Meet The Women Of Afghanistan That Battle The Taliban On Horseback 

by Pardis Mahdavi

Deep in the mountains of Northern Afghanistan lived an all-female collective of horsewomen warriors. They protected themselves and their community from violent threats, and, in 2001, were recruited to help United States forces train their own horses to defeat the Taliban. In this excerpt from Book of Queens: The True Story of the Middle Eastern Horsewomen Who Fought the War on Terror, by Pardis Mahdavi—herself an equestrian descendent of one of these women—we meet Mina, who would become the leader of the group, and was later personally called upon by the U.S. Green Berets for her assistance

The author with her horse, Caspian, in Montana PHOTO BY ANDY MEPHAM 

Mina couldn’t remember not knowing how to ride. Horses were her life. She depended on them, and they never let her down. 

When Soheila asked her how she had learned to ride, Mina could only shrug. She could no more answer that question than explain how she had learned to walk. Her body was made to ride. Mina trusted the horses, and she trusted the women of the caves, those who trained her and those who became her friends, her compatriots like Soheila. Her solace was in these two loves. 

In 1950, when Mina was seven years old, her mother, Ghashang, had left her at home in Kabul with her father and brothers and traveled to Iran with Mina’s aunties Ghazal and Ghesmat. One afternoon, while her mother was still away, Mina’s friend Hiba invited her over for lunch. 

After feasting on lamb and rice pilaf, Hiba suggested they play dress-up. This was Mina’s least favorite activity. If she couldn’t be on a horse, she at least wanted to be outside climbing rocks and trees. But her mother was gone, her brothers and father were out hunting, and she had nothing better to do, so she agreed. 

“Let’s stage a wedding,” Hiba said, sorting through the dresses in her mother’s modest clothing trunk. Mina was to play the bride, her most hated role. Hiba helped her into a white dress and twisted her long black hair into a bun. She even had a tiara for Mina to wear. Her grandfather, Hiba explained, would be Mina’s groom while Hiba officiated. The girls spread out a cloth on the floor and anchored it with teacups and a few dolls as the wedding guests. 

As soon as Hiba pronounced the bride and groom to be husband and wife, Hiba’s grandfather asked his granddaughter to leave the room. It was only when the other little girl had gone, shutting the heavy door behind her, that it occurred to Mina to be afraid. 

The old man ordered her to lie down on a small mattress in the corner of the room. “It’s our wedding night,” he told her. Mina, frozen in fear, didn’t move, so he picked her up and put her on the bed himself. Sunlight poured in from the window above the mattress, and the brightness blinded her. The old man placed something cold and hard in the palm of her hand. She traced the shape and realized it was a perfume bottle. 

“Put some on.” 

Her fingers trembled. She rolled over, out of the sun’s glare, and saw the old man taking off his clothes. Something deep inside her jerked her out of the state of suspension, and she leaped off the bed and raced for the door—only to find it locked. She ran around the room, but Hiba’s grandfather grabbed her and threw her down. The back of her head hit the bed frame, and she screamed. 

Later, Mina pulled the wedding dress back over her body but could not find her underwear. She walked to the door and peered through the keyhole. What she saw was not a key, but Hiba’s eye staring back at her. 

Her friend unlocked the door, and the two girls stood face-to-face. “I’m sorry,” Hiba said, her voice flat. For months, Mina did not dare speak about that afternoon. Her mother was still in Iran helping her sisters, and Mina knew she could only wait. But when Ghashang finally returned, Mina told her parents what had happened. Her father became enraged. 

“How dare you make such an accusation! Hiba’s grandfather is a prominent man in our village. Why would you say such a thing?” her father roared. 

Tears rolled down Mina’s face, and her mother rushed to envelop her little girl in her arms. 

“Don’t blame her, husband. It happened to me, too, and to my sisters. You know it’s true.” 

Her father shook his head. “Your daughter brings shame upon this family!” 

“No, it is you who brings shame, Ahmed.” 

Mina’s father raised his hand. She knew what was coming but could not bring herself to look away. She felt the pain of the slap across her mother’s face as sharply as if it were her own cheek stinging. Her father raised his hand again, but this time Ghashang reached for the steaming pot on the stove and flung it at him. 

