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"I've never worn a burqa. I can hardly walk in it"

"At the moment, hunger is one of the biggest problems. Every day people starve, some sell their children to survive. Extreme hunger also triggers many health problems. We need outside support now, and ongoing development aid."

In Afghanistan, women will have to wear a burqa in public. While the Taliban promised a moderate government when they took power again in 2021, more and more freedoms for women are now being curtailed.

She can no longer travel freely and has to wear a burqa. In an interview, a 33-year-old Afghan woman tells how life has deteriorated since the Taliban took power - for her, her three younger sisters and many other women.

When they took power in August 2021, the Taliban had declared that they wanted to respect women's rights. But there is not much to notice, as the burka requirement was not reintroduced until mid-May. Samira, who actually has a different name, now has to cover herself – with the exception of her eyes. The 33-year-old lives and works in Kabul. Since 2015 she has been employed by the organization Women for Women International, which helps women affected by war and crises to build a new life. The principle: With sponsorships for 29 euros a month, you can change the life of a "sister" in Afghanistan, but also in Iraq or Rwanda, for example, by enabling her to attend a one-year training program.

Samira coordinates the trainers at Women for Women International. She is the sole breadwinner in her family and lives with her parents along with three sisters and four brothers. On the phone she spoke to us about how everyday life has changed for her and other women in Afghanistan since the Taliban ruled.

ICONIST: The Taliban have been back in power for nine months. How have you been since then?

Samira: Everything has changed. I remember the day when they took power: it was 10:30 in the morning, I was in the office. Suddenly we heard that the Taliban have taken over the center of Kabul. We all went home immediately. After that, a difficult time began, the Taliban also occupied our office. That was scary. After that, I and many of my colleagues had to constantly change our location so that the Taliban couldn't find us. At the moment, we all only leave the house when it is absolutely necessary – me, for example, to go to the office. Apart from that, my parents hardly ever let me out the door anyway, they are afraid for me because I work for an NGO. One can say: At the moment we are only breathing, we are not living.

ICONIST: What does that mean?

Samira: The people of Afghanistan are in the middle of an economic and humanitarian crisis. Unemployment has increased dramatically. Some women no longer work at all. Maybe because they are afraid of being murdered or kidnapped, in other cases their families probably don't allow it anymore. Or the Taliban won't allow them to use their offices. Many people want to leave Afghanistan, they see no future here. Everyone is tired, everyone is hungry, everyone is struggling to survive.

ICONIST: You have already addressed the situation of women. How do you feel about their rights?

Samira: The Taliban have taken all power away from women. They introduced new restrictions. If a woman wants to travel more than 72 kilometers, she must be accompanied by a man. Some women are no longer allowed to work in government jobs. Women can no longer play sports in public. I often hear that women and girls live in fear, afraid for their future. Many have mental problems. When the Taliban came back to power, I cried all the time and hardly spoke. Some days I just wanted to sleep. At others just sit still. I felt hopeless, helpless. There were times when I couldn't sleep four or five nights in a row and I thought I was going crazy.

Taliban order Afghan women to wear burqas in public.
Taliban ordered Afghan women to wear burqas in public

ICONIST: One of the Taliban's latest rules: women must wear burqas in public.

Samira: Yes, we have to completely cover the body from the head to the toes, there is only an opening for the eyes. Like many others, I am afraid that the Taliban are slowly reintroducing all the restrictions on women that were in place 20 years ago. I have never worn a burqa, I can hardly walk in it. I've tried so many times, but I keep falling down. But the Taliban say that if you don't wear a burqa, your family can go to prison - or the woman herself can no longer work.

ICONIST: You have three younger sisters. Are you currently attending school or university?

Samira: Girls from the seventh grade - who are about 12 years old - are not allowed to attend school at the moment. The Taliban say they want to make a Sharia-compliant plan for these girls. We don't know what that means. My youngest sister is actually in the tenth grade, but not at school at the moment. She came back from there one day and said, "They don't allow us to enter the school." She was devastated. That's why I now teach them at home, together with my younger brothers, who, like all boys, are still allowed to attend school.

ICONIST: What about your other two sisters?

Samira: They are already going to university and can probably continue their studies. My impression is that the Taliban want to keep the young generation – like my little sister – from getting an education. The older ones, those who are already studying, can continue. My sisters tell me that in some lectures they are not allowed to sit next to the young men on their course. Sometimes the rooms are separated with curtains. In one half the women, in the other half the men. The lecturer is then always on the men's side, but should teach everyone.

ICONIST: You work for the organization Women for Women International, which specifically helps women in countries in conflict areas. What does this support look like in Afghanistan?

Samira: The organization supports women in building a livelihood. We offer year-long programs for this. In the first three months, the women learn basic math, such as counting or adding up, after which we teach the basics of business. At the same time, the actual vocational training begins, for example in animal husbandry, poultry farming, beekeeper, or seamstress. At the end of each month, the women receive a stipend, and we encourage them to save some of that too. In times of need or if you want to start a small business, you can fall back on these reserves.

program in Afghanistan
Math class at Women for Women International training in Afghanistan.

ICONIST: And these programs are still running?

Samira: They started up again in January. Even then, many women told us that they could no longer afford food. Since then, we've been paying all women $50 more a month so they can buy at least the essentials. We also distributed start-up kits with tools so that the women can immediately start their own business from home.

ICONIST: How many women are currently participating in the program?

Samira: In January we reopened five training centers in Nangarhar province, where 650 women are taking part. We plan to train another 300 women in our center in Parwan. We also want to open a center in the province of Kunar, where another 300 women should be able to register by July. We recently conducted a survey among some of our participants. All indicated that they currently do not have enough to eat, almost 97 percent of them reported restrictions on their freedom and 91 percent wanted psychological support. We know from them and from women's rights activists that women in Afghanistan want their rights and a solution to the economic crisis.

ICONIST: What do you wish for Afghanistan and for the women in your country?

Samira: At the moment, hunger is one of the biggest problems. Every day people starve, some sell their children to survive. Extreme hunger also triggers many health problems. We need outside support now, ongoing development aid. Food, emergency shelter, financial aid, hygiene items, medical items - all of these things are lacking, we need them for daily survival. I just hope that people outside Afghanistan don't forget us. If I have to imagine what Afghanistan will be like in ten years, then I wish that our economy would be stable, that everyone could afford food, clothing and a home. And that all Afghans, men and women, have the same rights.


This article was originally published by Louise Bryant at Die Welt.