Members of a women’s cooperative and young students from rural Afghanistan agree: Supporting women and girls’ empowerment is a necessary struggle.
“If the Taliban knew that we were trying to empower women then we would have a lot of problems,” said Ahmed, not using his real name.
We were driving through the small village of Eishkasheim, northeastern Afghanistan, on our way to visit a group of women who were taking part in an empowerment project with the Aga Khan Foundation. They were learning to tailor clothes as a way of generating their own income.
The Taliban however, were strictly against this and any form of women’s empowerment. In fact, they were so strongly against activities to empower women, as Ahmed told me driving down the dusty, bumpy road, that the Taliban had made firm threats against anybody who tried.
The Taliban’s lingering reach in rural Afghanistan
While the Taliban no longer have political control over Afghanistan, there are still a number of Taliban strongholds throughout the country. The nearest was just 30 kilometers away from Eishkasheim.
The Taliban’s strict rules on women’s behavior has included not allowing women to leave the house without the permission of a male, that girls cannot go to school, and that women who do not wear the burka outside of the house should be killed.
Their extreme rules on dress have also extended to men.
“If you want to cross the areas where the Taliban are in control, you have to grow a beard and wear the traditional clothes of the Taliban,” explained Ahmed. “Women have to wear a Burka. Women who don’t can face the death penalty.”
As we pulled up to the small building where the women’s tailoring project was taking place he pointed to the radio and said, “The Taliban have also banned music, singing and anything associated with the Western world, including working with Western organizations.”
As I got out of the car, I looked around. There were enormous snow-capped mountains in the background and men swathed in long, traditional Afghan clothes walked along the dusty streets. The image was striking. There were few women on the streets and those that I did see were completely covered in long, blue burkas — even their eyes were covered by a blue mesh.
There was no internet access in the village and severely limited telephone services. The town felt remote. Even in only a few days, I got a sense of just how difficult life must be for women and girls in this small Afghan village.
Insight from members of an Aga Khan Foundation women’s cooperative
We entered the small house and walked up some windy stone stairs at the back of the house, where after entering through a rickety door we saw a group of women sitting on the floor with sewing machines. I was invited to sit down and the women began to talk about their lives in Afghanistan.
“Who here has been to school?” I asked.
Of all of the women, only one raised her hand.
“I was given to my husband when I was just 15 years old,” she said. “This was not legal but at the time of the Mujahadeen, these things were happening.”
“The situation of women in Afghanistan is improving and women are increasingly being allowed to choose their husbands,” she explained, “though not without the approval of their parents.”
“Some of the biggest challenges for women in Afghanistan are job opportunities,” explained another woman. “Security is also a really big problem, because of the Taliban. As long as there is war in Afghanistan, there is always going to be problems.”
All of the women explained how their families were supportive of their involvement in the income generation project, though all the women were aware the Taliban would not be.
“The Taliban just want women to stay inside the house and not go out or be educated,” said one woman.
When I asked the women how they felt about this, they all shook their heads and said that they didn’t agree. Women should be allowed to leave the house and women should be allowed to receive education.
Students in Shugnan insist on education
A few days later I travelled to the small village of Shugnan, which was located a little further north of Eishkasheim. Shugnan was less conservative than Eishkasheim. Women were not forced to wear the burka and were walking freely through the streets. They explained that the openness was due to their belief Ishmaeli Islam, which was far less strict than the Sunni Islam that dominated the rest of the country.
I visited a nearby school where I met with a number of young students to talk about how they felt about girl’s education.
All of the students, both male and female, said that education was important and that girls must have equal access to it.
One 17-year-old high school student said, “We want to develop Afghanistan and it’s our wish that all women study in university and have the choice to develop their life and study. They should be able to choose what they want.”
“I worry about my future,” she added. “It’s hard for me to choose where to go to university because I don’t want to go somewhere where there is the Taliban.”
“There needs to be more education for women in Afghanistan,” said another.
For another young girl, education was essential:
“Women should be educated,” she said. “It’s not our culture to stop women from studying or going outside. This is the culture of the Taliban, so if the Taliban goes away, then we won’t have this problem anymore.”
“I dream that my country will be safe,” she added. “I want to travel to many countries. Women need to learn to have better lives.”