Going back to an Afghanistan under Taliban rule was tinged with sadness. Many of the Afghan colleagues I’ve always heavily relied on for my reporting have left. Being able to report from the country felt like a privilege, one that most Afghan journalists, and in particular, Afghan female journalists, do not have – the privilege of bearing witness to what their country is going through, and the freedom to question the Taliban running it.
The faces of the Taliban
In Kabul, at the Taliban’s Ministry for the Propagation of Virtue and Prevention of Vice, we were met by a media-savvy spokesman, a shrewd communicator. Under the previous Taliban regime, this was the most feared ministry, doling out brutal punishment to those who disobeyed its rules. I asked the spokesman about the point they were trying to make by housing this ministry in the former women’s affairs ministry, which has been eliminated under Taliban rule. He said they had merely reorganised ministries, and this department would also work for women’s rights. I didn’t see any other women the whole time I was there.
For half an hour, I grilled the spokesman about why girls weren’t being allowed to go to secondary schools and women to work in most of the country. He started by denying that the Taliban was preventing anyone from going to school, saying girls were staying home of their own accord. Then he said they were planning to reopen schools across the country, but needed more time for the security situation to improve. This was the same excuse the group gave to bar girls from school when it was in power in the 1990s.
The spokesman was polite. But we saw another face of the Taliban that day. After the interview, we were trying to film in the grounds of the ministry when a few Taliban men walked up to us and said, “You’ve talked to the communications department, now enough. Leave.” You never know which kind of Taliban you’re going to run into. Some were friendly and chatty, others cold, a few menacing. It’s hard to forget their fighters have brutally beaten Afghan journalists, and were seen in a recent video hitting a foreign photographer with the butts of their guns.
Babies for sale
The baby slept soundly in her cradle the whole time we were there, surrounded by her parents and three brothers. Her father, who works as a rubbish collector, told me that on most days he earns no money. There are days when the family doesn’t eat. To save his other children from starvation, he’d agreed to sell his baby for 50,000 Afghani (£400). When the six-month-old girl begins to walk, the man who bought her will take her away. He’s told her family she will be married to his son, but no one can be sure what the future holds for her.
The family lives among tens of thousands displaced by decades of war and severe drought, in a one-room, mud-brick home in a settlement about ten miles outside of Afghanistan’s third largest city Herat. We’d barely stepped out of their house when a woman came up to our team with a child in her arms. She told us the 18-month-old girl she was carrying had been sold because they needed to buy food. When I first heard about families so poor they were being forced to sell their children, I thought it must be a one-off, or perhaps a few extreme cases. I had not expected we would find so many people in this situation. And I had certainly never imagined that we would be asked to buy a child: my female colleague and I were approached by two women, gesturing for money, seemingly willing to hand over their babies on the spot.
Lives shut down
Seventeen years old, the only life she’s ever known abruptly snatched from her, one among millions of Afghan girls barred from secondary schools. She cried through most of our conversation. In this profession, you learn to emotionally separate yourself from the stories you’re covering, but the loss of hope is incredibly difficult to watch. It’s often claimed that education is only a concern for elite Afghan women, that it’s not much of an issue in most of the country. But for this girl from an impoverished family – whom I’m not naming for her protection – education was the only path to a better future.
As more and more all-male delegations from foreign countries and aid agencies meet the Taliban, the sense of betrayal among Afghan women is palpable. Shukria Barakzai, an activist and former Afghan diplomat, made a comment that stayed with me. “If the world keeps silent, this kind of discrimination… will not be limited to Afghanistan. It will definitely knock on the doors of other countries.”
Yogita Limaye is a BBC News correspondent
This article appears in the 03 Nov 2021 issue of the New Statesman, Britannia Chained