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Afghanistan: Professional women of Kabul rail against Taliban-imposed restrictions

Tuesday 15 March 2022, by siawi3


Professional women of Kabul rail against Taliban-imposed restrictions

Burqas remain scarce, for now, but female workers are largely stuck at home

Photo: A sign in a Kabul cafe explains the new rule: compulsory beards for men and hijabs for women — but not everybody complies. (Sara Perria)

Contributing writer

February 4, 2022 08:00 JST

KABUL — As a defense lawyer in Kabul, Aaina Nazar largely refused to represent members of extremist groups such as the Afghanistan affiliate of the Islamic State group, but helped women who wanted to divorce Taliban fighters. Threatened by both groups, she never gave up the law.

Since the restoration of the Taliban government in 2021, however, Afghanistan’s courts have closed and women have been largely removed from the workforce. “It’s always been challenging to be a woman in Afghanistan, but now I’m afraid; I can’t even sleep,” says Nazar, whose real name is being withheld by Nikkei Asia to protect her safety.

The burqa — an all-enveloping women’s garment with a mesh screen that became an international symbol of the Taliban regime overthrown by Western forces in 2021 — is not yet pervasive in contemporary Kabul. But empty chairs once filled by female workers have become the leitmotif of the latest regime.

For the city’s women, depression, self-censorship and an eagerness to emigrate have replaced commuting, lipstick and plans for the future. Meanwhile, professional women who have lost their independence and freedom are striving to support families amid a dramatic economic crisis and widespread hunger.

“Being a defense lawyer wasn’t easy even during the previous government: Nobody listens to you as a woman, not even the judges. But at least I could work,” says Nazar, who overcame opposition from male relatives to work as a lawyer, chasing a childhood dream prompted by Indian movies “where there’s always a fight and they end up in court.”

Photo: Unlike 20 years ago, the Taliban has not required women to wear all-covering burqas in public. But many think any type of fashion dictate is already too much. (Sara Perria)

Nazar says she became reconciled with her family when they saw her progressing in her career. But her path was not always smooth, especially when her work became entangled in national politics.

Dodging threats from angry husbands, clients and terrorist groups, Nazar now fills her days protesting in defense of women rights in front of the Ministry of Vice and Virtue — another chilling reminder of the previous Taliban regime, which ruled for five years from 1996.

She is not alone. In a living room of red carpets and cushions laid against the wall, 58-year-old teacher and activist Fawza Arafi recalls how tough it has been to give a voice to women in Afghanistan. As a former public sector employee, she fears that all the achievements of the past 20 years will vanish. “This is the first time that I am not teaching, in 40 years of my career,” she says.

Photo: Fawza Arafi has been a teacher for more than 40 years and an activist for human rights. She fears that the progress made in the past decades will be erased. (Sara Perria)

Arafi has also been an activist for women’s rights for many years, running an office in her native Panjshir Province helping women trying to escape forced marriages or abuse. She continues to teach secretly, but she knows how easily social progress can be canceled. Women in Afghanistan are “eager to learn, and have ambitions,” she says. In Kabul, girls want to be doctors or lawyers. In the countryside many hope to become teachers, as a way to escape from their families.

Like Nazar, Arafi says she has received threats, including one recently from Taliban-supporting families accusing her of turning their daughters against them. “They delivered a letter to my office. But as an activist for women rights, I only tried to tell them that they cannot be forced into marrying somebody they don’t want and to be sexually and mentally abused.”

The threats against Arafi are serious. She says her husband was killed for supporting her work, and she fears for the futures of the girls she teaches. “I’ve been lucky. I come from an open-minded family who wanted me to study. But with no school and no prospects of work, girls are considered a burden for their families, and forced marriages are already on the rise. The shelters that should protect them are being shut down.”

