Female veterinarians in Afghanistan tell their stories

Practitioners seeking evacuation wait nervously as Taliban retakes power

August 19, 2021 (published)
By Ross Kelly

Photo courtesy of Dr. Tahera Razaei
The only female veterinarian with a registered pet clinic in Afghanistan, Dr. Tahera Razaei is also vice president and head veterinarian of Kabul Small Animal Rescue. She is pictured with a cat named Hazel.

When the Taliban swept into Kabul on Sunday, Dr. Tahera Razaei decided to stay put in her veterinary clinic in the Afghan capital.

The only female veterinarian with a registered pet clinic in Afghanistan was afraid to leave.

"I was just shocked and scared," the 31-year-old told the VIN News Service from Kabul.

Her home, she explained, was some distance from the clinic and in an area that she suspected would be targeted by the Taliban. Besides, she wasn't exactly dressed to travel. She had no Taliban-approved clothing at hand: a full-length abaya-style covering and tight hijab to obscure her face and entire body.

Staying at the clinic wasn't without risk. "If the Taliban recognized [that] only I worked here with men, I didn't know what would happen to me," Razaei said.

Razaei is among dozens of veterinarians and veterinary paraprofessionals in Afghanistan who face an uncertain future since the United States and its allies pulled out of the war-ravaged country following a 20-year occupation.

Before the Taliban was removed from power in 2001, the group ruled Afghanistan with a strict interpretation of Shariah, or Islamic law, that included forbidding television and music, banning women from working, and prohibiting girls older than 12 from attending school.

Nobody is sure how the Taliban will rule this time around, although there are hopes things might be different. On Tuesday, in their first official news conference since taking power, the group said it would respect the rights of women within the framework of Islamic law.

Still, Razaei is among throngs of Afghan citizens who are attempting to flee the country, in part, out of fear of reprisals for working alongside Western groups, including nongovernmental organizations (NGOs). Razaei, for instance, is vice president and head veterinarian at Kabul Small Animal Rescue (KSAR), which was established three years ago by Charlotte Maxwell-Jones, a U.S. citizen and research director of Heart of Asia Society, an Afghan think tank.

In brief

In an interview, Maxwell-Jones confirmed that Razaei is among about 30 Afghan KSAR staff and 120 of their family members that she is attempting to help evacuate to the United States. The group also wants to get dozens of dogs and cats out of the country, mindful that the Taliban previously disapproved of dog ownership.

In a tentatively positive sign, the Taliban so far have been reasonably accommodating. Maxwell-Jones said KSAR has been able to save animals throughout the city, even those left by evacuees in compounds now occupied by the Taliban. But the situation remains volatile.

Razaei, after spending two days hunkered down in her veterinary clinic, made it home this week to be with her husband, an English teacher. When contacted by VIN News, she was in the midst of preparing animal export-and-import paperwork for more than 100 dogs and cats that KSAR is trying to evacuate.

Dr. Hamida Shabae, a 26-year-old female veterinarian who works in Afghanistan, described the situation, although far from ideal, as not as bad as initially feared.

"Kabul became the city of spirits after the Taliban came," Shabae told VIN News, speaking of streets that were all but deserted. "But the Taliban are treating people in a good way, for now."

Shabae is one of 25 Afghan veterinarians and veterinary support staff who work for Nowzad, an animal welfare charity set up in 2007. Nowzad's founder, Pen Farthing, a British ex-Royal Marine, is trying to evacuate 71 Afghans, comprising the 25 staff plus their immediate families, to the United Kingdom.

"No one wants to leave the country, but we have to leave," Shabae said. "If the Taliban is informed that Nowzad is an NGO, it is a big risk for all our staff."

Male veterinarians, she added, may be permitted to work under Taliban rule, but Shabae doubts that women will.

Photo courtesy of Dr. Hamida Shabae
Dr. Hamida Shabae, pictured with her rescue pup, Friday, works for an animal welfare charity, Nowzad.

Nowzad is trying also to evacuate about 200 cats and dogs, and has raised $200,000 to pay for a cargo plane, Farthing said Thursday in a video posted on Nowzad's Facebook page.

Successful evacuations are not assured. Kabul's main airport is heavily barricaded and it currently isn't safe to travel there, Farthing said.

Farthing's evacuation mission is supported in principle by the Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons, the British Veterinary Association and the British Veterinary Nursing Association. This week, the three organizations jointly called on the U.K. government to add Afghan veterinarians to an emergency evacuation list.

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson said he was aware of Nowzad's cause but stopped short of committing to the group's evacuation. "We will do everything we can to help Mr. Pen Farthing and others who face particular difficulty like himself, but … without in any way jeopardizing our own national security," Johnson told the U.K. Parliament.

Farthing said on Thursday that he hadn't been contacted by the British government. "Yes, [Johnson] mentioned my name yesterday in Parliament. It means nothing until we see some actions."

In the meantime, Afghanistan's veterinarians face a nervous wait. "All of us, even our family, are at risk, and we are not feeling safe," Nowzad veterinarian Dr. Farzad Stanikzai said in a video post. "So we pray."

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