Feminine Afghanistan and the softer side of the Taliban

There are women out and about in Kabul.
There are women out and about in Kabul. Photo: Erik Prozes

Let us talk about women. Something that it seems must be talked about, especially in Afghanistan, as it has been the first thing on the minds of Westerners since the Taliban took over, perhaps even more so than the question of whether Afghanistan could once again become a hotbed of dangerous terrorism.

Let us begin by talking about the picture on the streets. There are women out and about in Kabul. A surprising number even. The impression I had before arriving in Afghanistan was that the Taliban had ordered all women to stay home. It seems this is not the case.

Not all women wear a burqa or hijab in Kabul. (Let us clarify the terms once more. A blue (in Afghanistan) burqa covers the entire body of a woman who has to look at the world through a mesh screen. The hijab (called niqab in some countries) is a black robe that also covers the wearer’s face, leaving only the eyes to be visible.) We saw a lot of women walking around with their face uncovered and wearing only a scarf over their hair. That said – a lot of women were wearing medical masks, for obvious reasons. A black face mask, from a distance, made it look like they were wearing a hijab. These more courageous-appearing women also usually wore shorter than full-body-length skirts that displayed their shoes. Shoes that had heels. Only very young girls wear their hair down in Kabul.

There are women out and about in Kabul.
There are women out and about in Kabul. Photo: Erik Prozes

Things are very different in Jalalabad. Here, women strictly wear burqas or hijabs, mostly the former. Jalalabad is the capital of the westernmost Nangarhar Province of Afghanistan situated right on the border with Pakistan.

Taking photographs of women is problematic. First of all, because they are unwilling models. Secondly, it is a good way to irritate Taliban fighters. Our local helpers warned Erik that Taliban brothers catching a glimpse of him taking pictures of women could end in violence.

Unlike during the last time the Taliban were in power, women are allowed to work as teachers and doctors. Schools and hospitals remaining closed because of lack of teachers, doctors (or cleaners), because they are mostly women in Afghanistan, is no longer the norm in the country. While schools are currently closed in Kabul and many other regions, it is because they are always closed between December and March due to the cold weather. Schools do not have heating systems. In Jalalabad, where the weather is milder (for example, it was 18 degrees in the shade and more in the sun today), all the schools are open.

But the Taliban has sent home women who used to work in government departments. For example, we had to visit the tourism and culture department of the Kabul city government one day. Before the Taliban, 40 women worked there, while they are all sitting at home today. We were told they are working from home, while online work does not strike me as being likely here. Not for lack of an internet connection in Kabul – the city offers decent network speeds – but because computers seemed to be in short supply in the tourism board. Most of the work is still being done using physical files and folders.

I also saw no women in offices, shops and eateries lining the streets. Perhaps they were in the back.

We met a female French artist who has been working with local women in Kabul for years. She said that she is still working with them, making arts and crafts, while there are certain “particularities” today. She did not wish to go into more detail.

There are women out and about in Kabul.
There are women out and about in Kabul. Photo: Erik Prozes

The Taliban has promised to issue a directive on women working in the near future, while local women probably have little reason to get their hopes up. First of all, because the Talibs have promised to do so once the situation normalizes. The problem is that Allah alone knows what that means for them. It is also clear that even if the Taliban will allow women to work in other places besides schools and hospitals, a great many professions will nevertheless remain out of their reach.

Countless hours spent in various state offices have afforded me the opportunity to ask Taliban officials about girls’ schools. What they say sounds sensible. That because the Quran clearly states that women need to be educated, they can attend school. And that is also why girls’ schools are open. There seem to be no more problems, or if there are, they are about something else.

The decision to close girls’ school during the Taliban’s first reign 20-25 years ago was explained firstly through the ban on women working which meant that there were no teachers (men are not allowed to teach girls). Secondly, it is said that the times were different and much harder and that the Taliban have realized the error of their ways. Everyone seems well-accustomed to the times were different argument as it is a convenient way to justify many things. But if some wrongs have been righted, what can people have against it.

The Taliban recently issued a regulation concerning women. It is that a woman is no one’s property, not even a man’s, (they sure took their sweet time getting there!) and has the right to decide her own fate. That a woman cannot be forced into anything. While this sounds great in theory, I cannot guess at what actual effect it will have in Afghanistan. Somehow, I do not believe Afghan women were greatly encouraged. Or perhaps some were, hard to say.

There are women out and about in Kabul.
There are women out and about in Kabul. Photo: Erik Prozes

What is for sure is that a lot of women in Afghanistan are destitute today. Life was definitely freer and better for women before the Taliban came (even if they are a little softer this time around). However, it is also a fact that the situation of women under the current Taliban regime is better (whether by a little or a lot?) than it was during the days of its predecessor.

