“They want to take away the air we breathe, too.” Mahbouba Seraj welcomes us to her office in Kabul’s Parwan-Seh neighborhood. On the small hill behind the building, a child is sifting through the garbage looking for plastic. He has a large black bag on his bicycle, already half full.
There are some visitors inside the building. A couple stops our host and asks her for help, in emphatic tones. They talk for a long time. Then, the duo, wife and husband, calm down. “It’s like this every day, every hour,” explains Seraj, granddaughter of reformer King Amanullah Khan and a women’s rights activist determined to stay in Kabul.
Afghanistan is experiencing an unprecedented humanitarian and economic crisis: according to the U.N., about 95% of the population is living below the poverty line. On Thursday, the World Food Program estimated that 20 million people, out of 40 million total, are suffering from severe food insecurity.
For the taxi driver who takes us back to our lodgings, a loaf of bread costing 10 afghanis (10 cents) is all he’ll have for dinner. “Would you like a piece?” he offers us.
The villas of Sherpur, the central district that is the symbol of housing speculation and corruption in the republic that collapsed on Aug. 15, 2021, are now occupied by Taliban bigwigs. Three or four floors of ostentatious affluence, high walls, cameras. The military posts are now mostly unguarded, abandoned. Here, soldiers paid a pittance used to be stationed to defend the wealthy homes from the threat of the Taliban, who now control the neighborhood. This is Kabul, and the whole of Afghanistan.
“The country is facing enormous problems: there is no work, no food, no prospects, in Kabul there is electricity for only two hours a day, but they have nothing else on their minds but women: women, women, only women.” The latest decree of the supreme leader, the “guide of the faithful” Haibatullah Akhundzada, forces them to cover their faces as well, in full dress, from head to toe.
“The decisions are in the hands of a handful of people, at the Ministry for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice.” The ministry’s spokesman, Mohammad Sadiq Akif, promised us an interview for Friday. We don’t know if it will happen. The twists and turns of the past few months point to a divided leadership with no long-term political strategy, perhaps unable to curb the radical elements, whom many still consider to be a minority here in Kabul. But they are making decisions, and their decisions lead to isolation. The population is strangled by Western sanctions and suffocated by the Taliban’s repressive policies. They’re left without hope.
“In a number of ways, I was expecting it. The only thing missing was the requirement to cover one’s face. Otherwise, they have already taken everything from us: jobs, education, freedom of movement. But Afghan women are strong, resilient.” Her family background and professional pedigree allow Seraj, who returned to the country in 2003 after many years in the U.S., to have a public role. She can even go on television and speak her mind, criticizing the situation. That’s something few others can afford. Almost all of our interlocutors request anonymity.
A man who knows the information system well told us two days ago that “there is no more room for any dissent or criticism.” There is intimidation, arbitrary arrests, torture, electric shocks. Now, protecting journalists is the priority, over and above delivering information.
Nonetheless, Abdul Qahar Balkhi, speaking for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, condemned “in the strongest terms the deliberate murder of al Jazeera journalist Shireen Abu Akleh by Israeli forces in Palestine” and “the attack on freedom of expression.” Mahbouba Seraj tells us about how concerned she is: “The idea of punishing the men in the family if women don’t obey the decree opens the door wide to new abuses, to domestic violence.”
She never believed Western rhetoric about Afghan women’s rights: “In the last 20 years, everyone has used those rights instrumentally, even you foreigners.” She criticizes both the blindness of Washington and Brussels and “the arrogance of the Taliban: they think they represent the whole country, but they don’t. They don’t listen.”
She met with them in late January in Oslo, at a meeting organized by the Norwegian Foreign Ministry. Some Afghan diaspora organizations in Europe criticized the event for providing an international audience for the Taliban.
That criticism represents the “neither dialogue nor recognition” position towards the Emirate’s men. Seraj doesn’t agree with it: “They are doing terrible things, but if we don’t talk, what will we do? Do we leave things as they are? Afghan women and men have to decide, not foreigners. And there is no alternative path to that of dialogue. This is where we live.”
“I’m not going away, I don’t want to leave the country to a handful of ignorant radicals,” Abdullah (not his real name) tells us. He is active in the education sector. He recently organized humanitarian aid distribution in Kabul province. “I would have the connections, resources and channels to legally leave Afghanistan and live for a couple of quiet years abroad. But things are changed from within.” He argues that in the past nine months, the Taliban have missed golden opportunities.
They wasted the credit that some were willing to give them, and ended up alienating the population altogether. “Every family has a daughter who should be in high school but instead is staying at home. The discrimination is across the board.” He is referring to the March 23 reversal: both the international community and the Ministry of Education were sure that the schools would reopen. But they did not: Friday marked 237 days since female students over the age of 11 could go to school. It’s the only country in the world where this is the case.
“Instead of thinking about the hijab for us, they should consider washing and cutting their hair,” says a 19-year-old student we meet in the Gulbahar shopping center, which is three floors of shiny stores and a ground floor with a noisy café, located between the presidential palace and the central bazaar. Dressed fashionably, with a fake Chanel scarf on her head, she says she simply disagrees with the decree: “We decide what to wear.”
She hasn’t complied with it. She’s dressing just like before. “But at home they tell me to be more careful,” she says. “Who do they think they are to tell us how to dress?” two other girls protest. Two men walk by, turn to look at them. “You should put your mask on.”