Karima Mayar Amiri, 54, heads a department in the Taliban-run Health Ministry. She is among the few women able to retain a leadership position in the new government’s bureaucracy and believes Afghans must be served no matter who is at the helm.
Many years her junior, Rishmin Juyunda, 26, could not disagree more. Afghan women will never be served with the Taliban in power, she says. The rights activist is part of an underground network determined to fight harsh Taliban policies that restrict women’s freedom.
They represent a broad spectrum of women who have remained in Taliban-controlled Afghanistan after many fled, fearing a return to the brutal repression that marked the group’s previous rule in the late 1990s. The international community has linked recognition of a Taliban government to factors such as guarantees for women’s rights.
It is not clear what rights women will be able to retain. Under the Taliban, women in most government ministries are now unable to work, teen-age girls are prohibited from going to school, the interim cabinet is comprised entirely of men. This deepens mistrust toward the Taliban.
But there are exceptions.
Amiri, a mother of six, retained her senior position as the director of the ministry’s Quality and Safety Department after the collapse of the previous US-backed government. Her case is rare; most senior female bureaucrats have been barred from work across government portfolios except for health.
She is at the office by 9am to manage a team of five. Nearly every day she meets with her Taliban-appointed superiors to review action plans to combat the spread of diseases from the coronavirus to dengue fever.
“It was not a difficult decision for me to stay. I have my own department. If they request a plan, I will provide it. The Taliban leadership wants me to work for them, and I am ready,” she said. “As long as I am healthy, I will work for them, for my people, my country.”
Juyunda is entering her last semester majoring in economics at Zahra University in Tehran. She chose to stay in the capital of Kabul and study remotely after the Taliban’s August takeover. Textbooks crowd her worktable, but her focus is interrupted by a buzzing phone. In a string of WhatsApp messages, rights activists proposed slogans for the next demonstration.
Like many young women who grew up after the US invasion in 2001, Juyunda’s dreams were dashed overnight after the Taliban seized Kabul and consolidated control of the country. Many of her friends have left, unwilling to wait and see how the dust will settle following the dramatic US exit.
She stayed. “I will never leave Afghanistan. I have to stay and make a change,” she said, her lively hazel eyes framed by a scarlet headscarf.
The decision to remain came amid large-scale evacuations.
Between the Aug. 15 fall of Kabul and the final US exit two weeks later, thousands of Afghans, including many women, rushed to the city’s airport in a desperate attempt to get out.
Amiri chose a different path.
Three days after the Taliban overran the capital, she was back in the office to help meet the growing need in the crumbling health sector. International aid that once funded hospitals and health worker wages had stopped abruptly. Hospitals across the country were being hit hard by an economic crisis brought on by international sanctions against the Taliban.
She requested that her Taliban superiors merge her department with another to improve quality control. They approved it.
When a Taliban guard attempted to inspect her bag at the ministry gate one morning, she refused and asked that a separate room be erected for female checks. They complied.
A graduate of Kabul Medical University 31 years ago, she has worked for the Health Ministry since 2004. Five health ministers have come and gone during her tenure. “Why should the Taliban be any different?” she asked.
The only change they introduced was for women to don Islamic dress. Amiri, a devout Muslim, was already in the habit of wearing a headscarf.
“Health is not political,” Amiri insists. The guidelines her office formulates are sent to thousands of public hospitals, clinics and facilities across the country. “Life goes on,” she says.
But for Juyunda, life will never be the same.
It took her weeks to recover from the shock of the takeover. Her family of 11 had greatly benefited after the US invasion. She and her four sisters were able to attend school in Ghor province. Her parents held well-paid government jobs. She was on her way to becoming an economist brimming with ideas to improve her country.
From social media she came to know of a women’s protest organized outside the Pakistan Embassy in Kabul in September. Shortly after she arrived, a Taliban unit showed up and the group had to disperse. She stood there holding a sign “Education is a right” and repeated to herself, “I am strong, they are weak.”
She witnessed protesters being beaten with rifles and cables. This is war, she thought.
Numbers were exchanged, and soon a network of dozens of like-minded activists was formed.
The Taliban have said they have no issue with the right to protest, but that the activists must seek their permission to demonstrate. Subsequent sit-ins have not been able to draw large numbers. But Juyunda said to seek permission from the Taliban would be an implicit acceptance of their rule.
“We will never do that,” she said.
The lives of both women were shaped by Afghanistan’s turbulent history.
Amiri was a gynecologist in the conservative Wardak province, a Taliban stronghold as far back as the 1990s when the group was first in power.
To survive, she said, she made her world a little smaller.
“During that time, I went to the hospital, I treated patients, delivered babies and did surgeries, and then I went straight home. That was my life,” she said.
In 2021, she reverted to the same tactic. After 3:30 p.m., she leaves the office and goes straight to her Kabul home to spend the evening with her children and grandchildren.
Juyunda’s childhood was marked by the violence of the Taliban insurgency in the years after the US invasion. She saw entire buildings go up in flames after rocket strikes and bombings.
At night she would sleep with a glass full of water. “I thought, if a bomb ever hit our home, I could use it to put out the flames,” she recalled, smiling at the thought of her childhood naivete.
The bombs have stopped, but Juyunda’s war for the rights of women continues.
Amiri, meanwhile, is hopeful. “Let’s see what happens,” she said.