Hi there, Giovanna here (not my real name, for security reasons…)
Here is part 15 of my blog ‘A personal reflection on ‘serving in Afghanistan” – if you missed the earlier parts, here they are:
I am afraid there are no happy stories coming out of Afghanistan right now especially about Afghan women.
After the fall of the Taliban in 2001, Afghanistan put in place a new constitution that enshrined equal rights for men and women. Women were free to be educated and to work. Since then many women (when allowed by their families) became government ministers and MPs, doctors, teachers, professors, entrepreneurs and lawyers.
Of the course the current Taliban have reversed this and recently laws were passed imposing further restrictions on Afghan women by criminalising their clothing. According to the Taliban statement, “If a woman is caught without a hijab (covering), her mahram (a male guardian) will be warned. The second time, the guardian will be summoned and after repeated summons, her guardian will be imprisoned for three days.” Male guardians found guilty of repeated offences “will be sent to the court for further punishment.”
The Taliban state that the chadori (the blue-coloured Afghan burqa or full-body veil) is the “best hijab” for a woman to wear but they can also wear a long black veil covering them from head to toe. “Any garment covering the body of a woman is considered suitable, provided that it is not too tight to represent the body parts nor is it thin enough to reveal the body.”
In some parts of Afghanistan it has always or usually been the case that women have been veiled. Also in certain families even some educated ones, sometimes out of conservative religious beliefs, sometimes out of fear of what others will think. In some places women have (even pre Taliban) felt fearful if they didn’t cover up that they would be attacked or stigmatized. The decision for female family members to cover up lies with the male head of family. It is their honour and status which is at stake! A man’s honour is bound up with the modesty of his womenfolk.
Years ago I remember a conversation with an Afghan male member of staff while visiting his family. The women and girls were at home most of the time bored and lonely. They were allowed to go out in a car a few times a year to family weddings and to visit relatives, fully veiled of course. My male colleague acknowledged the negative feelings of the female members of his household but said that for his honour he could not let them go out more freely. I asked him which was more important the happiness of his mother, wife and sisters or his honour? He immediately said “his honour!”
On another occasion, visiting a more remote and conservative area, we stayed with women who almost never went out of the house after puberty (maybe once a year). During their free time they would sit on the roof top (which had a latticed boundary) gazing out longingly at what was going on around them. They spoke only the local language in its purest form whereas the men spoke the major trade languages and could go in and out freely.
Young children were sent to the bazar for food and other items. The women actually spent most of their time in the kitchen not even in the other rooms of the house. There is a Pashtun proverb which says “”For the woman, either the house or the grave.” I have never met a woman living with such a level of restrictions who is truly happy.
“Naomi” is my ex colleague and friend. Naomi is not an Afghan name so of course is not her real name. It means “pleasantness”. My friend Naomi is a very pleasant lady but she is not often happy. In fact I cannot remember the last time she was really happy. I call her Naomi because you will remember from the Old Testament story in the Book of Ruth that because of her circumstances the Naomi in the story called herself “Mara” which means “bitter”. The circumstances of her life had brought much sadness and bitterness.
My friend “Naomi’s” circumstances have been very bitter. The first time the Taliban came to Afghanistan in the mid 1990s she lived in Kabul the capital and because of the fighting as the Taliban swept across the country some of her close family members were killed. Later some were also targeted and killed…young men still in their teens. She had to leave her job and her income and go to a different part of Afghanistan. She managed to get another job and training and was able to support her family.
After 2001 when the Taliban were ousted she returned to Kabul and spent the next decades, like many middle class Afghans, working for the future of the country and rebuilding her life. She ascended the ranks into project leadership and helped many women, especially poor and vulnerable women, improve their lives. Improving the life of an Afghan woman means you also improve the lives of their families and their communities. She trained others. She trained others to train others so her sphere of influence grew. She advocated for people’s rights. She was often fearful as a woman working in Afghanistan (even before the Taliban takeover as many have always been very conservative in their views) but was courageous and took action despite her fear. She has motivated and inspired other women.
She experienced further sadness as members of her family were caught up in explosions (“wrong place, wrong time”…they were passers by!) She had to identify them by their body parts! This was bitterness indeed!
