‘Keep Watch Over Us’A Plea from the Women Abandoned in Afghanistan
Meet eight Afghan women still fighting for their rights in face of Taliban repression. Interviews and photos by Angelo Calianno
Six months have passed since the Taliban returned to power in Afghanistan. When news broke in August 2021 that “God’s students” were returning to Kabul, women were the first people to run to the airport with a suitcase in their hands. The memory and terror of the regime of 20 years ago, of the people who imposed the burqa and stoned women in stadiums, was very alive in everyone’s mind.
In that chaotic flight to the airport, about 125 thousand people were evacuated. But thousands failed to catch those planes. The Taliban, out of necessity, has since allowed some women to return to certain jobs such as women’s and pediatric wards in hospitals, or elementary schools.
But what happens to those women who cannot get out of Afghanistan: those women who were the only economic support for families and who can no longer work: those women who live with the fear of leaving the house alone: teachers, students, lawyers, women who worked in the media, sports and politics; where are they now and what do they do?
These are some of their stories.
Arzo is 24 years old and disabled, having lost a leg as a child to polio. She is now a physiotherapist at the International Red Cross, where she deals with the rehabilitation of women and children who have lost a limb due to a bomb, illness, or a violent attack.
Arzo was also a promising wheelchair basketball player and a member of the Afghan team who starred in the Asian Games. Fortunately, Arzo still manages to work, as the Red Cross is an international institute – but being a woman, she is no longer allowed to play basketball. The Taliban consider some activities, such as sports, as exclusively male prerogatives and see the “invasion” of these fields by women as a threat. Some Taliban Groups even believe that a woman can get pregnant simply by playing sport.
“When the Taliban arrived, I ran to the airport but I couldn’t catch the plane,” Arzo told me. “I stayed there for two days, waiting and in all that chaos, I lost my bag which contained many precious memories. I am very afraid for my future, I had dreams, hopes, but now I cannot think of anything. I only think about the restrictions that have been imposed on us and I wonder if it will ever change.”
Farahnaz, Sakina & Atifa
Farahnaz is a student who was three years old when she lost the use of her legs. The Taliban fired rockets near her home during an attack, knocking down a wall that fell on her legs. Farahnaz and her family are Hazaras, the ethnic group most targeted by the Taliban, especially because they are of the Shiite faith.
Before August, most of the attacks by the Taliban targeted the Hazara neighbourhood, their mosques and Shiite schools. Today, with their return to power, the small amounts of aid organised and distributed by the Taliban, are withheld from Hazaras.
Farahnaz and his mother are trying to get out of Afghanistan. They are in contact with NGOs, associations and friends abroad, but they are two people among millions of others who are trying to escape Afghanistan.
“I would like to get out of Afghanistan,” Farahnaz’s mother says, “and take my daughter to the West where she does not risk her life as a woman and Hazara. I wish I could let her live in a place where women are treated as human beings, where she can have a future with study and work.”
Naweeda, Nadira & Noorsama
Naweeda, Nadira and Noorsama are three defence lawyers. To be interviewed, they met me secretly in a place far from their homes because of the risk that neighbours could report them to the Taliban authorities for speaking to a journalist.
“We are no longer allowed to work,” says Noorsama. “After the arrival of the Taliban I had to go back to court to take some documents of cases that are still open, but they prevented me. They threatened and chased me away, telling me that I was no longer allowed access. Later, they agreed that I could enter only to get the documents, but I had to wear the burqa and be accompanied by a man. I am responsible for the upkeep of a daughter and my brothers; since I was prevented from working, I had to sell the valuables I had, but even that money is almost over.”
“The Taliban make diplomatic speeches, but we know that they have not changed,” says Nadira. “We see it from how they behave with us, without respect, as if we were not human beings. Slowly, what they were 20 years ago is returning.”
All three lawyers make an explicit appeal to feminists in the West. “We follow the feminist movements in the West a lot,” they say. “To those women we would like to say that we are there too, that the movement should include women from all over the world today more than ever. There is often talk about ‘us’ but until now, we have not had any practical support, we continue not to work, to have no rights, and no one can tell us if things will ever change”.
Mahbouba Seraj is considered the leader in the struggle for women’s rights in Afghanistan. She fled with her family when the Russians arrived in the country in the 70s. She decided to return here in 2003 after the first Taliban regime collapsed to help women.
“When I heard that international forces were leaving Afghanistan, it was a slap in the face for me,” Mahbouba says. “In one day, we went back 20 years. The Taliban, however, are only a symptom of a society that is still strongly male-dominated.
“I run a shelter for women who are victims of violence. Domestic violence against women in Afghanistan is not yet considered a crime. At the moment, unfortunately, when the priorities are food, with people dying of hunger, and with the total lack of work and money, the struggle for women’s rights has taken a back seat.
“I believe that one of the concrete ways to help us is not to turn off the spotlight on this country. The Taliban will not be able to do what they did 20 years ago as long as the eyes of the world are watching. I was very sorry to see so many women running away from here, but I can’t blame them – it was so frightening. In August people ran in the street like headless chickens.
“Afghan women who are abroad, however, continue to fight for the rights of the women who have remained here. I am sure that the next Afghan revolution will start again with Women.”