'The Taliban are playing with us and the world is just watching': The dashed and disappearing dreams of Afghan women
On 20 December 2022 speaking at the United Nations Security Council in New York, the Afghan human rights defender and Executive Director of the Afghan Women Skills Development Center (AWSDC) Mahbouba Seraj told the world that “Women in Afghanistan are disappearing: they are being used as a tool by the Taliban, and the world is just watching”.
Women are obliged to cover their faces when they go out in public and must be accompanied by a male guardian. They are being erased from public life, even mannequins in shop windows are now covered. The situation keeps getting worse.
Only a year ago, when The New Arab interviewed her at her home in Kabul, with her dog, Bullet, sitting by her side, she had feared this might be the direction but she held on to hope. That hope today has been deeply shaken.
"The Taliban are not acknowledging that many women in the country do not have a man to provide for them and many women are the breadwinners for the family. Therefore by issuing this ban the Taliban are creating another section of society to become poor, miserable, to become beggars"
While critical of the current government, her views shed light on the more complex international scenario that is contributing to determining her country’s dramatic humanitarian conditions, warning this is pushing the Taliban into more extreme positions and isolation.
Whether speaking at the UN Security Council or during an informal interview, Mahbouba’s Seraj tone of voice, soft but firm, commands attention and her insight reveals a humanity and intelligence that reach far beyond the borders of her home country.
The New Arab (TNA): What has changed during the last year, since our last interview in Kabul, and why has the situation taken this direction?
Mahbouba Seraj (MS): “The way the Taliban are behaving is not based on a whim, although it may appear this way. Every single action they take is a reaction to the West [and its policy toward the Taliban]. Always. For example, when I was speaking at the UN Security Council on 20 December 2022, and the news arrived that the Taliban had blocked higher education for girls that was a response because the United Nations did not accept Taliban membership, postponing it for another year. This is not to say the West should not have done this, because the way the Taliban are behaving is most horrible toward women of Afghanistan. And in addition now, not allowing women to go to work, really did it.
"Women in Afghanistan really need help. The Taliban are not acknowledging that many women in the country do not have a man to provide for them and many women are the breadwinners for the family. Therefore by issuing this ban the Taliban are creating another section of society to become poor, miserable, to become beggars. Essentially deprived of access to everything: no food, no housing, nothing. These are the things that the Taliban are doing, they are doing it in order to get something and prove a point and get back at the world for what it has done to them. The Taliban are using the women of Afghanistan as a tool for their ends, and we are disappearing and the Taliban are playing with us and the world is just watching.”
TNA: Are international NGOs pulling out of Afghanistan and what consequences will this have?
[The tone of her voice is always filled with passion and assertiveness but it is particularly compelling at this point]
MS: “Well, I will say this: shame on you if you do that. Right now is not the time to pull out of Afghanistan, now is the time to stand with Afghanistan – in any way we can. If the name of the game for the NGOs of the world was really to help the people this is the time to prove it, if they pull out now this only shows they never truly cared for the Afghan people.
"If you want to help, stick around because this is not going to last forever and do what you can do. There are many NGOs in the country really working for the people but there are some who are only interested in how much money they can make."
TNA: What is happening exactly with the ban on education for girls in the country?
MS: “Well firstly, for a lot of Afghanistan, I believe around 35%, has an education year only in the summer. Only in some areas of the country such as Jalalabad or Kandahar, where it is warm, does the school year includes winter months. The reason for this is that in most of the country, it is too cold in the winter and there are no means to heat the classrooms for public schools and Universities.
"Of course, this only applied to public education, private ones functioned also during winter. So this is my very slim hope that I am hanging on to now is that by the time spring comes, the Taliban might allow girls at least back to school. Girls only go to school until 6th grade, only in some provinces did girls attend middle schools. Sadly, in addition, women now are forced into submission. Flogging has increased heavily. The only significant protests against this ban that are taking place now are outside of Afghanistan and in the media."
TNA: Are there any sectors in the Afghan economy and job market being spared from this humanitarian crisis?
MS: “Nothing is being salvaged. The only thing is that the hospitals are allowing female nurses to go to work, but this is not everywhere, it depends from place to place. Truly, women in Afghanistan have never suffered on this scale, ever before. It is actually worse than in 1996 [the first time the Taliban seized power]. There are many more bans on women now. This time it is as if they are going on purpose after the women of Afghanistan. This is becoming their target."
TNA: Is this a way for the Taliban to show their strength vis-a-vis the West given that they can do little on the economic front?
MS: “Well this is only part of it. That is where the world gets involved. This should be a fact that they notice, if they don’t this means they have an open hand to do as they like with the women in Afghanistan. But the Taliban are taking a big risk by implementing such measures. And the harder they take it on the women of Afghanistan, the harder the world will take it on them. This is the reason why I keep mentioning the world as responsible because the Taliban need to understand there will be consequences.
"But also I believe the international community is not doing its part in protecting the Afghan people. NGOs should stay, and money should not be routed through Pakistan to Afghanistan these are short-term immediate actions that should be taken. In the medium term, pressure needs to be put on the Islamic groups, on the Ulamas of the world, to state that what they are doing to women in Afghanistan is wrong and that it goes against the Quran."
TNA: What are the far-reaching consequences of what is happening in Afghanistan on the international community?
MS: “One thing which is very important I believe is that every single act that the Taliban are taking today against the women in Afghanistan is going to have an effect on the world. People learn things and it does not make much difference where they are [these concepts are absorbed beyond borders]. The United States is far ok, but Europe is near, it is right next door. People should not learn that it is easy to do whatever they want against the women of the world. The consequences of something like this are absolutely disastrous [and go beyond the Afghan borders]. It is changing the whole make of society."
The last time, nearly a year ago, when I was leaving Kabul airport, one of the women while frisking me looked me in the eyes and asked if I was a journalist and said: “Please, tell the world it is hell for women now in Afghanistan, you must tell the world.” This is exactly what Madame Seraj is doing. Just a month ago she requested the Council to continue providing life-saving aid to Afghans, as she continues to tirelessly raise awareness on what is happening in her country.
Gaja Pellegrini-Bettoli is a freelance journalist based in Beirut and focusing on the MENA region. Her articles appear in Al Jazeera, Middle East Eye, Al-Monitor, E.U. Observer, France24, openDemocracy and the Atlantic Treaty Association.
Follow her on Twitter: @gajapell