I was sitting across from the school principal in her office, a woman who was considered modern as she wore jeans, when a girl who looked to be about 8 years old came in.
“I needed to tell you this will be my last day at school,” she said in Dari. “My father wants me to help at home.”
My heart broke and I felt angry all at once. While I understood this wasn’t unusual in this village just outside Kabul and I wanted to respect their culture, I at least wanted someone to make sure this girl had a bookshelf bursting with books at home, so that she could continue to learn and explore something of the world beyond her region.
This took place in May of 2008. I was visiting a friend who was spending the year in Kabul, teaching English. There was violence, of course – one day during my stay a suicide bomber detonated a bomb in downtown Kabul – but there was also an element of freedom in some aspects of daily life. For instance, you could go buy Thai food at a restaurant nearby. On some nights you could buy a beer but, if the owner thought anyone from the Taliban was around, there would be a curt “We don’t sell beer here” response at the counter.
We were able to get around with our driver, Fawad, taking precautions such as not going the same way twice, and telling us not to accept a ride with an acquaintance from the UN as yes, even though it would be nice in the air-conditioned 4WD, the logo on the side would attract the wrong kind of attention. A representative from the Ministry of Agriculture offered me a job, saying he’d arrange for female employees to be bussed in early so that I could teach them English. On one day we spent a luxurious couple of hours at the Sarina Hotel, making it through security that was as tight as any airport and finding ourselves in a magic courtyard full of roses lining an elegant, rectangular pond that ran the length of the space.
Strangely, the people I met would tease each other about the Taliban. If someone did something silly they’d hear a “you’re uncle’s Taliban!”. “No they’re not!” would be the retort, delivered with a smile.
But it’s no joke, and the history of other countries bringing war and devastation to Afghanistan while at the same time funding different factions have made it near-impossible for ordinary people to see dreams come true, or even to plan their everyday lives. For the leaders to roll over and cede authority to the Taliban now makes the past 20 years of “hope” (as it’s been branded for PR) seem like a cruel tease.
At the time of writing, the Taliban leaders are presenting a “nothing to see here” kind of front. They say women will be allowed to work, girls to go to school. Yet any religious-based worldview will ensure that actions are based on the law of that religion.
Many Muslims in the West are saying “Not my version of Sharia law”. It may not be. But followers of a fundamentalist worldview see every aspect of life through that lens, and every indication we have had of the Taliban is that they are fundamentalists.
If the Taliban have truly changed as they would have us think, it would be a radical moment in history.
It is more probable that the reality will be a thin veneer of what is seen as acceptable. Maybe they will throw in some token “women in leadership” moments to prop up the PR so that the leaders will be accepted at global forums.
Once the western diplomats, contractors and lucky individuals are evacuated I expect the restrictions to tighten. Girls may be allowed to go to school, although I doubt it, and if they do, it would likely be for religious studies only. Because it’s clear that anywhere on the planet where women are educated and supported to open businesses, they pour the benefits back into their communities and create way too much in terms of individual freedoms for the liking of power-hungry dictators.
Watching events unfold has been horrendous. Yet I don’t think I even have a right to feel grief as it barely affects my own comfortable life here in Australia. I’ve reached out to women who are journalists to see if there is anything I can do to assist, knowing that if there is, it’ll be barely a drop.
We must not forget the women of Afghanistan once the news cycle moves to something new.
Read Also: Simone Biles – Queen of Air