Afghan women’s hidden secrets

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“My pen is a bird’s wing; it will tell you the thoughts we are not permitted to think and the dreams we are not permitted to dream.”

Afghan women’s voices can be heard in small, loud protests on the streets of Kabul and other cities at times. They frequently resound in speeches delivered by women who have moved on from Afghanistan. But, for the most part, their thoughts are only expressed quietly and in safe places. Or they fester in their minds as they try to reconcile their lives with the Taliban government’s increasingly strict rules. They limit what women wear, where they work, and what they can and cannot do with their lives.

In the months leading up to the Taliban’s return in August 2021, 18 Afghan women writers wrote fictional stories based on real-life experiences, which were published earlier this year in the book, My Pen is the Wing of a Bird. Many Afghan women felt abandoned by the international community. However, these writers used their pens and phones to console one another and to reflect on issues that millions of women and girls are now facing. Two Kabul writers, Paranda and Sadaf, shared their thoughts written in secret here.

‘Is wearing a pink scarf a sin?’

Paranda prefers to dress in pink in order to feel feminine. However, what women choose to wear has become a battleground. Taliban edicts on modesty are strictly enforced, often harshly. Afghan women in this traditional society are not fighting against head coverings; rather, they want the freedom to choose. It is visible on the streets and in public places. A scarf in pink. A gleaming trim. A ray of light in the darkness.

‘We can’t go back.’ ”

Going backwards is difficult. Moving forward is also difficult; should I be optimistic or pessimistic? We can’t go back in time “Hafizullah Hamim is a poet.

Afghan women have led the charge in rare public demonstrations. Small brave crowds have taken to the streets of Kabul and other cities, waving banners that read “bread, work, freedom.” They’ve been rounded up and detained. Some have vanished while detained. Across the border in Iran, women are also leading the charge for change, with slogans like “women, life, freedom” and a call to end mandatory hijab. Women’s rights to work and girls’ education are important to Afghans.

‘Fear gives way to rage.’

“The Taliban guard pulled over our office car and pointed at me…” My heart rate increased, and my body shook. It felt like a wind was blowing across me… and when our car moved away, it felt like the wind shifted. “My terror turned to rage.”

It’s the unpredictability that’s so difficult. Some Taliban guards are aggressive, while others are more accepting. The journeys of women are tense. A mahram – a male escort – is required for long distances of more than 72km (45 miles). Some Talibs use the rule arbitrarily, sending women home on the spur of the moment.

‘Ice cream excitement’

“The owner of the public baths’ daughter has gotten married. It’s incredible. She’s only 13 years old. Her mother claims that the Taliban will never reopen schools, so she should return to her lucky home… it appears that little girl is me… When the Taliban first arrived, I was in despair. I also accepted a forced marriage… the wounds are still fresh… but I rose from the ashes and stood tall.”

It’s repression on high. Afghan women painfully recall Taliban rule in the 1990s, which also ended their education. When the regime was overthrown in 2001, Paranda, like many others, took advantage of opportunities, such as going to school or getting divorced. A new generation of schoolgirls has emerged with even loftier goals. Their anguish is palpable as their schools remain closed.

‘Words used by men against women’

“I had previously used social media, but now I have sealed my lips. I’m frustrated with my society and the crude language men use against women. I believe that the root causes of Afghan women’s problems are not governments that change and impose new rules, but rather the evil thoughts of men toward women.”

Afghan regimes come and go, but patriarchy remains. Afghan women have long faced limitations imposed by men. However, recent advances are being reversed, with what the UN calls “staggering repression.” It has the unintended consequence of reinforcing conservative family norms that keep women and girls hidden.

‘Believe that a good country will emerge.’