Sadness continued with family deaths through illness. Clearly even professional people in Afghanistan do not have the access to health care as we do. Even those with the money go to India or elsewhere. Many die before their time because of no access to treatment.
Recently life has become increasingly bitter for “Naomi” as she fled to a third country and is awaiting help through the UNHCR Scheme but UNHCR are overwhelmed with the1000s upon 1000s of Afghans also in this third country. They have waited months and their funds are very low. They had no special food at the Eid celebration at the end of Ramadan recently as their income didn’t stretch to it.
Unfortunately governments who promised help do not always fulfill. The UK Government for example said there would be a relocation scheme for Afghans from third countries though UNHCR set up in the Spring! This is why they relocated…to improve their chances. It is June now! I do not see any evidence of a scheme and neither do the Afghans waiting in this third country who have recently been demonstrating publically their deep disappointment. An Afghan child was interviewed and said, “We want to be treated like Ukrainian children!”
At various points Naomi has considered returning to Afghanistan. But would she be able to work as she did before? Certainly not in the same way in leadership though maybe in a more lowly role in health or education. She would live a restricted life as recently the Taliban announced that Afghan women should be fully covered when they go out except their eyes and should not leave the home unless it is “urgent”. Her daughter would not be able to study at University as she was doing. Her daughter therefore may not have any future apart from marriage and children. Not to say that is not a worthy role but she wanted more. She wanted a profession and to have the freedom to make choices in her life as we do. Previously her daughter said she would rather kill herself than be subject to all the Taliban had to “offer’ for young women. Many Afghan women are severely anxious, depressed and suicidal!
How does Naomi proceed? She waits!
Is she waiting in vain? Maybe!
I pray for her each day. I am weary because we tried so hard to help and nothing works. I try to encourage her but feel like my words are empty! She says kind things to me in texts sometimes but I am sure she thinks we didn’t do enough. At times she has been angry with me but I recognize that is the result of her trauma. Who can she kick against? She is powerless!
Numbers 33 verse 9 says, “They left Marah and went to Elim, where there were twelve springs and seventy palm trees…” Marah was the place where the Israelites found bitter water as they travelled across the desert. I am praying for Naomi (Mara) that she will find Elim but Elim may prove to be a person not a place!
John 2 verses 37 to 38, “Let anyone who is thirsty come to me and drink. Whoever believes in me, as Scripture has said, rivers of living water will flow from within them.” Please pray for “Naomi” and her family.
Then there is the situation of education for girls! Naomi’s daughter was at university before they left Afghanistan and there does seem to be some limited university education for some women in some places with strict rules. But generally girls above puberty (about 10 or 11) are not currently allowed to go to school. I am praying the Taliban will sort this out and that secondary education will be reinstated. In the 1990s they closed girls schools and said that once they could be certain of a system that was fully according to Islamic standards they would reopen girls’ schools. Many never believed them but in the region I was in they carried on paying the female teachers while schools closed which does imply they intended to reopen them otherwise why do it? At university level they may open up further but longer term if girls don’t get secondary level education at school they won’t be able to go to university will they!
I talked to some of the girls I know and this is what they said.
“My name is Freshta (not my real name) and I am 14 years old. I finished class 6 and jumped to class 7. Unfortunately the Taliban did not allow me to continue my education. I am not in school because all girls’ schedules are closed. Instead I am reading my school books at home and my sister, brothers and parents support me. Also I am reading some stories, children rights’ books, playing games, chatting with my classmates online, helping my mother and others at home.
I am feeling very bad, even getting stressed. I miss my classmates. I feel like a black cloud is over my head. I see my future as very dark. If the situation with the Taliban does not change, and if they do not open schools, we may “lose our nerves”, and I would hope to go somewhere where there is schooling.”
3 sisters in one home told me, “We don’t go to school so we are cleaning the house. It is not possible for us to learn and do lessons. Currently due to Taliban law no Afghan girls can go to school but it is our hope to see all our class members and join once again in the school. We lose our hopes because time is passing and not coming back. We lose our hopes in Afghanistan. We hope one day we will be able to go to Europe and we will be free and we will do what we want and we will be educated girls.”
Please pray for the girls of Afghanistan.