Contacting the women in Kabul
The voice message on my screen is gone. A minute ago, it was still there. But before I was able to actually listen to it, it was deleted.
The second message is still there. However, the third and fourth messages are deleted too.
Why? I can only guess.
The messages are from Larmina. She’s a female student from Kabul University. I do not know what she is studying. She won’t tell me. Not even how old she is. She’s too afraid: what if someone recognizes her from this story? The fact that it’ll be published halfway across the world from where she is now, doesn’t change her mind.
Larmina is one of almost nine thousand female students at Kabul University. Young women that were raised with near-western democratic freedoms now have to face being governed by a fanatic militia: the Taliban that recently took over the country.
The day the Taliban entered Kabul was one of the worst days I have ever had
They fear for their future and their lives, because the Taliban brutally oppressed women the last time they were in power, forbidding them to leave their house without a male “guardian” and denying them jobs and an education. Those who disobeyed faced draconian punishments and extreme violence, such as having had their fingers cut off for wearing nail varnish.
‘The day the Taliban entered Kabul was one of the worst days I have ever had’, Larmina explains in a voice message that isn’t deleted. ‘Although I knew that maybe Kabul city would fall, I couldn’t believe it, everything happened so fast. It was like a bad dream.’
I ‘met’ Larmina only a few hours ago. And the only reason I reached out to her was because of an assignment for the master of journalism I started no more than three weeks ago: write an article of five hundred words about something that is not in the Netherlands. I was mindlessly looking at Kabul using Google Earth, when I suddenly saw the phone number of the student association of Kabul University. I quickly texted them: ‘Can I ask you some questions?’
A member of the university’s student union, Fazel, explains the situation students are facing at the moment. ‘We feel bad’, he says. ‘All of the students are just in their homes. The students are so desperate and depressed. They are sad, sorrowful, and they have no perspective for their future’, he says.
The Taliban closed the universities, without a date of reopening. Many of the progressive-thinking lecturers have fled the country and the new Taliban-appointed university chancellor has no qualifications besides having a reputation of calling for the killing of journalists.
‘But most of the weight of this situation is on the shoulders of female students’, Fazel says. They have to worry if they will be able to continue their education at all under the notoriously misogynistic Taliban: ‘They are so solitary, secluded. They feel way more bitter and desperate than the male students.’
I was in shock, my body started shaking, like it was the worst thing I ever heard
He forwarded Larmina’s contact so she could explain her situation to me as a female student. And now she is sending me these voice messages – calling is impossible due to the bad connection – as long as I promise to keep her absolutely anonymous.
She says that on the day the Taliban came there was panic in the streets. ‘When I heard it I was in shock, my body started shaking, like it was the worst thing I ever heard.’ She told me how she tried to get home, but found it immensely difficult: ‘I couldn’t breathe properly, I even was not able to walk and move, all while my phone was constantly ringing in my hand.’
Eventually she got home, but she was just on her phone, reading the news, forgetting to eat and unable to sleep until 2 AM. She says that she now has no future anymore.
‘Imagine how it is for me as a woman’, she says. ‘You studied for twelve years of school and four years of University and then one day, everything changes and someone who has not even finished school or university, comes and says you are no longer allowed to go to university. It is overwhelming, sickening, disappointing and distressing.’
Her story really gets to me. I can’t see her face, or talk to her in real time, but I feel a connection when hearing her friendly voice, her slight accent. She could have been my friend, my colleague, all our superficial dissimilarities are invisible to me. And now talking to her feels to me like I just have to stand still while something terrible happens. All I can do is listen and tell her story.
Larmina is not the only one. I also established contact with Berezina. Talking to her is even harder, because she doesn’t speak English. She messages me through Facebook and I decipher her responses in Farsi with Google Translate. ‘I had only one and a half months left before I would graduate’, she says. Now she has ‘no hope’ to continue. And yes, ‘it hurts. For all women.’
Why are you asking questions? Why are you so curious?
But then she started to question me, clearly becoming scared. ‘Why are you asking questions? Why are you so curious?’
Then she stops replying all together.
And then there is Aadila, another student from Kabul University. She too was almost done with her studies. ‘I want to be optimistic and feel positive, but all these things make us very pessimistic.’
She already lost her job – she was working for the previous government – and keeps asking herself how all of this could happen. ‘I don’t know if university students will be able to continue their education and their lives.’
She worries for the women especially, just as Larmina does. ‘We are really concerned, that if schools and work are banned for women by the Taliban, then maybe the next announcement will be that university will also only be for males.’
And even if they would be allowed to finish, they would not be allowed to work or pursue the future they saw for themselves. ‘How can I build a career and a future for myself?’ she says. ‘When I come to my job, the Taliban look at you like you are doing something wrong. So maybe tomorrow or the day after tomorrow my manager will say that I can not come to my job anymore.’
She wants to flee as soon as she can. ‘Women are treated like they are no longer part of this country, of this society. The Taliban treat you with anger, like you are not a citizen of this city, of this country, it is totally strange for me. I just can’t bear it anymore.’
And that’s it. It’s the last message she sent.
So now what? How do I say goodbye? Can I wish someone in her situation: ‘Good Luck, I hope you can continue your life.’ Would that sound cynical even though I deeply mean it?
I decide on ‘Thank you for sharing this with me’.
‘Welcome’, she replies.
And I start typing my story about them.
For their safety, we gave Larmina, Berezina and Aedila fake names in this article.