the greatest risk, but men who support gender equality or advised female students have also been targeted.

“Many of the scholars have reported receiving death threats from the Taliban, appearances at the doorstep, home searches,” Anderson says. “Scholars are in hiding. Many have tried to leave or are in the process of it.” About 79% of requests from Afghanistan for help come from Afghans still in the country.

Another group at risk of punishment from the Taliban is Afghan students who had been studying abroad but lost their government scholarships when the Taliban took over, Anderson says. They are stuck overseas without any money or support. “These students have been left scrambling in other countries to try to find ways to meet tuition, to keep their student status,” she says. Scholars at Risk does not work with students because its focus is on established researchers.

Scholars at Risk is formally reviewing the applications of or seeking placement for 300 Afghan scholars. Of those 35 have placements identified in Europe or North America; 16 have made it to their campuses. The other 19 are—like the biochemist—awaiting visas or other documents.

“We are able to help a small number of scholars at this moment,” Anderson says. The organization usually places only between 100 and 150 people each year and could use more placements for Afghan scholars, including physical and life scientists. “There are a lot of people out there still really needing help.”

Some see no way out

The current situation is exactly what one female chemistry faculty member feared when she heard the Taliban were coming back. She had experienced life under the Taliban when they controlled the country in the 1990s. “All women lost their jobs and stayed at home. Nowadays we experience the same conditions,” she says via email.

This faculty member received her chemistry PhD abroad and then returned to Afghanistan to teach, even though a lack of equipment means she can’t pursue her research. “I love my people and country,” she says, adding that she did not consider moving anywhere else at the time.

Her thoughts are different now. She tried to leave the country after the Taliban takeover but didn’t succeed. So she hides in her house, worrying about her future. “Still I am in Kabul with a lot of problems and danger,” she says. “I am feeling that Taliban will arrest and kill me.”

The chemist doesn’t even feel comfortable talking to her colleagues, for fear that someone might report her. “All female professors and students lost their hope, and they cannot express or communicate their ideas with their male colleagues,” she says. “Coeducation, cowork, etc. between males and females is forbidden.”

She worries not only for herself but also for her students, especially her female students. She is particularly worried for her daughter, who is 14 and has not been able to go to school.

“I am hopeless for the moment but wish peace, prosperity, and freedom for my people,” she says.

Others face tough choices

One male chemistry professor from Kabul remembers the morning everything changed. He had left a class he was teaching and was walking back to his office when he saw that many of the students were leaving campus. They told him they had heard that the Taliban were at the gates of Kabul, but “I didn’t believe them,” he remembers.

When the professor got back to his office, he learned that they were right. Soon after, he met with the university administrators, who told the professors to prepare for a government takeover by the Taliban. “I brought all of the important documents of the faculty to a safe place,” he says. These included copies of students’ grades and a graduation registration book. He was worried there might be fighting on campus and they could be destroyed, which had happened at the university during a previous Taliban takeover in the 1990s, when he was a student there.

By the time the professor left campus, around 1:30 p.m., the university was deserted. He made his way back home. And that is where he spent much of the next few months.

People sitting in a row wearing black graduation caps with blue ribbon and tassels, black coverings for hair and face, and black robes.
Credit: Javed Tanveer/AFP via Getty Images
The Taliban have ordered all women to completely cover their bodies when they leave their houses, like these engineering and computer science graduates at Benawa Institute of Higher Education in Kandahar, Afghanistan.

Before the Taliban took over, the chemistry department was thriving despite less-than-ideal circumstances. It had around 450 students, about 100 of whom graduated each year, the professor says. Around 50% of them were women. Twenty-seven percent of the faculty—7 of 26—were women. Of the chemistry faculty overall, 5 had PhDs, 14 had master’s degrees, and the rest had bachelor’s degrees; some were pursuing graduate degrees.

Faculty pay was spotty before the Taliban took over. Since then, however, government salaries have been cut by 40%, and pay still doesn’t come regularly, the professor says. Even those who do have money often have problems getting it out of the banks because of long lines.

The problems extend to getting laboratory supplies. In the early 2000s, the professor’s chemistry department had partnerships with universities abroad that provided some support, but those fell off before the takeover partly because of the already-difficult conditions. Imports are now almost impossible. “Now we have some chemicals and equipment, but it is not enough for research,” he says. “We can do some experiments, but not all of them.”

