Fears From An Afghan Woman Remembering Childhood – OpEd


I was just five-years-old when Taliban took control over Kabul. Since I was very young, I only remember glimpses of the first years. However, the killing of former president Najibullah the same year, on Sep 28. 1996, the demolishing of the two Buddha statues in Bamiyan in the spring of 2001, and the 9/11 attacks are vivid and clear as if they happened yesterday.

The killing of Dr. Najibullah (ruled from 1987-1992) was one of the first cruel acts Taliban did as they announced their new administration in Afghanistan. He was beaten senseless, shot, dragged through the street and hanged at a traffic pole along with his brother. Thousands of people witnessed the barbaric act. Taliban placed cigarettes in his hands to make him appear as a drug addict. This was the earliest cruel act, and Taliban had not started their strict rules yet. We still had access to TV, and could watch the images. My mom was really sad. First, I concluded from my mom’s reaction that he was our relative, but later on I found out that he was previous president of Afghanistan. Although all my family tried to stop me from watching the scene shown on TV, I managed to see him. His blue clothes were turned red from spilt blood as he was hanging there.

It was my first experience on a long journey of fear.Taliban did serious damages to the country and the Afghan society during their rule (1996-2001), but perhaps the most serious and disturbing changes were sanctions towards women.

Burqa and breakdown of self- esteem

My mother used to work at the Kabul University science center. She was soon asked to stay at home and wear a burqa whenever she left the house. Although female civil servants and teachers received wages for a short period of time after the ban, my father soon had to start working more and harder as the sole breadwinner of the family.

Wearing the burqa was a difficult task. It is hard to see through those tiny holes. The first year, many women came home with bruises, including my aunt who broke her ribs after falling down in a water drainage. My mother needed to wear glasses, and to combine those with wearing the burqa was a daily challenge. However, the most difficult issue for her, was that her identity was reduced to nothing more than a walking ghost, looking like covered by a sack. Women had no freedom of movement outside the house, as they could only venture out if they had a male escort, a mahram.

If women were found outside without mahram they were beaten. Often, my sister and her friends managed to run from the control patrols of Taliban called Amr-i-blmaruff (who were to prevent sin and promote virtue), but they were not always all lucky. In the first summer of Taliban control, they were chased by Taliban. They split and my sister had taken shelter in a random home. Later that day I saw the red marks of flogging on my mother’s cousin’s back. She had been punished for the ‘crime’ of not having mahram and not wearing thick socks. She was crying, cursing Taliban, and her mother was dressing the wounds. Women were banned from riding a motorcycle or bicycle, even if they had a mahram. I never learned cycling, although it was one of my deep wishes.

Women were also banned from going to general hospitals, after Taliban took control. Only one hospital in Kabul offered a women ward. Male doctors were forbidden to touch the bodies of female patients. One brave woman, Dr. Souhaila Seddique, was the head of that hospital. She and her sister are said to be the only women in Kabul who did not wear a burqa during the Taliban reign.

There was a ban on women wearing high-heeled shoes. No man should hear a woman’s footsteps, in case they would excite him. Women were banned from speak loudly in public, as no stranger should hear a woman’s voice. All ground and first-floor residential windows were painted over or screened to prevent women from being visible from the street. Photographing or filming of women was banned, as was displaying pictures of females in newspapers, books, shops or at home. Later, any kind of pictures was forbidden even in the homes. Any names of places that included the word “woman” were changed. For example, “women’s garden” was renamed “spring garden”. A ban was introduced on women’s presence on radio or at public gatherings of any kind. Women were simply not present, rather they were prisoners behind the dark walls of their homes.

Education- the impossible dream

Taliban abandoned women from studying. Girls older than eight years were not allowed to study. My elder sister was about to join 10th grade and I was about to start school when Taliban ruled Kabul in 1997. I remember my sister crying day and night, since her dream of becoming a doctor now seemed to be impossible. For a short period, the whole family broke down, but soon my mother sent my sister to Mazar-e-Sharif, in Balkh province, which did not come under Taliban rule until 1998. For my education different options were discussed including dressing me as boy. Since I did not like shorter hair than the bob cut, I denied to wear boys’ clothes and feature as the main character of the movie Osama (Bacha posh).

