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Plight of Afghan women haunts Pakistani nun

Sister Shahnaz Bhatti worked in a pontifical mission in Afghanistan until the Taliban takeover in August

UCA News reporter

UCA News reporter

Published: October 09, 2021 04:19 AM GMT

Updated: October 11, 2021 04:17 AM GMT

Plight of Afghan women haunts Pakistani nun

Pakistan-born Sister Shahnaz Bhatti says women are considered inconsequential in Afghanistan. (Photo: Aid to the Church in Need)

A Pakistan-born Catholic nun who worked in Afghanistan until the Taliban takeover says the plight and lack of freedom of women in the country still trouble her.

Women are considered inconsequential in Afghanistan, said Sister Shahnaz Bhatti from the Sisters of Charity of St. Jeanne-Antide Thouret, who fled the troubled Central Asian country following the Taliban victory on Aug. 15.

Young women are forced against their will to marry men selected by the patriarch of the family, said Sister Bhatti, who served in Afghanistan as part of the pontifical mission set up by Pope John Paul II in May 2002.

“The most trying thing was not being able to move about freely because, as women, we always had to be accompanied by a man,” Sister Bhatti said in an interview with papal charity Aid to the Church in Need (ACN) on Sept. 22.

The congregation, founded by St. Jeanne-Antide Thouret in 1797 in France, ran a school for children with intellectual disabilities and Down’s syndrome in the capital Kabul. Sister Bhatti served in the school along with Sister Teresia of the Sisters of Maria Bambina (Sisters of Holy Child Mary) and Sister Irene of the Missionary Sisters of Consolata.

“It was my job to complete all the necessary paperwork at the banks or other government agencies, but I always had to be accompanied by a local man,” she added.

Since the takeover, the Taliban have been imposing a massive rollback of women’s rights in Afghanistan

Women religious had to dress like the local women and were constantly being monitored, Sister Bhatti said, recalling her experience in Afghanistan, where US-led forces were engaged in a 20-year war and humanitarian assistance.

Afghans consider all foreigners to be Christians, she added.

With fewer than 1,000 Christians in Afghanistan, the mission provided humanitarian assistance in Kabul and in southern parts of the country with the help of Missionaries of Charity sisters and an inter-congregational organization.

The US-backed alliance pulled out of Afghanistan after US President Joe Biden decided to end Washington's longest war.

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Italy was a key member of the military operation which aimed at training Afghans after the departure of foreign soldiers. The pontifical mission was housed in the Italian embassy.

Since the takeover, the Taliban have been imposing a massive rollback of women’s rights in Afghanistan including segregating universities by gender and a new dress code for girls, media reports say.

Abdul Baqi Haqqani, Taliban’s higher education minister, has said that women will not be allowed to study alongside men. Except for those in the public healthcare services, the Taliban have asked all women to stay away from work until security improves in the nation.

Sister Bhatti said families of children whom they taught “keep calling us to ask for help,” adding that they are currently exposed to a “grave danger.”

Following the Taliban victory, the nun helped members of other congregations and 14 children with disabilities to board an Italy-bound flight

Observing religious rituals was challenging in Afghanistan and Sunday was just like another weekday, she recalled.

Her colleagues left one by one and she lived alone for more than a year. Following the Taliban victory, the nun helped members of other congregations and 14 children with disabilities to board an Italy-bound flight.

On her day of departure from Kabul, the nun said she found “mayhem” all around at Hamid Karzai International Airport and it took two hours for them to reach the airport amid shooting.

Sister Bhatti thanked Italy's Foreign Ministry, the International Red Cross and Barnabite priest Father Giovanni Scalese from the papal mission in Afghanistan for helping her escape the troubled nation.

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