I have spent previous winters in Afghanistan. They’re known to be harsh. But this year has been exceptionally brutal: the coldest in a decade. Some nights, the temperature drops as low as -20C in the capital, Kabul. Electricity is often erratic or completely absent. More than 160 people have died from hypothermia; some from inhaling toxic fumes from gas heaters. That number could be much higher, however, according to the Taliban authorities, which say they can’t provide a full picture because so many communities live in remote mountainous areas.
For 40 million Afghans, it’s the second winter under Taliban rule. They are coming to terms with the realities of living in an isolated state. Over the past two months, new restrictions have been imposed on women, including a ban on them working for international aid agencies. The United Nations says that with 28 million people in need of support – and six million on the brink of starvation – the move is endangering humanitarian operations. This presents a dilemma for the international community: how to uphold women’s rights while continuing to operate in the country.
The viral professor
One cold morning in Kabul, I went to meet the university professor, Ismail Mashal. The slender, well-dressed 37-year-old was forced to shut the doors of his university in December following the Taliban’s ban on female education. Mashal went viral on social media after he tore up his academic records live on television, saying there was no point in gaining an education in today’s Afghanistan.
He told me that men need to stand up for Afghan women and he intended to stage a series of demonstrations. “I know what I’m doing is risky. Every morning, I say goodbye to my mother and wife and tell them I may not return. But I am ready and willing to sacrifice my life for 20 million Afghan women and girls, and for the future of my two children.” He continued: “The only power I have is my pen. Even if they kill me, even if they tear me to pieces, I won’t stay silent now.”
On 3 February it was reported that Mashal had been arrested by the Taliban. He has not been heard from since. It’s unclear when he will be released.
A new generation of secret schools
When the Taliban swept to power again in August 2021, they issued an edict stating girls over the age of 12 wouldn’t be returning to their classrooms until further notice. Many girls had heard stories from their mothers – who lived under Taliban rule in the 1990s – about how they turned to secret schools to educate themselves. Despite 20 years of international intervention, this generation has found itself in the same position.
I went to meet some female students and their teacher at a secret school. They told me they’re studying for a future that remains unknown. “I find it so painful that they aren’t allowing us to return to our schools – this decision is against Islam, it’s illegal,” a 15-year-old student told me. “Why can boys learn and girls can’t?”
Recently, the crackdown on women’s rights has intensified. Running these secret schools is now very dangerous. If the teachers get discovered, they could be arrested. It is a risk one woman operating a school tells me she is willing to take: “I don’t want students to forget what going to school means.” The Taliban maintains that this ban is temporary. But that’s what they said the last time they ran the country – and that ban lasted the full five years they were in power.
No country for women
After the Taliban took over 18 months ago, I met many women who told me they had no intention of leaving. But this time I heard more doubts about the country’s future. Naila Mirza, a 25-year-old medical student, had been adamant about staying. She was training at local hospitals, hoping to finish her degree and begin work as a junior doctor. The university ban changed that. “I don’t have the right to work, I don’t have the right to exist.” Holding back tears, she told me Afghanistan is no longer a country for women. In my last conversation with Mirza, she told me she had managed to flee Afghanistan and is seeking asylum in the West.
Talent lost and found
While reporting from Afghanistan, I get a call from the BBC. I was about to be named one of the chief presenters on the news channel. A rush of excitement – but also the knowledge of how different my life would have been had my parents not fled Afghanistan when I was six months old. We each like to imagine ourselves the author of our fate. But being here, I cannot help but think about all of the human talent in this country – the potential doctors, scientists, artists, teachers, leaders – whose contributions the world will never see, because they happened to be born female in Afghanistan.
[See also: Afghanistan after the fall of Kabul]
This article appears in the 08 Feb 2023 issue of the New Statesman, Silent Sunak