A prominent face of Afghan social media, Afghan-Canadian Nadima, 38, disappeared after an altercation with the Taliban in her Kabul office on a bitterly cold mid-February evening.
“I had gone out for meetings. My team called me and said the Taliban was here at my office, and they want to take us all away for some questions. I told them not to move, and when I got back, I told the Taliban no, these people work for me, and if you take them, you must take me too,” a defiant Nadima, who refused to show the authorities her phone despite their demands, tells me. “God forbid if something happens to them, how will I respond to the mothers and the wives?”
Yet, no Taliban would elaborate nor explain why the aid workers were being dragged off into the twilight.
Nadima’s disappearance into the depths of detainment – along with several male colleagues, including several British citizens and one American, sparked international concern and outcry from her family abroad, given that the Taliban refused to comment on her case. No charges had been brought against the comedienne, who posts updates under the stage name of “Tesha De Waday” and operates the human rights NGO “Dream. Voice. Act.”
“These arrests are a lesson to all foreigners in Afghanistan who are not obeying the rules,” a Taliban official told the press at the time. “We have a government now, and just like in any country; the foreigners here must follow the laws.”
However, Nadima’s time in confinement was surprisingly serene: held in a lavish home as intelligence officials underwent “an investigation” in which no charges were ever filed.
“They were not disrespectful. They were not mean to me. They just put me there, and I was literally force-hosted in the house. I never made my tea. I was served tea every day. I was fasting every day, so (at night) they would send me lots of meat. I kept telling them I was vegetarian, so they brought me yogurt and salad and kidney beans,” she recalls. “One of them watched one of my videos talking about liking peanuts, so they brought me a bunch of peanuts.”
While the minutes melted into hours into days and then weeks, Nadima says she used the moments of quiet reflection to meditate once it was clear she would not be physically harmed.
“Fasting was a factor in making me strong. I used it to detox and connect deeply,” she recounts slowly. “I became very zen, very calm, very relaxed.”
Known for her blazingly bright mosaic of colorful clothes, Nadima, a softly-spoken ethereal figure in a conservative society who appears to float instead of walk, has long rattled the cage on the web.
“I have always spoken out about sensitive subjects. For example, if there is a situation in a village where a girl must be given up for marriage to repay debt, I will bring this up and ask why we are doing this to our own. I don’t demand support; I challenge people. How do you call yourself humans? How are we doing this? My messages are always directed toward self-healing and self-reflection. So, people can reflect and take accountability for their actions,” she continues. “Or why am I seeing men pee in public? All these millions of dollars have come into our country in the last twenty years, so why are there no public restrooms?”
Then on March 9 – some twenty-four days later – Nadima was impetuously shown the door. In the weeks since her release, the activist has come to believe she was framed by malicious gossipers claiming she was paying women to protest in the streets or forcing them to submit to prostitution for money. Nevertheless, Nadima says because her message is wrapped in healing and forgiveness – in looking forwards rather than backward – she has effectively been blackballed from much of the mainstream media.
“I wasn’t fitting the narrative,” she asserts with a shrug. “Women like me are neglected by selective feminism.”
Despite calls from Ottawa to immediately leave after release, the persistent activist says she refuses to abandon her nation of birth. Born in the rolling hills of the sleepy Khost Province, her parents left in 1984 – in the throes of the Soviet War – when she was just one year old, absconding into Pakistan as her mother recalled wild dogs hungrily howling behind them. Nadima returned to the war-ravished country in the winter of 2019 for a trip that was supposed to be two months. Nonetheless, the beautiful albeit bleeding nation quickly became home – a berth of heartbreak and healing.
“I felt a tremendous sense of responsibility when I came here, to challenge traditional beliefs and taboo customs that are justified in the name of religion and culture,” she notes. “So, I decided to bring all these things up – from arranged marriage, pedophilia, gender inequality and the things that go completely against humanity – in a humorous way. I wanted my videos to be a voice for people.”
Just days before her arrest, Nadima took to social media to rebuke armed young Taliban fighters policing the clogged, dusty streets of the capital.
“While going around in the backs of your Ranger [pickup trucks], you should not point your guns at nearby pedestrians,” Nadima proclaimed. “Also, do not rest your chin on your guns. You might fire it [unintentionally] and kill someone or harm yourself.”
Yet since the Taliban took over in August, its top brass has been under fire from the international community for refusing to let girls above secondary education return to school. Nadima, on the other hand, views the controversy as an opportunity to “get rid of this old education system” and embrace online learning.
“If people in the world care about women’s education, then put free courses online and give Afghan girls and women access to it. Then, we can learn from home,” she surmises. “Make sure every woman has a phone or computer; it is very simple. Problem solved. Also, no one can stop a woman from going to a woman’s house. Homeschooling is a popular thing in the West. I always encourage people to be independent in your thinking, be independent in your way of life and do not depend on the government or anyone for your life.”
Nadima’s infectious positivity amid murky detention may nevertheless be a unique occurrence, as western officials warn that targeted arrests of foreigners and women are becoming more common. As of March, 21 female activists were reported imprisoned; many of them are said to have been released, although their locations are still unknown.
Still, Nadima will not walk away.
“The point isn’t about the detainment; it matters what I will do now. It matters how we are going to move forward. I love taking care of the elderly and providing support for widows. I want them to have financial support,” she adds. “I did not think twice about moving from Afghanistan when the Taliban took over, and the same for now. When we face obstacles and challenges, we cannot quit halfway.”