The vanishing women
“It’s so strange to walk around a place and just not see any women,” says Oliver Weiken of his time in Afghanistan, a country he has been documenting since before the Taliban reclaimed control in 2021. “You see the remnants of beauty ads where the faces of the models have been scratched out, you see mannequins in shops with bin liners over them. Any women you see on the street are veiled and usually accompanied by a man.” While in Afghanistan the German photographer decided to document the lives of Afghanistan’s increasingly invisible women. “I appreciate that I am a man telling these women’s stories,” he says. “But under the Taliban, a female photographer would not have been able to. That’s the sad reality of the situation there.”
According to a report by the International Labour Organization published in March 2023, female employment levels in Afghanistan fell by 25 percent in the 18 months after the Taliban reclaimed power (male employment fell in the same period by seven percent). These figures, the report stated, would be yet more dramatic if it weren’t for home-based self-employment. “Many women in Afghanistan have long been the sole breadwinners in the house, but fewer and fewer jobs are open to them,” says Weiken. “One of the only times you see women in the street is when they are begging and, in my experience, they aren’t shown too much sympathy. I was in Kunduz, northern Afghanistan, shortly after the Taliban took over and saw this woman pushing through a crowd asking for money and the crowd pushed her away [see photo above]”.
One of the rare areas of growing female employment is the police force. “It’s one of the very few female jobs which the Taliban can’t do away with,” says Weiken. “Because Islamic law demands so much segregation, you need female police officers. A policeman, for example, could not search a female suspect. But for many women in the police it is a Catch-22 situation. They are having to enforce the very same laws that work against them, but many do it because they need the money.”
Weiken shot in an army police barracks where women were training in both 2021 and 2022 and says he could “feel the tension” on both occasions. “You have women being taught by very hardline Taliban men,” he explains. “The classrooms are in a basement in the barracks, it is really dark and they are packed, with 20 to 30 women in each. The women often bring their children with them, but despite there being young boys and girls around, my overriding memory is of a heavy silence.”
Afghanistan is currently the only nation in the world where girls are prohibited from going to secondary school. Despite the Taliban claiming the restrictions introduced in 2021 were temporary, when the 2023 school year started in March, girls and women were still largely absent. The United Nations has described the changes to female education in the country as “erasing 20 years of progress”.
“The official line is that the exclusions are only while the curriculum is being ‘improved’,” says Weiken. “But I think it’s unlikely we’ll see female pupils [outside of primary schools] anytime soon.”
Weiken was in Afghanistan in September 2021 when the effective ban on female secondary school pupils was announced. “It was sad to see,” he says. “You had all these girls happy and excited to be at school and suddenly the gates were closed to them.” Weiken says that there are a few private schools that are open to women, but that they are often either poorly organised or so expensive that they are beyond the means of most Afghans.
One of the students Weiken met was 17-year-old Fatima Amiri. Amiri lost her left eye and hearing in one ear when a suicide bomber, protesting against women being educated, detonated a device at Kaaj Educational Center, a private school in Kabul, in September 2022. Amiri was among 400 students sitting a mock university entrance exam when the bomb went off and 54 of her fellow students were killed. “She is a remarkable person,” says Weiken. “I couldn’t detect any bitterness or anger in her. Two weeks after the attack she took the university entrance exam”. Amiri passed the exam, scoring 313 points out of a possible 360, but in December 2022, weeks before Amiri was to take up her place studying computer science at Kabul University, the Taliban announced that women would be banned from tertiary education as well. “It is so sad,” says Weiken. “[But] the ban on education is not a nationwide decree, it is done by region. There are differences in attitudes in different parts of the country, so there is hope some universities may yet open to women.”
While the Taliban retains a tight control over Afghans, Weiken did meet some courageous women finding a way to take a stand. One was Laila Haidari, founder of the Mother Educational Centre (MEC), a self-funded private school. “She is a really colourful character,” says Weiken. “She runs a multitude of things. She has a classroom, exclusively for girls, where they learn [academic subjects like] English and maths. On top of that they are taught sewing, dressmaking and how to make jewellery. Everything they make in class is sold, with the money going to the students or covering their fees.”
Haidari, who in pre-Taliban times ran one of Kabul’s most popular restaurants, is a fashion designer herself, using her creations to protest the regime’s approach to women. “Her dresses look innocuous at first, but if you look closer, they all make a point about Afghan society,” says Weiken. “She has one dress that is covered in eyes. She told me it was because women could not wear what they want to wear or be who they want to be because they had all these eyes on them. She makes jewellery out of spent bullets which is sold internationally to help fund the school.”
Weiken has also visited Kabul’s Woman’s Library, established in August 2022 by a group of female entrepreneurs led by Zholia Parsi. “It wasn’t some clandestine secret spot, it was in a mall in Kabul,” says the photographer. “The concept was to fight the Taliban with literacy, giving women access to books and to have a safe space where they could come and meet.” Unfortunately, while the MEC continues its work, Parsi’s ‘safe space’ has been subject to frequent raids by the authorities during which the librarians would lock the doors and take the 5,000-plus books home for safekeeping. In March 2023, Parsi said that the library had been forced to close after “severe security threats” from the Taliban.
Weiken’s overriding feeling of the time he has spent in Afghanistan is one of claustrophobia. “There are guns everywhere and it feels quite suffocating,” he says. “Every Talib is armed and I am not used to seeing men, in some cases quite young men, on every corner with a gun. Before 2021 a lot of the Taliban hadn’t been into the big cities, which were run by the government. So they were streaming into [Kabul] and they didn’t seem to know what to make of it.” One of Weiken’s most memorable experiences took place in 2021, shortly after the Taliban takeover. “We went to take photos in a police station and while we were waiting to go in this guy started pointing his gun at me. I presumed it wasn’t loaded – what sort of guy points a loaded gun at somebody? – but shortly after we went in, we heard the gun go off. They weren’t well trained in gun etiquette.”
The year after the Taliban took control of Afghanistan, prompting international organisations to suspend most non-humanitarian funding and freeze billions of dollars in assets, the country’s economy went into freefall. By the end of 2022 the UN estimated that 97 percent of the population was at risk of poverty and that almost 95 percent of Afghans weren’t getting enough to eat.
Weiken believes that the severity of the situation is leading to a softening of the stance on female education among Taliban soldiers. “It’s not like every member of the Taliban hates women being educated,” he says. “Travelling around the country I met many Talibs who were against the ban. They had sisters and they’d tell me, ‘Of course we want them to be educated. We need the money’.”
But while there may be some dissent on the ground, Weiken has little optimism that it will lead to change. “The worse things get financially in Afghanistan the more conservative the Taliban seems to become,” he says. “For women it is getting progressively worse – they are getting kicked out of the workforce and excluded from education. At the moment it is difficult to see a good future ahead for them or Afghanistan. The only way for a country to be healthy and to progress is through literacy. If you exclude 50 percent of your population from learning, where is that going to lead you?”
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