Kabul Diaries Part 17: In this dead end!

Afghan women protest for their rights to work, education and freedom in Kabul on October 10.

Posted October 12:

Afghan women have played a pivotal role in the history of Afghanistan and have struggled for women's rights. They were eligible to vote in 1919 — long before many other nations — while the 1964 constitution of Afghanistan granted them equal rights (ironic that the Taliban are hinting at adopting the 1964 constitution).

All this would not have been possible without the struggle of Afghan women. Afghanistan's political landscape changed when the Soviet Union invaded it. A bloodshed began in Afghanistan leading to Mujahideen rule from 1992–96. This period was marred by not only civilian casualties, but by a number of other heinous war crimes. Kabul and other major cities were reduced to rubble.

Next came the period of Taliban in power, 1996–2001. Afghanistan was further consigned to the Stone Age. Kabul and other major cities were totally destroyed. All government institutions were shut. All the Taliban did was to terrorise the Afghan population by re-imposing the harsh “Sharia-punishments” introduced during the Mujahideen era. In addition, the Taliban introduced further restrictions on women and banned music. Most barbaric, however, was the practice of public executions and amputation of hands.

Over this period, many intellectual Afghan women either left Afghanistan or went underground to continue their struggle. The struggle continued under all these circumstances. The United States' invasion of Afghanistan in 2001 brought, paradoxically, some relief, as the Taliban were gone.

However, the US and its allies re-imposed the warlords (mostly former Mujahideen) on Afghans. Despite such setbacks, Afghan women benefitted from the limited possibilities offered by a new situation. The new constitution of Afghanistan granted them the right to education, work and civil liberties. They were given almost equal rights, even though it was mostly on paper.

Yet, a majority of Afghan women in major cities wanted to make use of these opportunities. Therefore, they worked for next 20 years and a new generation of strong women emerged on the scene. The US and its international allies did not gift these rights to Afghan women on a plate. Afghan women fought against all the odds to achieve their rights.

And now, in a blink of an eye, Afghan women have lost all these rights. Even scarier: the Taliban are hunting down women’s rights activists. The following is an account of a friend, one such activist. She worked for women's rights. Now she is underground. Her identity and location will be kept anonymous.

"Sha" narrates her story in a low voice out of fear of being caught. She tells me: “One evening, eight Taliban came to the apartment building we were living in. The noise downstairs alerted me. As I heard the noises downstairs, I turned off the lights. The Taliban came straight to our apartment and started kicking the door. Instead of ringing the door-bell, they were kicking the door as if they had found the house of a criminal who had committed murders. They appeared restless to arrest me. I stopped my husband from opening the door because I knew if he opens the door, it would be the end for us all. I could not breathe and was trembling.”

She recalled the previous Taliban regime, when her family went through a similar but more tragic house-search: “Twenty years ago, when I was a 10-year-old, the Taliban one day knocked on my grandfather’s door. They were searching for my father and uncles who were not home. The Taliban took my 14- and 16-year-old cousins with them after beating grandfather severely.”

Her voice broke down while trying not to sob. I let her cry. She regained herself after a while and continued: “No one knows what happened to these cousins, whether they are alive or dead.We also lost our orchards. Orchards were set on fire by the Taliban. We escaped in the middle of night.”

Recalling the recent episode, she said: “They were at the door for a few minutes, those were the longest minutes of my life where I didn't know what would come next for us.”

Luckily, one of Sha’s neighbours told the Taliban that the family had left already. When they left and everything was apparently calm, the security guard came and informed Sha’s family that the Taliban had told him to call them if anyone was seen in their flat in the next few days. The guard advised Sha’s husband to leave, or else when the Taliban returns, others’ lives would be in danger, too. They left their house for another place in the wee hours next morning.

She said, “We all are living in terror. You can’t live safely just because you were an educated woman active for the rights of others and worked tirelessly for a better future for all Afghans. My Kabul and my people are in the hands of barbarians. I am already imprisoned and now living with a constant fear that the Taliban will spot me anytime and kill me for my love for freedom. I don’t know how long I will be able to run in order to protect myself and those I love.”

There are reports of house searches, abductions and targeted killings. BBC Persian recently reported about Alia Azizi, former head of the Women's Prison in Herat. When the Taliban returned to power, she was asked to return to her job by the Taliban. According to her brother, she has disappeared ever since.

A few weeks ago, a pregnant policewoman was killed in Ferozkoh. According to the BBC, Banu Negar was beaten and then killed in front of her husband and children as they were tied. There are also rumours that the Taliban have compiled lists and they search houses for people on these lists. It is hard to verify if there are such lists, but there are non-stop reports of abductions, allegedly by the Taliban. Abductees almost never return. In some cases, their dead bodies are found.

Ahmed Shamlo’s famous poem, “In this dead end”, comes to mind:

They smell your mouth
To find out if you have told someone:
I love you!
They smell your heart!
Such a strange time it is, my dear;
And they punish Love
At thoroughfares
By flogging.
We must hide our Love in dark closets.
In this crooked dead end of a bitter cold

They keep their fire alive
By burning our songs and poems;
Do not place your life in peril by your thoughts!
Such a strange time it is, my dear!
He who knocks on your door in the middle of the night,
His mission is to break your Lamp!
We must hide our Lights in dark closets!
Behold! butchers are on guard at thoroughfares
With their bloodstained cleavers and chopping-boards;
Such a strange time it is, my dear!

They cut off the smiles from lips,
and the songs from throats!
We must hide our Emotions in dark closets!
They barbecue canaries
On a fire of jasmines and lilacs!
Such a strange time it is, my dear!
Intoxicated by victory,
Satan is enjoying a feast at our mourning table!
We must hide our God in dark closet.

[Kabul Dairies are simultaneously published in three languages by Daily Jeddojehad (Urdu), Tidningen Global (Swedish) and Green Left (English).]