Two months before the Taliban took over, the professor sent his wife—a chemical engineer—and children to live in a nearby country. “I’m a university professor, and it’s better to stay,” he says. “But because of my daughters, I was so worried what would happen to them during the Taliban government.” So he was alone in Afghanistan for several months.

During those months, he watched to see what the Taliban would do—would they take the same hard-line religious approach as they had in the past, for example, or would they support education? If he didn’t see the Taliban improve their approach to universities, “I think it’s better for me to leave,” he says. And that is what he eventually did.

In October, he reunited with his family in the nearby country. But the situation is difficult there without a job. The professor has applied for assistance from Scholars at Risk and other organizations that help refugee scholars, and he has also applied to come to the US on humanitarian grounds. For now, he waits and hopes something will come through.

Students look to continue their education

Jawad Asefy was born in Afghanistan and got his bachelor’s degree there before moving to India to pursue a master’s degree in organic chemistry. He returned to his native country in May 2020 to teach in the pharmacy department at Kabul University. Asefy was waiting on a visa to return to India for a PhD when the Taliban took over.


People with other careers might be able to work from home, but that’s not really an option for scientists, he says. “Academic people, they don’t have other chances, other options,” Asefy said when C&EN caught up with him in September 2021. Academics also need to be there to teach their students.

Not much has changed since September, he said this spring. Some faculty did manage to leave Afghanistan, mostly those who had close connections to foreign countries or nonprofits that helped them flee. Chemists and biochemists largely lacked those opportunities, says Asefy, who was one of only two American Chemical Society affiliate members in the country at the time of the Taliban takeover.

India canceled scholarships for all students from Afghanistan, Asefy says, so he wasn’t able to return there for his PhD. He has applied for scholarships to pursue his education in Turkey and Romania—but so have thousands of other students. He knows he faces a difficult path.

Before the Taliban took over, Asefy had big dreams for how he wanted to improve chemistry in the country. He hoped to start up an association for the 100 or so chemists he estimated were in Afghanistan. He wrote a Farsi chemistry textbook for university students who have difficulty with English, and he was hoping to write textbooks for younger students in both Farsi and Pashto. “We have plans; we have hope,” he says.

Now he doesn’t think much progress will be possible in Afghanistan. “You have a lot of intellectuals who want to work, who want to make a prosperous country,” he says. “In chemistry also we have a lot of intelligent students. But again, they don’t get a chance.”

Still hoping for change

One female chemist says it’s discouraging to hear about attacks on teachers who are trying to open schools for girls and on the people hoping to go to them. “Every day we hear bad things,” she says.

It’s especially hard because the country had made so much progress for women. The chemist, who is in her 60s, grew up in a time when she was allowed to go to college. When she was choosing a major, she chose to study chemistry because she had heard it might help Afghanistan in the future. She has taught chemistry for decades.

Many of the scholars have reported receiving death threats from the Taliban, appearances at the doorstep, home searches.
Rose Anderson, director of protection services, Scholars at Risk

The first time the Taliban were in power, the chemist joined with another woman professor to create an underground school for girls. When that regime was over, she saw a lot of progress for women at the country’s universities. For example, women served in leadership roles at the university and in the country’s higher education ministry, and an academic council formed to support women at the university.

The chemist is dismayed about how many people left Afghanistan and continue to leave. “We lost a lot of knowledgeable people and scholars to America and Europe,” she says, estimating that the exodus set the country back 50 years. She’s especially worried that it is going to make getting an education harder for young people.

She thinks older faculty like her need to stand up against the Taliban to set a good example for students. “They need support. They need someone to work with them,” she says. But it is a difficult time to do that.

In the days right after the Taliban takeover, the chemist worked with other women faculty to make sure the university was ready to welcome back female students. She reached out to Afghan leaders to try to convince the Taliban to allow schools to open. “We want to have a dialogue with the Taliban,” she says.

She originally hoped that the Taliban would take a different view of education this time, in part because the people of Afghanistan have changed. “I think the Taliban know we are not the people we were 20 years before,” she says. Overall, people know a lot more about how other parts of the world work. They will not accept education bans and other restrictions that keep the country from progressing, she says.

But so far, things are looking increasingly dire for women and for science in Afghanistan, and her hopes for outside help are fading. Chemists in particular don’t feel complete unless they can work, she explains. “We need the lab,” she says.


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