Photo: The economic crisis is denting incomes, but many still try to live as they always have, such as by visiting cafes like this one in Kabul. Now, however, women have to wear a hijab covering their neck and hair when they go out. (Sara Perria)

Some younger women are even less willing to accept the new restrictions. Saima Saddiq, 25, who was a civil servant during the government of ousted President Ashraf Ghani, still dresses in jeans, with makeup and only a scarf to cover her hair.

“When we went to work [during the last government’s tussle with the Taliban] we knew there was a danger of [terrorist] bombs. But you cannot define security only in terms of explosions,” says Saddiq (not her real name). “We didn’t know if we would make it back home [from work]. But at least we could choose what to wear. Now we don’t feel mentally safe. I was waiting to be assigned my first post abroad. I didn’t expect the Taliban to take Kabul so soon. Now I just want to leave.”

Fathma Hussain, 22, says she is trying to get a passport to go abroad. She still works at a Kabul-based broadcaster that has not yet been shut down, but has been ordered by the Ministry of Vice and Virtue to cover up. “The ministry has sent a letter explaining how to appear on TV, wearing a hijab that covers the hair and neck. Even before, people were conservative, but they didn’t impose on us what to wear,” she says.

Photo: Top: Fathma Hussain, 22, now has to cover her neck and hair when presenting the news. She is still allowed to work, but uncertainty over her future weighs on her. Bottom left: Beauty salons remain open but are struggling, and any signs in public showing women’s faces have been banned or, as in this case, defaced.

Photo: Bottom right: “Even before, people were conservative, but they didn’t impose on us what to wear,” says Hussain, referring to the dictate to cover up issued by the Ministry of Vice and Virtue. (Sara Perria)

Hussain (not her real name) has just joined the news service as a replacement for one of the many journalists who left during the Western evacuation of Kabul. “It’s very difficult to understand what will happen next,” she says. “But there’s no other way, I have to continue working. [There are many children] in my family, and I am the only one providing a salary because they all lost their jobs.”

As her turn to present the news approaches, she replaces a simple green scarf with a cream hijab, well pinned to her neck and at the sides. Five minutes later, she is in front of the camera reading the latest headlines about a meeting between the Taliban and Iranian authorities.

“Sometimes I’m afraid and my family is afraid because I do this job,” Hussain says later. “And I’m not sure if I will still go on air in a month or so, after the international community will lose interest. My life has completely changed already. Before I felt equal, I had rights, I had a very good routine: gym in the morning and out with my friends to a cafe. Now I’m just working to get some food and then I go back home. Even here [at work], if I want to go to the supermarket, I need to fill a form, for security reasons.”

Photo: Rasa Yousofzi (not her real name) is still working for one of the country’s biggest broadcasters. Although she is a cycling enthusiast, she had to sell her bicycle because she is no longer allowed to ride it. (Sara Perria)

Discussions in the family have turned from movies to wondering whether it will be possible to leave the country, she says. “I didn’t have a passport [before the Taliban takeover] because I hadn’t even imagined leaving. I don’t know where I want to go, just a place where I would have rights and from where I can help Afghan women,” she adds.

Having lived almost all of her life during the 20-year U.S.-led intervention in Afghanistan, Hussain now wonders what the long-term consequences of the conservative culture being imposed by the Taliban will be.

“Even if it lasts [only] five years, like the last time, it will crack our culture,” she says. “Our men will not let us go out if we are not covered. Once we get used to this idea, people will be afraid [and] it will be mentally difficult. Mentally they have already destroyed a lot. But our colleagues in the newsroom [have] said that they will stand up for us.”

Rasa Yousofzi, who also works in what remains of Kabul’s media industry, is a fan of scary movies like the 2002 U.S. film “Resident Evil.” Often likened to a famous Indian actress, she says she has stopped posting images on social networks and on her YouTube channel, fearing that her hopes for the future have vanished with the Taliban takeover.

“I like the countryside and I became a cyclist. But now I have had to sell the bike because I cannot use it,” says Yousofzi (not her real name). “If I manage to get out of the country, the first thing I’ll do is to buy a bicycle.”