A second option, since I was just seven years old, was to study at a madrasa. I was sent to such a religious school. At six o’clock in the morning, we had to be present there. We would study till eight in the morning and then leave and come back for the science lessons at one o’clock in the afternoon. On the first day, I was told that my clothes were not proper: I was not allowed to wear jeans, and my scarf should be longer. In morning we mostly studied religious books and in the afternoon, some science was taught, but by the same teacher. For the purpose of having a proper school curriculum, which would include all kind of subjects as literature, sciences, arts.

I soon started going to a secret home school. We use to put our books in a Quran sheet, and I acted as if I was going to the madrasa, but still the risk of being caught by the Taliban was always there. In period of five years I changed home school more than ten times. Through this journey, I had teachers who had no instructional education and who would insult and beat students. This also happened at the madrasa. Still I was happy to obtain some kind of education, and for a young child like me the whole situation was too complicated to analyze back then.

Taliban occupied Mazar-e-Sharif, and my sister’s dream of education again risked being forgotten forever. Most families in Afghanistan married their daughters off at an early age, as there were few alternatives for them. My mother started working for Care international. She use to build secret home schools and spent her salary to send my sister to Pakistan for further education.

The mindset that changed

After the first two years of Taliban rule, the mindset of the society had changed. Now the new dominant values were those which Taliban believed in. Going to home schools and getting out of home were not only seen as crimes by Taliban, but by many citizens as well. There was a clear difference between the values of my family and those of many in the society outside. Of course, I believed my parents were right, as any other child would. To defend their points of view, I turned a bit aggressive, as a tomboy always on guard to defend myself, even in front of Taliban. I must have been around seven years old, I was playing in front of our home, when a ‘Talib’ threatened me to go home or he would beat me with a cable he held in his hand. I turned back and answered: do you think you can beat me because you have a cable? Get the hell out of here, or I will bring our video player cable and beat you till death.

Later that night, my father was informed by neighbors that I was taking about the fact that we had a TV and a video player at home. He was angry and told me it could have been a big problem for the family. Thus, I learned as a seven year old how to hide secrets in order to survive.

The light of hope

After Taliban were driven out of Kabul, I started my education in a more proper way, and my sister came back to Afghanistan. My mom started working again. Breaking the burqa tradition and starting to learn at a foreign language learning center took some time. After all, Taliban had damaged the mindset of a whole generation of Afghans. Women started their struggle for liberation, a frustrating still ongoing fight where your enemy is most of the time inside your own family. Your elder or younger brother might have joined a madrasa and become a follower of Talibanization.

Afghanistan is not the same today as it was 16 years ago. More women do understand their rights; many are educated and highly ambitious. Although women are only at the beginning of a long struggle for their rights, they are determined and progressing. It is a fight to be won by changing the societal mindsets about women. This needs time and is a slow and inclusive process.

The peace talks and concerns

The United States have sent Zalmay Khalilzad as a Special envoy to ‘invent’ a solution to end the ‘war against terror’ in Afghanistan in less than 12 months. The Trump administration seems determined of ending the costly war to add to the list of his presidential achievements and to take credit for this in the upcoming 2020 election campaign.

Representatives of Taliban joined meet the US officials recently and talked around peace issues in Afghanistan. Taliban have before as well asked for withdrawal of foreign forces and to suspend the constitution of Afghanistan. A variety of views and assumptions are identified, particularly distinguishing between the young generation and the traditional elites in Afghanistan about an unclear future, not least including women rights. The dissuasion inside the Afghan government as well seems to be not inclusive and women are absent in most of the decision-making consultation. In a recent twitter post Shahrazad Akbar founder of Open society foundation and women right activist wrote “Men. Men. And more men. Well, at least both meetings have one thing in common: Excluding women when it comes to discussions about the future of this country. Not very different from Taliban on this aspect.”

Women in Afghanistan are far from certain as to how much history will repeat itself with this such a peace agreement. If it happens, will the peace bring a fundamentalist Islamist generation with it to blend into the modern new Afghan educated young progressive society? If yes, what are the efficient methods, strategies for social integration of an extremist group to a new and progressive modern Afghanistan?

*Hasina Shirzad is a journalist from Afghanistan

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