Real Life

What the brave women of Kabul told Yalda Hakim before the city was taken over by the Taliban

“They cannot win, we mustn't let them.”
Loading the player...

As we watch the devastation unfold in Afghanistan, The Weekly returns to an article published in our August issue.

In it, Yalda Hakim talks to the women in Kabul whose lives are now under threat and the Taliban Commander who wishes to reinstate Sharia law.

Shaharzad Akbar lies awake at night wondering who will be next. She has every reason to worry.

The 34-year-old chair of Afghanistan’s Independent Human Rights Commission has lost three staff members in the past 18 months, victims of a wave of assassinations. The unprecedented series of murders have targeted the country’s most prominent journalists, civil society activists and judges.

Almost all killed have been women.

Yalda Hakim previously spoke with the women in Kabul whose lives are now under threat.

(Photographer: Gus Palmer)

Shaharzad, a mum to a little boy, understands all too well the dangers her role brings to her and her family.

“I tell my son, I am only your mother inside the four walls of our apartment. I cannot take him for a walk or to the playground. I cannot be seen with him in public. I don’t want anyone to know he is my son because I am aware of what they are capable of doing.”

Draped in a marjorelle blue headscarf, the Oxford-educated human rights defender tells me she can’t look 24-year-old Fatima Khalil’s parents in the eyes. The young activist came to work for Shaharzad over a year ago, eager to make a difference. Last summer, a bomb attack killed her and her driver, Jawed Folad, as they weaved through Kabul’s traffic to get to work. A bright spark and future leader murdered in cold blood in the heart of the capital.

Twelve months on, Shaharzad is still looking for answers.

“I feel a sense of guilt. Our job at the Commission is to seek justice for others and yet I can’t even do that for my own people. I don’t know what to say to her parents and now as a mother, I am finding it especially difficult to face hers. To this day, no one has claimed responsibility for the killings. Of course, the finger of blame is being pointed at the Taliban but we just don’t know. It could be ISIS, it could be anyone. It is very painful.”

Shaharzad Akbar, chair of Afghanistan’s Independent Human Rights Commission

(Photographer: Gus Palmer)

The fears of Shaharzad and other prominent Afghan women are compounded by the withdrawal of international military forces this year. In early 2020, the United States and the Taliban signed an agreement to end what had become America’s longest war. Under the deal, the Americans promised to leave Afghanistan by mid-2021 while the Taliban agreed to start power-sharing negotiations with the Afghan government.

The hope was that the agreement would thus pave the way to peace. Instead, talks between the Taliban and the Afghan government stalemated, while the bloodshed against Afghan civilians intensified, with a particular focus on those who have benefited most from the US-led invasion of the country in 2001.

Despite this, the Americans under President Biden decided to carry through on their planned withdrawal.

Targeted killings are now part of a new form of warfare that has taken root in the country. According to the United Nations, in 2020 more than 700 people were assassinated across Afghanistan. Shaharzad says this is unprecedented and unlike anything she has seen before.

I have reported regularly from Afghanistan for more than 13 years. I also have a very personal and deep connection with this nation. It is the country of my birth. My family fled Afghanistan in the dead of night almost 38 years ago following the Soviet invasion. My parents locked up their home in central Kabul, promising never to return to a country descending into a war that would go on to claim millions of lives. I, of course have no memory of these events. I was just six months old, strapped to my mother’s back. I returned to Afghanistan for the first time in 2008 with SBS Dateline.

Since that first trip, I have gone back many times to report from the country. Each time, my security has become tighter, as the situation has worsened. I think back to the days when I would be able to meet friends at local restaurants – a French bistro, Le Jardin, a favourite. We would spend balmy Kabul evenings in its garden with a view of the mountains behind the blast walls. But even that was targeted by a Taliban militant who detonated a bomb outside the mammoth iron gate, killing two people.

Nikbakht Iqbalzada learned to speak English watching Harry Potter films.

(Photographer: Gus Palmer)

It has been two decades since the Taliban regime was overthrown in the aftermath of the September 11 attacks. In that time, a generation of Afghan women has grown up with freedoms and opportunities that they have fully embraced. Often when we think of Afghan girls and women, they are a faceless abstraction – passive victims of a patriarchal society where they have little chance to express themselves, let alone fight for their rights.

Yet that is precisely what women like Shaharzad are doing every day, despite ongoing threats to their lives and their loved ones.

Nikbakht Iqbalzada learned how to speak English watching Harry Potter films. The 20-year-old was born the year the United States invaded the country. Today, the petite and bubbly young woman is the quintessential product of a post 9/11 Afghanistan. She enjoys listening to pop music, watching the news and drinking coffee with her friends at the American University of Afghanistan where she is a student. Before COVID-19 swept across the country and forced her campus to shut down, Nikbakht looked forward to cultural events like Halloween and Thanksgiving, organised by the American teaching staff. Nikbakht’s student life in this respect was not dissimilar to that of any young person studying at an elite university anywhere in the world. But the differences are equally stark.

There are 400 armed guards protecting the university grounds at any given time and for good reason. Taliban insurgents stormed the campus in the summer of 2016, launching an attack that lasted 12 hours and left 17 dead. This is a reality that students in Kabul live with daily. Militants

can strike anywhere and at any time.

