By Andrew Cohen
Maria Raheen fully grasped the irony. The more achievements she attained that elevated her standing and reputation, the more perilous her life would become.
As a journalist and educator, Raheen advocated fiercely for women’s rights and media freedom in Afghanistan — views that stood in sharp conflict with the Taliban. So when the Taliban regained power in August 2021, she knew staying in her home country would not be possible.
Still, Raheen never imagined just how stressful fleeing Afghanistan would be. No one could. While en route with her family from Balkh to Kabul in order to evacuate through United States military flights, they were in a car accident that broke both of her legs.
“Days later, we returned to Kabul but were unable to get on any of the emergency flights because of my situation and injury,” she says. “My family and I hid in a house in Kabul under the Taliban rule for about three months, until we were finally evacuated from Kabul to Albania.”
“My life in Afghanistan had been like hundreds of other intellectual and active women who fought and worked to get their human rights and freedom. We informed more women every day to get freedom so that we could have a humane society away from violence. But these sacrifices and struggles still could not open a place in the field of Afghan society.”
Raheen’s family settled in Germany — where she had built relationships while doing some work with the Deutsche Welle Broadcasting Network — and they are now learning the language and trying to start a new life. She came to Berkeley Law earlier this year as a visiting scholar of the school’s Human Rights Center and spent a few months there, but medical costs and the need to help support her family brought her back to Germany.
Married with four children, Raheen spent 23 years as a faculty member at Balkh University’s School of Journalism and Mass Communication and was the dean for five years before fleeing Afghanistan. In 2010 she founded the Taj Institute of Higher Education, a university licensed by the Afghanistan Government’s Ministry of Higher Education, and led Viyar, an institute that worked to provide social services for women.
Despite the dangers involved and the presence of many eager to stop her advocacy work, Raheen continued her efforts as a leader and role model for Afghan women, amplifying their demands at many international and national conferences and striving to create a better future for them.
“I would spend over 15 hours a day working in this field through teaching, advocacy, organizing, working with the media, and more,” says Raheen, who is proficient in five languages. “But when the Taliban retook Afghanistan, they created conditions of suffocation and danger. The lack of human freedom made me, like thousands of other Afghans from the academic field, reluctantly leave.”
After graduating from college, Raheen earned journalism certificates in India, Turkey, and United Arab Emirates, and in the U.S. at San Jose State University. She worked as a writer, broadcaster, and television producer, and as a journalism professor has taught courses including Public Opinion, the History of World Press, and Theories of Journalism.
Appointed Balkh University’s dean of journalism and mass communication in 2014, she organized conferences and workshops to engage Afghan women in parliamentary elections, and worked with UN Women to advance their efforts. Raheen was also a member of Afghanistan’s Women’s Network and Independent Human Rights Commission, and many other organizations that pushed to advance women’s rights.
“I hope that educated Afghans will continue to fight for the liberation of Afghan women, and be a connecting point for those across the world with human consciousness and a passion for women’s rights to better the situation for Afghan women, who are like prisoners in their own homeland,” Raheen says.
Connecting with Berkeley
The Human Rights Center entered Raheen’s radar through a friend who teaches at San Jose State, which partners with the center and UC Berkeley’s Afghan Student Association to bring threatened Afghan scholars to the Bay Area. She is currently working on a research project with the center focused on the challenges and accomplishments of the women’s rights movement in Afghanistan over the past 20 years.
“This topic is of special interest to me,” Raheen says. “It’s not only something I have expertise on, I’m also very passionate about this. I hope to work on more projects for Afghan women with the center in the future. I’m very grateful for my friends there and I’m honored to continue my work with them.”
Concerned about growing threats to media freedom around the world, Raheen also plans to continue her research and advocacy in this area.
“In my opinion, true media freedom does not fully exist anywhere in the world, as economic and financial motives have always held power over and endangered it,” she says. “However, it is my hope that countries that practice freedom of speech can rely on that right to protect and promote media, in order to reach true and complete media freedom.”
Noting that Afghanistan’s political and social history surprises many people she interacts with, Raheen explains that before Soviet intervention that began in 1979, the country enjoyed high economic status and moderate politics.
“We were a peaceful society with art and culture, but unfortunately all these achievements were taken away from us,” she says. “But as an activist, I have not lost hope and I will try every day to help my country and to establish the freedom of Afghan women.”