Natalie Amiri conducted this interview on November 27, 2021 in Kabul
Ms Seraj, you came back to Kabul in 2003 after 26 years in American exile. What were your expectations and hopes back then?
I came back to find a completely destroyed city. Everything lay in ruins - the Kabul of my youth no longer existed. I was not prepared for that. Even the people had changed. At the airport I met a soldier, a short, arrogant guy. We Afghans are typically hospitable, but many people seemed brutalised by years of civil war.
How did women fare during that time?
In the beginning, I hardly saw any women in public spaces; except for those who begged for alms and bread for their children on the streets and in front of the bakeries. A little later there were more, but almost all of them wore burqas.
I went up to these women and asked them: “Why are you wearing this horrible garment? You don’t have to anymore!” They answered me, “We wear this burqa to protect ourselves.”
“Everything lay in ruins - the Kabul of my youth no longer existed”
It took time for some of them to at least start wearing long coats and headscarves. It was altogether a very slow and gradual process that took hold of society. A new country emerged before my eyes!
Since the return of the Taliban in late summer 2021, I have been struggling to ensure that we women remain visible. I tell my daughters that they should definitely continue to go shopping, keep up their routines and be present on the streets.
You could leave Afghanistan at any time, why do you stay?
Afghanistan is my home. I want to be here and observe how the situation develops. You have to understand that Afghanistan is not a bad place without international occupation. I felt the presence of the foreign forces quite physically. It was like they were squatting on my chest and taking my breath away.
It sounds like you even see a chance for a new beginning in the new Taliban government.
Who knows? Afghanistan does not do very well as an occupied country. We Afghans have no talent for being under foreign control. We want to be self-determined and free.
But women are not free in Afghanistan at the moment!
No, the current situation is disastrous for women. There is no other way of seeing it. At the same time, I hope it will get better.
Do you believe the Taliban’s reassurances?
I have to believe the Taliban, even if they are only acting out of self-interest. Without us women, it will be impossible to govern this country. Neighbouring countries like Pakistan, China or Iran are already tugging at us. If we don’t stick together, our country will be torn apart.
You get very emotional when you talk about your country. At the same time, you analyse the situation thoughtfully and rationally. I don’t sense any panic, I don’t hear any appeals for help from you to the international community. That is interesting. Where does that come from?
When you are 73 years old, your perspective changes. Afghans have suffered unspeakable suffering in their history. But one thing is certain: the future of our country is unthinkable without us women, we will have to play a decisive role in its future.
“We want to dance, we feed on joy and happiness!”
Do you advise women to stay in the country despite the Taliban’s policies?
A while ago, I was connected to a programme on Pakistani television where many of my former female comrades-in-arms were present. I remembered the time when we used to meet all the time and work together for Afghanistan. At that moment, my emotions overwhelmed me. I burst into tears and said, “Please come back as soon as you can, my warrior women!“
The current exodus of talented and educated people reminds me of the year of the communist coup in 1978. I too left the country then. However, I would have been murdered for sure if I hadn’t. Things are different today. Today I have a choice.
Not all women have that choice.
It is true that some women are acutely endangered. And it is also true that the Taliban make our lives hell. But not only us women, also the men. They are banning us from music, which is such an important part of our lives!
We love music, we need it: in the shops, on the streets, at our wedding celebrations. We want to dance, we feed on joy and happiness. Now we have become a sad country. This is bad for morals, hearts, intellect and soul.
“You cannot make 19 million women disappear. What are you going to do, kill us all?”
At the same time, it is much safer on the streets today than it was a few months ago, especially for women. This is paradoxical. Do you seek to talk to the Taliban on this basis?
I often talk to Zabihullah Mujajid, the Taliban’s press officer. I asked him to organise a meeting between me, other activists and the Taliban leadership. We need to talk to each other, define common goals and think how we can rebuild this country, together.
I tell them: You cannot make 19 million women disappear. What are you going to do, kill us all? Cut off our heads? Put us in prison? That’s impossible. We have changed! A whole generation of young women were not even born during the first Taliban rule. They are not afraid.
But I also know that we don’t have much time left - the poverty, the lack of food, education or work, the paralysed economy, we are steering towards catastrophe.
I spoke to Zabihullah Mujajid. He seems to belong to the more moderate wing of the Taliban. But then there are also the ultras, the hardliners. Who will prevail in this internal power struggle?
If the extremists prevail, Afghanistan will once again sink into a disastrous civil war. Our neighbouring states would inevitably intervene, they have no interest in a “failed state“.
Except maybe Pakistan which would probably love it. They are just waiting to make Afghanistan their vassal state. Even if nothing else succeeds, I will prevent that, with all my might. I swear to God. I would be ready to give my life for that at any time.
Who is actually to blame for the current situation?
The last president, Ashraf Ghani.
All by himself?
Him and his willing idiots. He did everything to stay in power as long as possible. Nothing else. Instead of engaging in constructive talks with the Taliban, he just ran away. What a coward! But it was always clear to me that Ghani was no good. An educated person is never that arrogant. Knowledge and education do not make a person arrogant, but wise.
Are you disappointed with the international community?
Please let us not talk about the “international community“.
“The West will have to live with this shame forever”
Is there anything it has not done wrong?
I like that question better, and the answer is: no! After all, look where we have ended up. Of course, Trump already announced the withdrawal of US troops when he was president. But what was wrong with Biden? I voted for that guy! How badly can you manage such a crisis situation?