Nikbakht wasn’t alive when the Taliban were in power, when the hardline Islamic movement forced women to wear the all covering burqa, prevented girls from going to school and banned all music and television. Nikbakht has only heard about this time from stories her mother has

told her.

“I’ve only ever known the freedoms that came when the Americans invaded the country. I studied hard at school, taught myself English by watching the news, Harry Potter films and doing online tutorials so that I could get into the American university. That was a dream come true. Now, we are just not willing to give up these freedoms and rights. Surely we aren’t asking for much.”

“They cannot win, we mustn’t let them.” Fatima Roshanian

(Photographer: Gus Palmer)

In 2018 I established The Yalda Hakim Foundation. The main aim is to support the education and professional advancement of exceptionally talented young women in Afghanistan, in particular those from economically and socially disadvantaged backgrounds. Nikbakht is one of the recipients of the scholarships we offer.

We met on my last day in Kabul to discuss the future of her education. She asked if the Foundation would continue to support her. I promised her we would. What I didn’t tell her was if the Taliban do make a comeback, I couldn’t promise her education would continue in Afghanistan. Perhaps she too would have to consider leaving, like so many others.

The climate of fear that groups like the Taliban and ISIS have created in Afghanistan has not stopped Fatima Roshanian. The soft-spoken magazine editor is on multiple lists circulating on Afghan social media, reportedly of people the Taliban want to kill. I meet her at her office on the outskirts of Kabul. Because of the threats she faces, she tells me she has had to move her team to an apartment block on the edge of the city to keep their operation as low profile as possible.

Wearing a slim-fit black shirt and pale pink culotte trousers to match the scarf wrapped round her neck, the 26-year-old smiles when I ask her if she is surprised that she keeps appearing on hit lists.

“No, I am not. They say it is the Taliban but I also know I’ve offended plenty of conservatives in my job as editor.” Nimrokh, the feminist magazine Fatima founded, frankly discusses such issues as virginity, sex, menstruation, divorce and extra-marital affairs. All are shocking and taboo by Afghan standards.

“That doesn’t mean I’m not afraid. My mother calls me daily when I get to work. All she wants to know is have I made it alive. I wear a different outfit to work, cover my hair and face and change my routine daily. We cannot take any chances. We’ve seen so many friends and colleagues killed this past year that we must be careful.”

While I’m visiting, Fatima receives a text message on her phone and immediately calls out for her colleague Mariam, who is working in the next room. A friend who works for the security services has written to her asking if she has a death wish. She shows me the text.

“If you want to stay alive, you must stop publishing this material.” Mariam suggests to Fatima that they consider leaving the country. “If the environment is no longer safe for us here, we should think about other options. We don’t want to stop our work but we also cannot operate freely with these ongoing threats,” Mariam says. Fatima immediately shuts this down. “It isn’t just about you and me. This is about the future of the women and girls of this nation. If we all flee, who stays and fights? This is what they are trying to do, scare us so we leave. They cannot win, we mustn’t let them.”

With that, Mariam returns to the next room to write her next piece.

In the centre of the capital, in a safe house, I arrange to meet with a Taliban commander.

He has travelled from an insurgent stronghold in Helmand province in the southwest of the country. I’m surprised that he feels so comfortable travelling to Kabul given the huge presence of security and intelligence personnel. He tells me that he has already spent 15 days in the capital, waiting for my arrival from London. He uses WhatsApp to guide his more than 300 fighters who continue to wage war against the Afghan government. Every day it seems another district falls to the Taliban, boosting morale as they edge closer to Kabul.

Loading the player...

Mawlana looks every bit the Taliban commander he is. He has a long dark beard which he covers with a shawl and wears a traditional dark brown shalwar kameez and turban. He tells me he has been to prison three times, including a five-year stint during which he claims he was tortured and had all his teeth removed. Each time he left prison, he returned to the battlefield.

“We are fighting for a return of strict Sharia law in this country,” he tells me. “People have lost their ways and have adopted non-Islamic customs.”

I ask him about girls’ education.

“What about it? he responds. “Girls can attend school up until the age of 10 – pre-puberty – then they must focus on helping their mothers with household chores and preparing for marriage.”

Has the Taliban changed from when they ruled Afghanistan in the ’90s?

“No. Why should we change? We are in the service of God. Our path is pure and we must enforce Islamic laws in this country to save these people from hell fire.”

And punishment for crimes?

“Everything has been clearly stated in our scriptures and holy book. Stoning of women who commit the crime of adultery, public executions for murder, amputating hands and feet for theft.”

The rules are simple as far as Mawlana is concerned. In his Afghanistan, there will be no place for women like Shaharzad, Nikbakht or Fatima.

The young women I met in Kabul all tell me that they refuse to surrender the rights and opportunities that the last 20 years opened for them. None of them wish to flee Afghanistan. But increasingly, there is a realisation that with the Americans withdrawing and the Talibanon the offensive, this generation will soon face a reckoning.

For all their courage, the question remains, will it be enough?

*Yalda Hakim is the host of BBC World News’ Impact. Her documentary on Afghanistan is on ABC’s Foreign Correspondent at 8pm and Yalda is also appearing on QandA at 8.30pm tonight.

Related stories

Unwind and relax with your favourite magazine!

Huge savings plus FREE home delivery