Growing up in Afghanistan, Rahila's parents dressed her as a boy to give her the same rights as her brothers

© Provided by ABC NEWS Ms Haidari’s parents dressed her as a boy whenever she was in public for much of her childhood. (Supplied: Rahila Haidari)

At the age of two, Rahila Haidari’s father decided his youngest daughter would grow up as a boy for one simple reason.

It was 1999 in Afghanistan and with the Taliban in power, he wanted her to have the same rights as her brother.

Hair cropped short and looking like the boys on her street, Ms Haidari spent the next seven years of her life acting like a boy whenever she was in public. 

“People knew I was a girl, but because I was dressed up as a boy they gave me the same rights as they did my brother,” she said.

“We played on the streets, I was outspoken, I had fun and nobody ever questioned it.”

Ms Haidari’s family moved to Perth in 2006 when she was nine years old, following their father who fled the country six years earlier to establish a life in Australia.

The youngest of four and now working as a lawyer, she said she was the only girl in her family who was dressed like a boy but was never told why her father made that decision.

“I don’t know [why he dressed me as a boy], I don’t know what changed his mind,” she said.

“He literally just came home one day and brought some boys’ clothes with him and said ‘from now on she’ll dress up as a boy.'”

A fateful decision

Ms Haidari said having equal rights to the boys around her had a major impact on her life.

“Even now when I look back, I’m a lot more outspoken than my sisters are, I’m a lot more confident that my sisters are,” Ms Haidari said.

“That’s only because my dad decided that he was going to give me the same rights that my brother [had].”

Under the Taliban’s rule around the turn of the century, women were largely barred from work and education, and could only leave home with a male ‘guardian’.

Women as young as 12 were forced into marriages, and there were severe consequences if women showed their faces uncovered in public.

However, many of these practices were already practiced as part of Afghan tradition, particularly in regional areas.

The chair of the National Refugee-led Advisory and Advocacy group, and a Hazara-Australian woman, Shabnam Safa, said Ms Haidari’s story was upsetting.

“It doesn’t surprise me [that this happened], it breaks my heart,” she said.

“It’s not a matter of a dress, it’s [about] being erased from the face of society.

“The last time the Taliban were in power that is exactly what happened, women were erased, and we’re seeing that right now as well.”

Always in the firing line

Ms Haidari’s family are Hazara, a group historically targeted by the Taliban for its ethnicity and religion, even in the 20 years when US troops were in the country. 

“We’ve been persecuted in times of peace and we’ve been massacred in times of war,” Ms Haidari said. 

“Growing up in Afghanistan it’s just so normal for me to think that at any point there could be a shooting … there could be an explosion.

“People just expected it to happen at any point, especially being Hazara.

“We look different, we have a different religion as well, so we are very, very easy to be targeted.”

Ms Haidari said she hoped the Commonwealth would do more to support those most at risk now Afghanistan was under Taliban control.

She said relatives trying to flee Afghanistan were being blocked at borders because of their ethnicity. 

Prime Minister Scott Morrison promised at least 3,000 visas, but said that number could increase because it was a “floor, not a ceiling”. 

Ms Haidari said the community wanted to know who those visas would be offered to. 

“Is it the people who were evacuated from Kabul airport? Is it people applying for humanitarian visas? Who are these 3,000 people?” she said. 

“How can I get my family out? Those are the questions that we’re asking and they’re not being answered.” 

A rally that attracted more than 1,000 people in Perth last month called on the Commonwealth to commit 20,000 visas for those fleeing Afghanistan.

“Obviously you can’t help the whole country, and that’s not what Afghan-Australians are asking for,” she said. 

“I don’t know if it’s going to happen, I’m [feeling] really, really hopeless at the moment … but I really hope that we can do something. 

“It’s a big help to those living in Afghanistan, but it’s so small considering how privileged we are in Australia.” 

Struggling to find a way to help

Ms Haidari said while some of her family who worked with the Afghan government managed to escape to neighbouring Pakistan, speaking to those left behind could be a challenging task.

“I can’t speak to my uncle because I just feel like, what do I even say? What do you even ask?” she said. 

“You can’t ask ‘how are you going?’ because they’re not doing very well. 

“I personally just cannot speak to them right now because it’s just too painful for me.” 

She said everyone in Australia was trying to do something, from donating money to those who had fled to neighbouring Pakistan and Iran, to gathering clothes and toys for those who would be resettled in Australia.

Attacked and persecuted

Former director of the Australian National University’s Centre for Arab and Islamic Studies, Amin Saikal, said Hazaras had historically been one of the smaller minorities in Afghanistan.

“One of the reasons that the Hazaras had been persecuted before the rise of the Taliban was because the ethnic Pashtuns had a degree of supremacy by being in control of the political and military leadership of Afghanistan,” he said.

“With the US invasion and occupation of Afghanistan, their conditions improved substantially.

“The Hazaras were able to secure a reasonable share in the power structure, as well as the legislative process and economy of Afghanistan, and that also may have become a source of envy for some of the other groups.”

But Mr Saikal said those gains would likely be lost, despite the Taliban’s promises it would form an inclusive government.

Video: ‘It was never easy’ to evacuate from Afghanistan (Sky News Australia)

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