“You have more important problems to solve than hijab“, she replied, another moment of women’s determination to fight for their rights within Islam.
The scene seems idyllic. Sheaves of golden wheat shimmer in the summer sun in the remote central highlands of Afghanistan. A soft mooing of cows can be heard.
Noor Mohammad, 18, and Ahmad, 25, continue to brandish their sickles to clean up a piece of remaining grain.
“This year there is much less wheat because of the drought,” says Noor, sweat and dirt on his young face. “But it’s the only job I could find.”
A harvested field stretches into the distance behind us. It has been 10 days of backbreaking work by two men in the prime of their lives for the equivalent of $2 per day.
“I was studying electrical engineering but I had to drop out to support my family,” he explains. His regret is palpable.
Ahmad’s story is just as painful. “I sold my motorcycle to go to Iran but I couldn’t find a job,” he explains.
Temporary employment in neighboring Iran used to be an answer for residents of one of Afghanistan’s poorest provinces. But work has also decreased in Iran.
“We welcome our Taliban brothers,” says Noor. “But we need a government that gives us opportunities.”
Earlier in the day, we sat around a polished pine table with Ghor’s provincial cabinet, men in turbans positioned alongside Taliban governor Ahmad Shah Din Dost, who was shadow deputy governor during the war.
“All these problems make me sad“, he says, listing the poverty, the bad roads, the lack of access to hospitals and the schools that do not work properly.
The end of the war means that more aid agencies are now working here, including in districts that were previously off limits. Earlier this year, famine conditions were detected in two of the most distant districts of Ghor.
But the war is not over for Governor Din Dost. He says that was imprisoned and tortured by US forces. “Don’t give us more pain,” she asserts. “We don’t need help from the West.”
“Why does the West always interfere?” he asks. “We don’t question how they treat their women and men.”
In the days that followed, we visited a school and a malnutrition clinic, accompanied by members of his team.
“Afghanistan needs attentionsays Abdul Satar Mafaq, a young college-educated health director for the Taliban, who appears to be more pragmatic. “We have to save people’s lives and it doesn’t need to involve politics.”
I remember what Noor Mohammad told me in the wheat field. “Poverty and hunger is also a struggle and it’s bigger than the shootings.”
The closure of schools for girls
Sohaila, 18, is excited.
I follow her down some dark stairs to the basement of the women-only market in Herat, the ancient Western city long known for its more open culture, science, and creativity.
It is the first day that this bazaar opens: the Taliban closed it last year, and it was closed by the covid-19 pandemic the year before.
We peek through the glass front of her family’s clothing store, which isn’t ready yet. A row of sewing machines stands in the corner, red heart balloons hang from the ceiling.
“A decade ago, my sister opened this shop when she was 18,” Sohaila tells me, sharing a condensed story of her mother and grandmother’s sewing of brightly patterned traditional Kuchi dresses.
His sister had also opened an internet club and a restaurant.
The premises are dimly lit, but in this gloom there is a ray of light for women who have spent too much time sitting at home.
Sohaila has another story to share.
“The Taliban have closed down high schools,” she says matter-of-factly of something that has huge consequences for ambitious teenagers like her.
Most high schools are closed on orders from the Taliban’s ultra-conservative top clerics, even though many Afghans, including Taliban members, have called for them to be reopened.
“I’m in grade 12. If I don’t graduate, I can’t go to college.“.
I ask her if she can be the Sohaila she wants to be in Afghanistan. “Of course,” she declares confidently. “It’s my country and I don’t want to go to another.”
But a year without school must have been tough. “It’s not just me, it’s all the girls in Afghanistan,” she says stoically.
“It’s a sad memory”he assures.
Her voice trails off as she breaks into tears.
“I was the best student.”