It was a nightmare what happened in Kabul and especially at the airport during those weeks. People were clinging to a plane taking off and nobody was getting them down. Why? Because these people were of no importance to the so-called international community.
Who cared about a few young Afghans clinging to a plane out of fear and desperation? The West will have to live with this shame forever.
Has the West ever cared about Afghan lives during the last twenty years?
No, it hasn’t. It was all about power, command and geopolitical interests. It has been inhumane and indifferent towards the people here.
What should the West do now?
It is too late for the West. Only we Afghans ourselves can save our country, as brothers and sisters.
For many women you are a symbol, an icon, a role model. Who do you admire?
I am not the type for idols. I admire people like Gandhi and I have many male and female authors that I enjoy reading.
But where do you get your strength from?
It’s probably in my DNA (laughs).
They say hope dies last. But what about those who have to go on living without it? Eight months after her interview with human rights activist Mahbouba Seraj, journalist Natalie Amiri draws a sobering conclusion:
I have done many interviews in my life. But when I met journalist and women’s rights activist Mahbouba Seraj at her home in Kabul on 27 November 2021, it felt different.
I was emotionally overwhelmed during our conversation. By the end, tears were running down not only my face, but also that of my Afghan colleague. A seasoned Pashtun who, since the return of the Taliban in August, had been asking himself whether he should leave in order to give his family a life of freedom or stay and fight for the future of Afghanistan on the ground.
Seraj is an icon. In 2021, Time Magazine named her one of the hundred most influential people. Hardly anyone has achieved so much for the rights of Afghan women and the perception of their interests in public.
Even before I left Germany at the end of November for my reporting and research trip, I had tried to contact her. But at that time she never answered the phone. Later I would find out why: her phone rang non-stop. Everyone wanted to talk to the prominent human rights activist who had not fled the country like thousands of others after the return of the Taliban.
She stayed, even though she has an American passport after twenty years in exile and could leave at any time. I wanted to know from her: Can women still make a difference in Afghanistan at all? Who, if not Seraj, would be able to answer this question?
“If the Taliban were smart, they would no longer exclude women - that’s what many people thought”
When I said goodbye after our interview on that November day, Seraj waved after me with a beaming smile, confident that everything would turn out well. And why shouldn’t she have been hopeful then?
If the Taliban were smart, they would no longer exclude women - that’s what many thought when I travelled through Afghanistan a hundred days after the Islamists took power.
A December 2021 United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) report projected that excluding women from the workforce would cost the Afghan economy up to $1 billion - annually.
In the final phase of the republic under President Ashraf Ghani, after all, 400,000 of the state employees were women, as were 89 of the 352 members of parliament; there were 13 female ministers and deputy ministers.
Most of them have since left. Fled. Women in Afghanistan have lost everything, almost overnight.
It has now been a year since the Taliban returned. In that time, they have systematically taken measures to push women out of all areas of society with political, economic or cultural influence.
The conservative Islamic grouping has issued numerous decrees restricting women’s rights in 32 areas of life, from the practice of certain professions to education and dress codes.
The latest decree, for now, requires women to wear the burqa. Arguably more consequential in it is this sentence: “Women shall not leave the house unless there is a valid reason.“
“Society was once cut in half - on the grounds that otherwise there might be “fisat”, bad behaviour”
Very few of these decrees have made international headlines. Only a few of them should be listed here: Taxi drivers are not allowed to take women without a “mahram” escort - that is, the husband, brother or father. Women are only allowed to enter parks on certain days, segregated from men.
Universities are strictly segregated by gender. Society was once cut in half - on the grounds that otherwise there might be “fisat”, bad behaviour. Taliban patrol shopping malls, streets and universities to make sure that everyone follows these orders.
What does Mahbouba Seraj have to say about this? I contact her after schools are not allowed to reopen on 22 March 2022 for girls from grade seven onwards, despite announcements to the contrary at the start of the new school year. She tells me, “Believe it or not, I still have hope.”
“I still expect only one thing from the West: honesty”
I contact her again on 1 June 2022, after the “burqa decree” was published, and ask: “If we attach conditions such as respect for human rights to financial aid to the regime, but the Taliban simply won’t comply, what can you do?” - “The demand I had from day one to the world community is still the same,” Seraj replies, “Tell us if there was a deal with the Taliban?”
Seraj is referring to the negotiations in Doha, where the Americans, in their eyes, unconditionally abandoned Afghanistan to the Taliban, despite women’s rights activists and journalists warning the US not to do so.
At the beginning of July, I ask Seraj, increasingly helplessly, if there is anything more we can do in the West? My question seems cynical. Seraj replies: “I still expect only one thing from the West: honesty. If you sold us out in Doha, then there is no hope. And if you didn’t, then you have to be firmer with the Taliban. You don’t have to be afraid. We in Afghanistan are paying the price anyway.”
Finally, on 17 July, I tell Seraj that the Green politician Sara Nanni quoted these sentences from her in her speech to the Bundestag on the establishment of the Parliamentary Committee of Inquiry on the Bundeswehr’s Afghanistan mission: “Tell us, why did the West have to run away? Despite everything, I am proud of Germany that you are at least coming to terms with the failure, but please investigate thoroughly.”
Mahbouba Seraj responds to me only briefly: “Thank you.” That no longer sounds nearly as hopeful as it did on 27 November 2021.