Tuesday, February 27

‘I daren’t go far’: Taliban rules trap Afghan women with no male guardian | Afghanistan

Hasina* cannot send her two daughters to school, because they are teenagers and high school is banned for girls in Taliban-ruled Afghanistan.

But she cannot take them out of the country to finish their education because she is a divorced single mother, and women are barred from long-distance travel without a male “guardian” to escort them.

Wazhma* lies awake worrying what she will do if her sick, elderly mother needs emergency medical help at night. Her father de ella is dead, she is unmarried and her sister de ella is a disabled teenager.

She is terrified that as women out alone at night, even on their way to a hospital, they would be arrested and harassed by the Taliban.

Most Afghan women have had to learn to endure new restrictions and controls over the last year, but there is one group whose lives have been particularly curtailed.

Women who live in households without a close male relative, whether through tragedy, circumstance or choice, now exist in a legal limbo, because they do not have a close male relative to act as a mahramor “guardian”.

In the Taliban’s extremist reimagining of Afghanistan, women are not fully autonomous citizens of their own country. Instead a man is deemed responsible for their presence in public, including how they dress and where they travel.

Officially, any woman traveling more than 75km (46 miles) or leaving the country needs a mahram. If a woman is found to have broken the Taliban’s dress codes, their male relatives de ella face punishment.

The rules have been enforced sporadically, with some officials turning a blind eye to solo travel. Raihana* was barred from boarding a plane earlier this year for a work trip but says women have since been allowed back in the air alone.

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“It was in March, they had just circulated the new notice that no woman can travel to another city without a mahram. I wasn’t allowed to board the plane, and had to wait in the airport for two to three hours, with 20 or 30 other women,” she said. “This went on for a few weeks then they abolished [the rule]. Now we can travel again.”

But many others across Afghanistan have reported restrictions on women’s movements that go far beyond the official regulations. They told the Guardian that Taliban fighters have barred them from even short journeys, including commuting to work, sometimes using indirect tactics such as threatening drivers who take only female passengers.

A man walks past a vandalized mural depicting a group of women in Kabul. Photograph: Nava Jamshidi/Getty Images

Health workers said they had personal experience of women being barred from accessing medical help without a maharam in at least two districts, one in central Afghanistan’s Bamiyan province and one in southern Helmand.

These extreme controls fuel the fears of women such as Wazhma, even about journeys that should be legal, like taking her mother to hospital in Kabul.

She used to have a senior government job, traveling abroad and extensively across Afghanistan. Since the Taliban ordered most female civil servants to stay away from work and then advised women not to leave home except in cases of necessityshe can count on her hands the number of times she has left her own neighbourhood.

“Because of my mother’s situation I want to take her abroad to a better hospital, but I don’t dare to do it. I know that if I travel far they are likely to stop me,” she said, adding that she finds the situation unbearable.

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“I can’t tolerate this. I am a person who studied and worked all these years, now an illiterate man can stop me, ask questions, argue with me, and I cannot argue with him.”

Students who have won scholarships abroad are consumed with anxiety about whether they will be allowed to board their flights without a mahram, group WhatsApp chats shared with the Guardian showed.

A husband, brother, father, son or nephew can fulfill the role of mahram. But after decades of war, Afghanistan has an estimated 2 million widows who may not have a living father, brother or son able or willing to serve as their mahram. Divorced and unmarried women face similar problems.

Some women gamble on escaping detection, ignoring rules they say make no sense. “I will take the risk and go, and I know they will react, but what should I do?” said one young activist, who still travels alone for work. “If I don’t have a mahram, where should I find one? I can’t just buy one, or ask a Talib to be my mahram.”

The Taliban solution to the clash between laws that deny women autonomy and the daily struggles of many women without guardians is to deny there is a problem.

“They must have someone,” Sadeq Akif Muhajir, a spokesperson for the ministry for the propagation of virtue and prevention of vice told Rukhsana Media recently. “They have brothers or nephews.”

Hasina has a brother and Wazhma an uncle who could be their official guardians, but both have made it clear they want no financial responsibility for their relatives and will not escort them to a border post to leave the country.

“He’s not here to take any responsibility or to support us, he is just here for his own goal and when that’s achieved he will go back,” Wazhma said of her uncle, who recently returned from Iran to sell a shared family home where she has lived with her mum and sister since her father’s death.

Women cover their faces while walking down a street in Kabul
Officially, any woman traveling more than 75km (46 miles) or leaving the country needs a mahram. Photograph: Nava Jamshidi/Getty Images

Others have family members who have stepped up, but at a price for everyone. Kamila * lived with just her sister and mother de ella until last August. Now her nephew de ella, 17, sleeps at their house de ella, even though he misses his own mother who is on the other side of the city.

“Before the Taliban came we were living here by ourselves,” Kamila said. “We weren’t afraid of anything. Now it has become very scary for us, we know the Taliban only value men.”

The mahram rule has also contributed to an economic catastrophe for families without adult men, amid a broader economic collapse. The regulations make it harder or more frightening for women to find jobs, or commute to work.

Hasina used to make a decent living as a tailor but struggles now because she is frightened of going out on her own. “I wait for clients to come here so I can sew their clothes at home,” she says. Inevitably her income from her has dropped.

“I don’t dare go far from this street, and I haven’t been beyond this area since the Taliban came. I heard that when they find out about families without a mahram, they are taking women away. Even if I found a job outside the home I wouldn’t take it.”

It also distorts family relationships. An unlucky minority are forced to rely on their young sons to fulfill the role of their “protector”, skewing the normal dynamic between mother and child.

“According to the rules of the Taliban a boy over seven can be a mahram, isn’t it stupid of them to think that a seven-year-old can defend their mother or stop something bad happening?” said Sahar*, a widow and mother of seven girls and three boys, the oldest just 12.

“They value a boy and hold a woman as nothing. They want to isolate us. and [being given this power] affects the boys. You can even feel it in our family,” she says. “Islam gives lots of rights to women, but the Taliban have grabbed them all away.

“At the moment, Afghan women are all alone, even if you want to support us, you can’t do it. Only we know and our God knows what we are going through.”

* Names have been changed


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