Afghan Women: On the Margins Again

Barred from university by the Taliban, a female medical student finds suffering and solace back in her home province

Afghan Women: On the Margins Again
Afghan women walk past an unseen U.S. vehicle / Eastern Khas Kunar / Dec. 8, 2009 / Tauseef Mustafa / AFP via Getty Images

This “Letter from Kabul” is part of a new offering by New Lines. Our contributors provide their own unique glimpses into life on the ground in Taliban-controlled Afghanistan. To read them first, sign up to our newsletter.

As a 21-year-old Afghan woman, I am too young to remember life under the first Taliban regime. All I have to compare the current situation with is my life before last summer, when my sisters and I still had our rights. It was not perfect then, but at least we could dream. Now even our thoughts are policed.

I was a medical student in Kabul when the Taliban retook power. Five months later, hospitals in the city are full of malnourished children, and the government would prefer me to stay at home. All public higher education institutions are closed to women. I have no idea when, or if, they will reopen.

I want to graduate and become a doctor so I can help the most vulnerable members of society. Yet for my own safety I must write this anonymously and keep some of my personal details — including exactly where I study — deliberately vague. I am, however, still relatively lucky. Millions of Afghan women have harder lives than mine.

For a change of scene, I recently visited my family’s home village in Khas Kunar, a district in the eastern province of Kunar near the border with Pakistan. It was the first time I had been back there since the Taliban’s victory, and I was saddened and frightened by what I saw during that two-week trip. To understand Afghanistan and to know what it is truly like to live under Taliban rule, it is necessary to look beyond the cities.

I traveled to Kunar with several relatives, crammed together in a Toyota Corolla — a typical site on Afghan roads. Traveling via Nangarhar province, we were determined to enjoy the scenery: a mixture of date palms, cauliflower fields and orange groves. In the district of Kama we stopped for ice cream at a spot that would once have been packed with sightseers but was now quiet except for a few young families like ours.

We drove north toward Kunar before making another stop at a memorial garden that commemorates the life of Tetsu Nakamura, a Japanese physician killed by unknown gunmen on Dec. 4, 2019. The garden was also unusually quiet, except for one woman with a few children. We did not stay long.

The international media’s coverage of women’s rights in Afghanistan often focuses on what we wear. There is a perception that our clothes define our status as free or oppressed women. The truth is more complicated. Traveling to Kunar, I dressed just as I have always done in Kabul at this time of year, wearing a headscarf and long coat. It was my choice, just as some Afghan women choose to wear the niqab or the burqa. No one from the Taliban questioned or insulted me because of my clothing, yet I still felt unsafe whenever we were stopped at their checkpoints.

At a bridge leading to my home district of Khas Kunar a young Talib pulled us over and searched the car’s trunk. It was a routine check that could just as easily have happened under the previous government, but the experience was still strangely unnerving. Maybe it was the Talib’s age. He carried a Kalashnikov and had an old Afghan army sweater pulled over his shalwar kameez. But he looked more like a boy pretending to be a soldier than a man.

Throughout the journey we played music on the car stereo using a Bluetooth connection with one of our cellphones. We turned it off each time we approached a checkpoint, in case it angered the Taliban guards, then switched it back on again once we had passed. As well as worrying about serious issues like the collapse of Afghanistan’s economic and education systems, we must now concern ourselves with these trivial matters.

Khas Kunar lies in the south of Kunar. While other districts in the province were among some of the most dangerous in Afghanistan during the war against the U.S. and its allies, ours was relatively safe. American troops were occasionally attacked, but the governments of Hamid Karzai and Ashraf Ghani were broadly tolerated if not enthusiastically supported. Back then, I often visited Khas Kunar at winter time and cannot remember experiencing any security problems or feeling frightened. The Taliban took control of Kunar’s provincial capital, Asadabad, on Aug. 14 last year — a day before they seized Kabul. Khas Kunar also fell to them on the 14th. As was the case in much of the country, it was a peaceful handover arranged in negotiations between insurgents and local elders.

Some of the changes that have occurred in Khas Kunar since then were very visible during my trip. Others were less obvious. I saw Taliban fighters walking around, riding motorbikes and driving pick-up trucks abandoned by the Afghan army and police. Judging by the way they spoke, looked and acted, I believe most of them were from local districts. However, some women told me that the Taliban officials in charge of daily administrative tasks were from other provinces. This might help the new government in Khas Kunar run more efficiently, but in an insular, tight-knit community like ours, it could just as easily create tension.

I cannot claim that the Taliban’s victory has significantly altered the lives of women in Khas Kunar. All I can say is that it has eroded the little progress we were making. Most families in the district are very conservative and were already reluctant to let girls attend school. While some parents used to allow their daughters to study up to the third grade in classes funded by international aid, even that small concession has now stopped. Women wear the burqa in public, just as they did when the Americans were around.

The biggest change to life in Khas Kunar has been the Taliban’s imposition of a new tax (“ushr”), and this affects both women and men. Rooted in ancient Islamic custom, it has hit local farmers hard at a time when they are already struggling economically. They must now donate 10 percent of their harvest to the government. The new law was announced via our local mosque; every household is obliged to pay. Perhaps the money from the crops will be reinvested in Afghanistan’s poorest communities and we will all benefit from the state’s largesse in the long run, but that feels unlikely.

In Khas Kunar we depend on solar power for our electricity, not the government’s supply line. The wealthier families have televisions and the Taliban no longer mind that, but most people are too poor for luxuries. They get their food from the cows and goats they own and the crops they grow: wheat, sweetcorn and, occasionally, lemons and oranges. What they don’t eat themselves, they sell to survive. Many cannot afford to pay a new tax that is unnecessarily punitive.

Of course none of this means we are living in abject misery. Afghan women are strong, bright and resourceful, and even in the toughest situations we are able to take comfort from the beauty God bestows upon us. In Khas Kunar the Taliban could not stop me from hearing the flow of the local river, swollen by recent heavy rain. Nor could they tarnish the taste of the local cornbread and yogurt. But in all corners of Afghanistan it is getting harder for women in particular to hold on to any hope.

Darkness does not arrive instantly — it spreads gradually. Now I am back in Kabul, and life here is starting to feel much the same as it did in Khas Kunar. The closure of my university has deprived me of something I loved and I am scared of the Taliban soldiers I see in the street. The situation for women in this city has altered beyond all recognition since last summer and we should not pretend otherwise. But the small changes taking place across the country may yet add up to be just as painful for millions of my Afghan sisters.

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