KABUL — In the months leading up to the 1929 overthrow of King Amanullah, the dynamic Afghan reformer whose wife Queen Soraya notoriously tore off her headscarf in public, historians say, the girls and women of Kabul detected change in the air. They shied away from the handful of schools he had painstakingly opened for them and reluctantly took back the veil, ambitiously declared optional by the king only one year before.
Now, as the protracted NATO-led war rumbles toward its official close, Afghan women are once again pondering their fate. Fearing that the power vacuum created by the withdrawal of foreign troops in 2014 might be at least partially filled by the Taliban, Afghan women are following their ancestors and retreating. They are leaving work, government and, in some instances, abandoning the public sphere.
“Everyone in the country knew my voice, and it got to a point where I wasn’t prepared to risk my life anymore,” says Aminah Bobak, who in April abruptly ended her successful career as a journalist after a decade of radio and TV work around the country.
She is one of around 200 female reporters from Afghan news outlets who voluntarily left their jobs in 2012, said Abdul Mujeeb Khalvatgar, executive director of the Afghan media advocacy group Nai — a drop of 10 percent and by far the largest single-year dip since the U.S.-backed invasion of Afghanistan in late 2001.
Perched in a dimly lit corner of a slanted, mud-brick cafe in central Kabul, 28-year-old Bobak poured out her passion for journalism. She started as a biology student at university, working in her free time for a radio station. She later moved to Rasaa TV, an Afghan news channel set up by global media development organization Internews, eventually becoming its deputy editor. Bobak remembers her time fondly, causing her soft brown eyes to crinkle. “I loved it,” she says.
Currently, just short of a fifth of Afghanistan’s 11,000 journalists are women. For the first time since the 1970s, Afghan women have become noticeable to their compatriots — often as an authoritative female voice parachuted into the wilds by airwaves.
“But joining the channel was a good chance for my enemies to recognize me, and I got scared. I mean the Taliban, of course,” Bobak says. The Taliban have often regarded Afghan reporters as their enemies, and this view intensifies when they are women. Nai’s Khalvatgar points to “the thinking that the Taliban are coming back. Men will need to keep women in their homes to avoid insult, and the women themselves are also making these decisions.” By the ultra-conservative code that most Afghans still live by, women must seek permission from a male relative or husband for most decisions.
Women have won back hard-fought rights such as voting, education and work since the Taliban were toppled in 2001, and the last decade produced a league of knowledgeable, determined young women for whom the Taliban’s return is anathema. But these women’s worrying retreat from the public sphere hints at failure by both the local government and its international backers.
So fragile are the gains that Western diplomats in Kabul privately expressed concern at Hillary Clinton’s February departure as secretary of state, wondering how the tenuous progress could be maintained without her commitment, let alone furthered. “Many of us had this feeling of ‘how are we going to keep this up?’” one told me.