“You disgusting whore!” he shouted, hot stew dripping down his shirt. He lunged for his wife, but Mina wedged her body between her parents and kicked her father in the shin. In one swift motion, he picked her up and threw her across the room. Ghashang grabbed a knife, and just as her husband turned to bring the full force of his rage back on her, she drove the blade into his stomach. Dazed, Mina watched as her father crumpled and blood began to seep across the tiles. 

Ghashang dropped the knife and grabbed her daughter. “Mina, we don’t have much time. Go get Ruba.” At the mention of her favorite horse, the girl ran to the yard. Ruba and her mother’s horse, Farah, seemed to sense something awful had happened. They and the three stallions the family owned formed a circle around her, protecting her. In that moment, Mina would have given anything to be a horse rather than a girl. 

“We need to ride north, far north, to the caves. Do you understand?” Her mother came into the yard carrying two large bags and several blankets. 

At seven, the girl was already stronger than most boys in the village, and she helped her mother distribute the weight of the bags on one of the stallions. Then she used the blankets and some rope to make sitting pads, first on Ruba and then on Farah. Ghashang tied a rope to the packed stallion, and mother and daughter mounted, riding away from the house. Mina could feel Ruba’s heart beating, and she focused on its steady rhythm, reassured by its consistency and power. 

Mina and Ghashang never saw their home village again, never confirmed Ahmed’s death, though they knew, and never again saw either of Mina’s two brothers. But they had their lives, which were finally their own. 

Ghashang had known to go north, to the caves, because of the lore of the women there, the ones who had escaped abusive husbands and fathers and brothers. The legend was shared like an amulet among wives and daughters and sisters. Whispers in the wind ensured that their stories reached those who needed to hear them. But when she and Mina fled, she still didn’t know if any of these stories were really true. When, after five long days of riding they reached the caves and were greeted only by eerie quiet, Ghashang wondered if maybe it was all a myth. Mother and daughter were exhausted and had no place else to go. That night, they made camp at the base of the caves. 

And then, there they were: a dozen women emerging from the darkness. They scooped up the weary travelers and took them into the caves and a new way of life. Ghashang and Mina never looked back. They rose with the sun, fed the horses, and mended the clothes and linens. When all that was done, they turned to their other work, sharpening their swords, cleaning their guns, and polishing their armor. Each woman was given her own woven silver metal chest plate to mold to her body. Mina learned to heat metal to shape her sword into jagged points that favored the movement of her hands. She was trained in the delicate art of metallurgy and found she had a knack for it. 

The girl loved their new life. She loved that she was constantly surrounded by women who looked out for her and guided her and rushed to soothe her when she woke screaming in the middle of the night, her memories having found her in sleep. She watched her mother relax, flourish, and grow stronger. Mina, too, marveled at how her own body was changing day to day. The muscles in her calves, biceps, and trapezoids swelled. 

Fighting came naturally to both mother and daughter. Within only a few years, Ghashang was promoted to general, and Mina became a confident hunter, soldier, markswoman, and killer. She shot her first leopard when she was 10, rode brazenly into her first battle against a group of drug lords at barely 11, and on the night of her 12th birthday, she dreamed of killing Hiba’s grandfather. The dream was so vivid that when Mina woke up, she knew her rapist must surely be dead. He never bothered her dreams again. 

When Mina met Soheila, she recognized the way the girl carried herself, the look of terror and panic writ large across her face, because she had arrived at the caves in the same state. But she wasn’t that scared little girl anymore, and she had known that Soheila didn’t have to be either. If she could heal, so could her new friend. 

Most nights, Soheila cried so hard in her sleep that she woke herself up, and Mina, too. The two girls sat in the dark, holding hands and whispering until morning. Mina told the story of her rape, and Soheila described being raped every night of her marriage. 

“The horses can help heal you,” Mina promised.

“They are beautiful, but they frighten me,” Soheila sobbed.

“I was frightened of many things when I arrived here, too. Not horses, though; never horses. They are the gentlest beings on this earth, I swear it. The best of God’s creations. Trust me, my sister, they will heal you, if you let them. If you trust them.” 

Slowly, hour by hour, Mina helped Soheila remember who she was. Learning to ride was the first and most significant step. When Soheila learned to mount the horse that the great Iranian woman Maryam had left behind for her, her eyes danced with joy. 

The girls practiced riding up and down the jagged peaks of the mountains surrounding their caves, and Mina told Soheila that not only were the horses healing her, but they would also enable continued survival. 

