As a Hazara woman in Afghanistan, the challenges facing Shabana are two-fold.
"I kept telling them: who would address women’s issues if there are no women employees in the department?”
Since the return of the Taliban, women in Afghanistan have been restricted from working. This has caused devastation for many women - who make up 20% of the country’s workforce - and has been estimated to cost Afghanistan's economy up to $1 billion. The restriction is one of several directed towards women since last August.
Many women have been forced to pause careers they worked years to establish. This is the case for Shabana - not her real name - a Sociology graduate who had worked in the education sector for nearly eight years. Shabana told Afghan Witness (AW) that she had previously gone through a challenging recruitment process to be appointed to a prominent position in the education sector in her province.
Yet when the Taliban seized Kabul last August, Shabana and all of her female colleagues were ordered to leave the office and stay home until further notice. Shabana had never experienced the Taliban’s rule before. She had migrated to Iran and lived there for seven years; she was not afraid to face the Taliban and attempt to reason with them, she explains:
“They told us to stay home, but we did not accept that. We talked to the authorities and went to the Taliban’s governor.”
But after their appeal, Shabana and her female colleagues were simply told to go home - when there was a directive from the Taliban leadership allowing women to return to work, they would be notified, the governor told them.
However, this didn’t stop Shabana from arguing her point:
“I told the governor that women formed 44 per cent of the education system [in her province]. How would it be possible to have no women in the Education Department? I kept telling them: who would address women’s issues if there are no women employees in the department?”
Discrimination against Hazaras
Shabana feels she faces not only discrimination as a woman in Afghanistan, but as a Hazara. Hazaras - who are mainly Shia in Sunni-majority Afghanistan - account for around 10-20 percent of the population.
Hazaras have a long history of persecution, and discrimination against them occured well before the Taliban takeover on 15 August 2021. However, since the Taliban’s return, violence has escalated; in recent weeks alone, several explosions have targeted a school and mosque in Hazara Shia neighborhoods.
Human rights groups claim that Hazaras have lost ‘virtually all influential posts’. Shabana mentions reports that the Taliban’s appointed Head of Education for Bamyan province had fired several Hazara employees from the department and replaced them with his affiliates from other ethnic groups.
According to news reports, Islamuddin Osmani, who was appointed Head of the Education Department for Bamyan province in January, reportedly dismissed several high-ranking Hazara employees for no apparent reason and has replaced them with people close to him who are described as being under-qualified.
“He first started with firing women; he fired the head of teaching, then the planning manager and then ousted at least six Hazara men in the department and replaced them with his entourage,” Shabana tells AW.
AW speaks to Shabana as the end of Ramadan is approaching. While food prices usually rise during Ramadan, this Ramadan and Eid al-Fitr has been particularly difficult for muslims in Afghanistan, with prices of some food items doubled, and families and children surviving on bread and water. Experts estimate that millions in the country are living in acute poverty as international aid has been frozen.
“In the whole month of Ramadan, I could not provide my children with a kilo of meat. They crave meat, but I could not do anything,” Shabana says helplessly. “I went to sell some of my household stuff, but no one bought them.”
Shabana is the sole breadwinner of a family of nine, and since the Taliban's resurgence, she says she has been paid just half of her salary. As well as restricting women from working, the Taliban have said women should be accompanied by a close male family member when traveling over 45 miles (72km)
“It has been eight months now that I have been at home,” she says. “I barely go out, and whenever I do, one of my sons accompanies me.”
The rising cost of living also means Shabana’s sons are no longer at school. “My twin boys went to a private school previously, but I can no longer afford a private school and public schools are far from where we live - both my sons have dropped out of school,” she tells AW.
But there is one thing that concerns Shabana more than anything else: the recent spate of attacks during Ramadan, several of which have targeted the Hazara Shia community. The high-risk security situation at present means even a trip to buy groceries could prove fatal.
“More than anything, as Hazaras and Shias, we fear for our lives,” Shabana says. “People are scared in markets, mosques and schools of a possible terrorist attack.”
Interview by Afghan Witness