We got to spend several hours hanging out with Taliban fighters in Jalalabad today. Not by choice. We needed to secure a permit from the local governor to visit a hospital in Jalalabad. In short, they were quite nice, childlike and sincere, while I still would not go on a reconnaissance mission with them. That said, I’m nobody’s scout.

We needed to pass through three armed checkpoints to reach the governor’s office. There were hordes of armed men everywhere. It is interesting to note that while their assault rifles were mostly American (with only a few wielding Kalashnikovs), machine guns and RPG were good old Soviet fare.

We took our local fixer with us to see the governor. Erik and I were initially left waiting in the company of young Talib guards behind the last gate. Were offered strong green tea and caramel candy. While we sat by ourselves at first, the young men’s curiosity quickly got the better of them and they started paying us more attention. This lent us courage to ask for a picture with the machine gunner. It was a field day from there, with the Talibs forgetting all about guard duty just to take a picture with us. Individually and in groups. With me and Erik. Suddenly, everyone was smiling at us. A camera really does have magic properties. It was as if Johannes Pääsuke had arrived in an Estonian village 100 years ago.

Erik was a bona fide star. Everyone wanted to see their picture in his camera. Some even used their phones to take photos of images on Erik’s tiny camera screen.

The show ended when we were invited into the courtyard. It was like taking a time machine to the post-colonial 1960s. A stylish building from the days of King Zahir Shah behind a lawn adorned by large rose bushes. Idyllic rather than something one would associate with the Taliban.

There are women out and about in Kabul.
There are women out and about in Kabul. Photo: Erik Prozes

We were asked to wait because the vice governor was entertaining an important guest. (The governor himself had travelled to Helmand Province to visit his family.) We sat down on the lawn. We were soon joined by a visibly curious young guard. We struck up a conversation (with the help of our translator, as the Talibs usually do not speak English).

Shafi (21) was also from Helmand and had joined the Taliban at the age of 15. His grandfather and father had also been Mujahideen fighting against the Soviets. Naturally, he also wanted to fight in war. He went to study at a madrasa in Pakistan to join the Taliban. For the purpose of participating in the holy war against the Americans and corrupt (Afghan) government. Shafi was convinced that everyone in Afghanistan is glad to be rid of the Americans and the old administration. He claimed that there is not a single family in his village that has not lost someone to U.S. operations.

I grilled him for a long time on what he does in his time off. Shafi said that Fridays are his only days off (a holy day in Afghanistan when offices are closed). He said he goes out on the town to meet with friends who are all Talibs too. They usually sit in a restaurant or café and talk, mostly about work, the young guard added. He does have an interesting job. Shafi lives right here in the governor’s office. He has a wife and son in Helmand. Shafi last saw them seven months ago. He is not worried about his family and says that Allah will help them. The soldier also said that he is not sending any money back home because he is not being paid. Shafi has only been paid 150 afghanis (€1.3) once in the last three months. He asked me whether I would like to give him some money for new boots while wearing flip flops that seem to be part of the Taliban uniform. Since I was reluctant, he promised to buy me new shoes instead.

There are women out and about in Kabul.
There are women out and about in Kabul. Photo: Erik Prozes

Erik wanted a photograph of Shafi. While he initially resisted, vanity got the better of him in the end. We now realized that what had happened behind the gate had merely been foreplay. Suddenly, Talibs were coming in from all corners. Some came running, their assault rifles in tow.

The scene was like that of a graduation ceremony. They wanted their picture taken individually, then in groups of three or more. In front of the governor’s office and rose bushes, with their assault rifles across their chest or militantly pointed upwards. Erik took every kind of photo of them. It all culminated in a group picture of 15 Taliban fighters in front of the building.

“Like a wedding photographer,” Erik said. Rather, the official photo chronicler of the Jalalabad chapter of the Taliban.

One would have been hard-pressed to find friendlier guys than those Talib fighters at that moment. All tried to talk to me, recalling from memory every single English word and phrase just so they could ask a question and smile.

Therefore, this blog entry officially covers the softer side of the Taliban.

We hope we do not have to be introduced to their tougher side.

We also got to talk to the vice governor and secured our permit. I managed to interview him, with more on that to come in Postimees, while he requested asking me a few questions in turn after a short time of me interrogating him (because of his other engagements looming). This is what he wanted to know:

my religion;

upon learning that I consider myself a Christian, he asked which denomination;

how religious I am;

whether religion has the protection of the law in my country;

what I thought of Afghanistan before and how I feel about it now;

what is being said about the Taliban in my country;

what will I tell my people of Afghanistan today when I return home;

why the world is keeping Afghanistan’s assets frozen and my take on the situation;

what he could do for me;

and whether he would be shown everything he wanted to see upon coming to Estonia.

We shook hands after our meeting and I couldn’t help myself telling the vice governor, “Welcome to Estonia!” I hope the foreign ministry won’t mind.