You are my survival, Mina,” Soheila said, smiling at her friend as they bounced along the sandstone landscape, their hair blowing free and wild. “You, the women of the caves, and our horses, too. You are power, joy, and healing. I am lucky to be among you.” 

“No man will ever hurt us again,” Mina replied, as much to herself as to Soheila. 

By the time Mina and Soheila were 18, they were two of the best fighters in the 88-woman army. One morning, just a few months before the Soviets would crash through the Afghan border, the women patrolled to ensure no warlords stole their horses or weapons. Mina and Soheila were out riding at sunrise. Their beautiful morning was cut short, however, by a group of Russian and Afghan soldiers, supporters of General Mohammed Daoud Khan, the cousin of the king, and self-proclaimed prime minister of Afghanistan. The men were riding the hills in an effort to disrupt the drug trade that had taken over the country. 

“You girls look lost,” one of the men called. He gestured to the six others riding alongside him, and they quickly encircled the young women. “You know, General Daoud has proclaimed that women are allowed to attend university now,” one of the men said. “You should be in school, not out here playing ponies.”

“Though you are quite beautiful,” another of the men said, in heavily accented Dari. Soheila had learned Dari in less than two months; it was so similar to Persian, her native tongue. But this man was clearly not from Iran, Afghanistan, or Pakistan. His tongue was harsher. Later, she would learn to identify his as a Russian accent. 

“But perhaps they are too beautiful for school,” another chimed in. The men moved closer. Soheila and Mina exchanged knowing glances. Mina let out a trilling scream. Soheila’s horse, Zereshk, the very same she had shared a flask of whiskey and crossed the border with, reared on his hind legs. Mina’s horse, Ruba the Second, or Ruba II, who had arrived like a gift the same day Soheila was brought to the caves, did the same. In an instant, the women drew their bows and began firing off arrows. Two blond men drew their guns, but Mina’s arrows pierced their hands before they could even take aim. 

One of the Afghan men rode furiously at Soheila, a rope in one hand and a gun in the other. He twirled the rope and hurled it toward her, aiming to pull her off her horse and drag her behind. But Soheila ducked expertly, and Zereshk, who had proved to be even more precocious than his rider, tucked his head and moved swiftly out of reach with a grapevine-like motion. 

The Afghan man had never seen a horse move in this way. Shocked, he lost his balance. As he fell to the ground, his gun went off, which spooked his horse to rear high. Soheila watched as the horse brought his front hooves back down on the man’s chest with a sickening crack. His body jerked three times, he wheezed, and then he fell still. 

This was all the other men needed to see. With one of their soldiers dead and three wounded, they rode back in the direction they’d come, leaving their dead brother and his horse behind. 

Wordlessly, Mina dismounted and tied the dead soldier to his horse using his own rope. She then used the other end to tie both horse and rider to Ruba. In silence, the two young women rode home to the caves. 

When they arrived, the girls were celebrated. Not only had they bested the soldiers, but they had brought a new horse for the herd. Ghashang, who was by then the commanding general, the highest rank of the three generals in the group, beamed with pride. 

“It’s time, daughter,” she whispered in Mina’s ear.

“Time for what, Mother?”

“Time for you to start the next level of your training. You will be the next commanding general of our army.” 

By 2001, Mina’s mother and all the women of the caves had sacrificed everything to keep their horses safe and cared for. The herd had grown to more than 50, and the women had increased in number as well. Their reputation meant that other local women facing abuse at home or who wanted to learn to run, ride, revolt, and fight found their way to the caves. The women became family, as did the equines. They fed the horses before they ate themselves, harvesting grains, vegetables, and fruits to keep the herd nourished. 

That’s when Mina received a text on her Nokia flip phone from a member of her troop, who was positioned near where a group of Taliban resisters who called themselves the Northern Alliance was stationed to keep watch for the arrival of the Taliban and the Americans: “GREEN BERETS, SPECIAL FORCES COMING IN. NEED HORSES. NEED TRAINING.” 

“The world is watching Afghanistan,” Mina told her friends. “Now we will show the world what we are made of.” 

Reprinted with permission from Book of Queens: The True Story Of The Middle Eastern Horsewomen Who Fought The War On Terror by Pardis Mahdavi. Published by Hachette, 2023, and available wherever books are sold.


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