A rebel, a bureaucrat: the women left in Afghanistan

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KABUL, Afghanistan (AP) – Two women from different backgrounds – one rebellious, the other bureaucratic – face an unknown future in Afghanistan. One has decided to work with the Taliban, the other is determined to fight them. The two swear that they will never leave their homeland.

Karima Mayar Amiri, 54, heads a department at the Taliban-run health ministry. She is one of the few women able to hold onto a leadership position in the new government’s bureaucracy and believes that Afghans must be served no matter who is at the helm.

For many years her junior, Rishmin Juyunda, 26, couldn’t disagree more. Afghan women will never be served with the Taliban in power, she said. The human rights activist is part of an underground network determined to fight tough Taliban policies that restrict women’s freedom.

They represent a wide range of women who remained in Taliban-controlled Afghanistan after many fled, fearing a return to the brutal repression that characterized the group’s previous regime in the late 1990s. linked recognition of a Taliban government to factors such as guarantees of women’s rights.

We do not know what rights women will be able to keep. Under the Taliban, women in most ministries are now unable to work, teenage girls are not allowed to go to school, the interim cabinet is made up entirely of men. This reinforces mistrust of the Taliban.

But there are exceptions.

Amiri, a mother of six, retained her post as director of the ministry’s quality and safety department after the collapse of the previous US-backed government. His case is rare; most senior female bureaucrats have been banned from working in all government portfolios except health.

She’s in the office at 9 a.m. to manage a team of five. Almost every day, she meets with her Taliban-appointed superiors to review action plans to tackle the spread of disease from the dengue coronavirus.

“It wasn’t a hard decision for me to stay. I have my own department. If they ask for a plan, I will provide it to them. The Taliban leadership wants me to work for them, and I am ready, ”she said. “As long as I am healthy, I will work for them, for my people, for my country.”

Juyunda begins her last semester with a major in economics at Zahra University in Tehran. She chose to stay in the capital Kabul and study remotely after the Taliban took power in August. Textbooks clutter her desk, but her concentration is interrupted by a buzzing phone. In a series of WhatsApp messages, rights activists came up with slogans for the upcoming protest.

Like many young women who grew up after the US invasion in 2001, Juyunda’s dreams were dashed overnight after the Taliban took Kabul and the country’s control was consolidated. Many of his friends are gone, unwilling to wait and see how the dust settles after the dramatic exit from the United States.

She stayed. “I will never leave Afghanistan. I have to stay and change, ”she said, her keen hazel eyes framed by a scarlet scarf.

The decision to stay came amid large-scale evacuations.

Between the fall of Kabul on August 15 and the final exit from the United States two weeks later, thousands of Afghans, many of them women, rushed to the city’s airport in a desperate attempt to escape.

Amiri chose a different path.

Three days after the Taliban invaded the capital, she was back in the office to help meet the growing needs of the crumbling healthcare sector. International aid that once funded hospitals and the salaries of health workers came to an abrupt halt. Hospitals across the country have been hit hard by an economic crisis triggered by international sanctions against the Taliban.

She asked her Taliban superiors to merge her department with another to improve quality control. They approved it.

When a Talib guard attempted to inspect her bag at the ministry door one morning, she refused and demanded that a separate room be erected for female checks. They complied.

Graduated from Kabul Medical University 31 years ago, she has worked for the Ministry of Health since 2004. Five ministers of health have succeeded during her tenure. “Why should the Taliban be any different? ” she asked.

The only change they introduced was for women to wear Islamic clothing. Amiri, a devout Muslim, used to wear a headscarf.

“Health is not political,” Amiri insists. Guidelines formulated by his office are sent to thousands of hospitals, clinics and public facilities across the country. “Life goes on,” she said.

But for Juyunda, life will never be the same.

It took him weeks to recover from the shock of the takeover. His family of eleven had benefited greatly after the American invasion. She and her four sisters were able to go to school in Ghor province. His parents held high paying government jobs. She was on her way to becoming an economist brimming with ideas to improve her country.

Through social media, she learned that a women’s protest had been organized outside the Pakistani embassy in Kabul in September. Shortly after arriving, a Taliban unit showed up and the group had to disperse. She was standing there, holding an “Education is a right” sign and saying to herself, “I am strong, they are weak”.

She saw protesters beaten with guns and cables. This is war, she thought.

The numbers were exchanged, and soon a network of dozens of like-minded activists formed.

The Taliban said they had no problem with the right to protest, but activists had to seek permission to protest. Subsequent sit-ins have not been able to attract large numbers. But Juyunda said asking the Taliban’s permission would be an implicit acceptance of their rule.

“We will never do that,” she said.

The lives of the two women have been shaped by the turbulent history of Afghanistan.

Amiri was a gynecologist in the conservative Wardak province, a Taliban stronghold as early as the 1990s, when the group was first in power.

To survive, she said, she made her world a little smaller.

“During this time, I went to the hospital, treated patients, gave birth and operated on, then went straight home. It was my life, ”she said.

In 2021, she returned to the same tactic. After 3:30 p.m., she leaves the office and heads straight to her home in Kabul to spend the evening with her children and grandchildren.

Juyunda’s childhood was marked by the violence of the Taliban insurgency in the years following the American invasion. She saw entire buildings catch fire after rocket fire and bombardment.

At night, she slept with a full glass of water. “I thought if a bomb hit our house, I could use it to put out the flames,” she recalls, smiling at the thought of her childhood naivety.

The bombs have stopped, but Juyunda’s war for women’s rights continues.

Amiri, meanwhile, is full of hope. “Let’s see what happens,” she said.

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