She saw Duke Ellington perform in the same Kabul stadium where, decades later, a mother was publicly shot by the Taliban. In 2003, after 25 years in exile, Mahbouba Seraj went back to her beloved Afghanistan. Today she is a trailblazing godmother of the Afghan women’s movement, knocking on gates of established powers and disrupting the patriarchy. “Afghan women are ready and equipped to negotiate this country’s future. With the government, with the world, with the Taliban.”
(Mahbouba Seraj during an AWN meeting in Kabul. © Afghan Women’s Network)
In July 2019, before the Doha peace talks between the US and the Taliban were abruptly called off by Trump – with one tweet – Afghan women were close to having what they were after: a seat at the table. “We were nearly there, and then the talks were canceled”, remembers Mahbouba. “But this is not a defeat”, she continues. “The US was trying to rush a peace agreement, give in to the Taliban and fast forward out of a war in which they got stuck. This was never going to bring us peace. Instead, it was going to inflate arrogance of the Taliban, who were already thinking they had won the war.”
Not a rushed deal, but a just deal
The big achievement Afghan women made, while men were trying to rush things, was that the international community – ambassadors, representatives in the US and elsewhere – amplified Afghan women’s demand to co-negotiate the future of Afghanistan. And while US envoy Khalilzad seeks to rekindle the talks in Doha and the Chinese are starting parallel Afghan negotiations, the momentum for Afghan women has grown hugely. “We will push, not for a rushed deal but a just deal. A deal in which the Taliban and the government are involved, as well as the women and men of this country. Not just the experts and the professional diplomats, not just the warlords or the Kabul élites, but people representing the families, mothers, fathers, and children of all provinces”, Mahbouba says. “This is what AWN and other women’s organizations stand for. And we will get there, with the constitution as our tool of combat. We will continue to move forward. We will never go back to the darkness”, Mahbouba says, referring not only to the Taliban regime but also to the black years of Russia’s devastating and dividing rule of the 80s.
Marching forward in brutal weather
Loads of indicators show how Afghan women knocked down barriers and marched forward after the Taliban rule came to an end in 2001. Like the numbers of girls going to school and university, of women in parliament and other decision-making positions. “Compared to when I came back in 2003, it is just mind-blowing to see the number of women who have their own business, who have become lawyers, dentists, doctors, you name it. You can see it on the streets of Kabul. Women move more freely, without a male escort. They carry their bodies more proudly. In 2003 women still lived in the shadows. They had tiny, squeaky voices. Now they speak out and their words carry far.”
To put things in the right perspective: Afghan women march forward in brutal weather. They are claiming their rights and their rightful piece of the pie in a country that is a protracted battlefield. That ranks 4th on the International Violence Against Women chart. A country without a domestic violence law, a sexual harassment law or a marital rape law. Every victory, every broken shackle, every degree, every new inch of freedom, comes with grief and loss.
The backlash of progress
“Yes, progress comes with a backlash”, Mahbouba underscores. “Indeed, levels of violence against women have risen in the last couple of years. Poverty is the main driver of this. Empty-handed men, not able to provide for their family, resort to violence against their wives and children. This is how many of them deal with despair and frustration. And because women have organized their networks of care, assistance, and advocacy, cases of violence are now better reported. There are more ears to listen, more voices to speak out. The scope of physical, psychological, economic and social abuse of women is being laid bare. The realities women always had to deal with are now seeing the full light of day.”
The struggle for women is a battle for fair governance
The more women stand up and claim and take their proper place in society, the more men are somehow debilitated, not able to deal with these vocal women. “They start sulking and sabotaging, for the simple reason that they do not get all the attention, just like boys”, says Mahbouba. “This happens in families and in politics. Why do you think leaders who are controlling the so-called peace processes give women such a hard time to be part of the negotiations? They are afraid to lose the privileged positions they have had for ages. And to put the record straight: the women’s struggle is not a struggle for women. It is a battle for democracy, for fair and equitable governance. Governance that is responsive to the ideas, the ambitions and the rights of all women, men, girls, and boys in this country. As long as this non-violent battle for democracy isn’t won, Afghanistan will always be in the hands of plundering warlords and politicians from Afghanistan and beyond. In this volatile setting, women are the frontline defenders of democracy.”
Not unsurprisingly, Mahbouba’s activism is a demanding game of simultaneous chess. She and her many sister activists of AWN, run from one meeting to another. Empowering and consulting women in the remotest Afghan villages, saving women’s lives in safe houses, pleading with politicians in Kabul’s Palace, and getting the message across in the intricate maze of diplomatic and political circles in New York, Geneva and other cities.
Persona non grata
More than 40 years ago, when Mahbouba, from royal descent, and her then-husband, an influential and wealthy man, were imprisoned. “This was in 1978, just before the Russians imposed their rule, and shattered this country. The communist party arrested us and put us in jail.” The same year they were released and, as unwanted individuals, forced to leave the country. For 25 years Mahbouba lived abroad, mainly in the US, cut off from what was closest to her heart.
Two exceedingly cruel moments in recent Afghan history shook Mahbouba to the core and pushed her to go back home. “The public execution of a mother of seven in Kabul stadium in 1999. I saw the images and I cried. This woman, huddled under a burqa, shot in the back of her head. It was as if I could see her face, even if it was hidden and it is a face that has never left me. It was the same stadium where I had seen Duke Ellington perform in 1963; a place that stood for joy and happiness when I was young. In those years Afghanistan was the loveliest country, a kingdom well on its way to democracy. Then there was the destruction of the Buddha’s in Bamyan in 2001. I screamed when I saw that. Two years later I packed my belongings in Santa Fé, New Mexico, and went home.”
Going back home
Home meant Kabul. Soon after her arrival in the capital, she joins Equal Access and sets up listening circles for women, in different provinces. In Kabul, she starts working for the first safe house for women in Afghanistan, set up by AWN founder Mary Akrami. “Afghan women weren’t and still aren’t safe in their own homes. They are raped, beaten, harassed and humiliated by their husbands, fathers and other relatives. When they run away to escape the violence, they often end up in jail. Because running away is considered illegal. To create a way out we started taking care of abused women, providing shelter, a bed, food. One place is a transit safe house where women, and their kids if necessary, can stay for a couple of days. The other provides longer-term protection. We also provide legal advice, medical care, and psychological assistance. Even education for children.”
On any given day 35 to 64 women are residing in the Kabul safe house, of which Mahbouba is now the director. “And the best thing is that since 2003 20 other similar safe houses have been established across the country, creating a nationwide safety network for women”, she proudly says.
Finding common human ground, on the piles of injustice
Mahbouba’s stamina and fearlessness but also the joy she transmits when talking about her activism, are a source of hope for the future of Afghanistan. And for real talks to start and true peace processes to commence. “So far, we have been excluded from the big tables. But with support of organizations like Cordaid we have moved forward, organized ourselves and became a force to be reckoned with”, she concludes. “Now we are ready and equipped to negotiate. With the government, with the international community. And, in my personal opinion, also with the Taliban. I am ready to sit and talk with them, notwithstanding the horrors they committed. Most of them acted out of ignorance, misled by evil minds. Most of them know poverty and injustice. Just like us, women. There is a common human ground, even on the piles of injustice that cover the surface of Afghanistan. A common ground where we can talk. Where I can say, ‘Hi brother, let’s sit down, and look where we come from and where we can meet.’ There are many men in suits who pull the strings in Kabul, with whom this common ground cannot be found. Men who have more to lose.”