Despite all that her country is going through, how women like her have seen their rights suddenly erased since the Taliban takeover, Mahbouba Seraj is remarkably cheerful. That’s because the godmother of Afghanistan’s women’s-rights movement believes the Taliban can’t win this time.
The situation, she acknowledges with a defiant smile, is horribly grim at the moment. The country’s economy is collapsing, and an enormous humanitarian disaster looms. The return of the Taliban has meant the restoration of their segregationist rules, with girls only going to school until Grade 6, and professional women told to stay at home.
Similar laws were imposed upon Afghanistan’s women the last time the Islamic extremists held power, between 1996 and 2001. But the 73-year-old Ms. Seraj believes they won’t stick this time. She says the country, and its women, are very different from 20 years ago – even if the Taliban’s mindset remains the same.
“The most important thing is not [whether] the Taliban has changed, but that Afghanistan has changed. We as women have changed. We are not the same people who were so scared because somebody beat us on the head,” Ms. Seraj said in an interview at her Kabul home, which also doubles as the office of the Afghan Women’s Network she founded.
“There are 18 million of us, and a whole lot of educated people who have been to school, a whole lot of people that are now professionals. These people are here and here to stay. Not all of them – because a lot are leaving – but some of us are staying.”
Ms. Seraj is emblematic of the progress that took place during the two-decade-long NATO presence here. The niece of Amanullah Khan, the Afghan king who presided over the country’s 1919 independence from Britain, Ms. Seraj fled her country in 1978 and spent 25 years living in New York while Afghanistan went through Soviet occupation, civil war, and then Taliban rule.
Since returning in 2003, she has led the push for the inclusion of women in Afghanistan’s political processes – which were dominated by men even while the Taliban was out of power – repeatedly addressing international conferences on her country’s future. She was also a participant in the High Peace Council, an Afghan-led effort to end the fighting that was usurped by direct talks between the United States and the Taliban, which precipitated the Aug. 31 withdrawal of U.S. and NATO forces.
On this year’s Time Magazine list of the world’s 100 most influential people, there were two Afghans: Mullah Baradar, a senior Taliban figure who led the negotiations with the U.S., and Ms. Seraj.
Asked what she would say to Mullah Baradar if he agreed to meet the other Afghan on the Time list, Ms. Seraj has a ready answer: “If they gave me 15 minutes to talk, I would say ‘please let’s leave all of the prejudgments on one side. Let’s take a look at Afghanistan, not from the point of view of men and women, but let’s take a look at Afghanistan from the point of view of its people. And let’s see what we can do to make life better for both the men and women of this country.’ ”
She’s not sure the meeting will happen. “That’s the thing. I don’t know if they’re willing to listen.”
But Ms. Seraj says she intends to give the Taliban no choice but to eventually listen to her and other Afghan women. Her message is a blunt one: The country cannot prosper while barring half its population from education and work. Despite the scale of the country’s crises – the World Food Program says 14 million people now face “acute food insecurity,” with the situation worsening rapidly – Ms. Seraj says the international community is right to withhold direct aid until the Taliban at least allows all girls to return to school.
She says she’s not worried about being punished for speaking out. “Why should I be afraid of saying the truth? I can yell it from the mountaintops. There isn’t a single lie in [what I’ve said]. I haven’t accused anybody of anything, I haven’t said anything nasty about anybody – and I’m not planning to, either. But I’m planning to talk about it. All the time. Until something changes,” she says, her confident words interspersed with ebullient giggles.
Asked how she maintains her optimism, she laughs again. “Honest to God, I don’t really have any other choice. I mean, what am I supposed to do?”
Many women, of course, are frightened and trying to flee. A female journalist, for example, met with The Globe and Mail last week in Kabul. She wore a face mask – though few Afghans are worried about COVID-19 amid all of the country’s other problems – because it concealed her identity as she walked past Taliban patrols on the street. The Globe is not identifying her because she fears for her safety.
The woman said she’s terrified that she will be arrested and punished for an article she wrote last year, and she’s now desperate to escape Afghanistan any way she can. Uncounted thousands of women, children and men have fled the country since the Aug. 15 Taliban takeover.
Ms. Seraj is careful not to criticize the many women who have decided to leave. After all, she once chose exile too.
“This is a very personal choice. … For me, I am 73 years old. I already lived [part of] my life somewhere else where I could live any which way I wanted. It was my freedom, my decisions, anything I wanted – so any other person has the right to do that,” she said.
But this time, “I want to stand by the people who are here and cannot get out. At least they should know that somebody is standing right next to them, even if the whole world thinks people should go.”
She doesn’t believe that her royal heritage gives any special protection in today’s Afghanistan – but she does think it gives her strength to keep fighting. “I’m sure those people [her ancestors] must have faced some things in their lives when they needed to be courageous.”
Heather Barr, the Pakistan-based associate director of the women’s-rights division at Human Rights Watch, called Ms. Seraj “a pioneer” and the “institutional memory” of the women’s-rights movement in Afghanistan.
“It is so valuable to have Mahbouba still there, in Kabul, playing the unique role she is playing – saying effectively to the Taliban, ‘I am here. I am not going. You will not drive us all away – you will have to reckon with our demands.’ ”
Ms. Seraj said she’s staying largely to send a signal to young Afghan women that they don’t have to simply accept the fate assigned to them by the Taliban. And to give the next generation a hand up.
“I’m finding my own girls. They are young ones, and they are bloody courageous,” she says with a laugh that sounds mischievous this time. “They just found me, and I have found them – and we are working to make this something real powerful. They are taking their place, and I want to be here to see them take their place.”
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