Journey to Empowerment: Women After the Taliban

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Journey to Empowerment Women After the Taliban

Created by Zareen Taj In Collaboration With Jay Simpson

Zareen Taj

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Zareen Taj is a women’s rights activist from Afghanistan. As a child she witnessed the Russian invasion of her country and the brutal oppression of her people. She lived in a refugee camp in Pakistan and at the age of 14 she became an activist. Having moved to the United States in 2000, Zareen earned her bachelor’s and master’s degrees in political science and women’s studies thanks to scholarships from the Feminist Majority Foundation and Towson University. She now pursues activism through speaking, writing, documentary filmmaking, and exhibition work. In 2004, Zareen travelled back to Afghanistan for the first time after two decades of absence. She recorded over 700 images, 36 hours of video, and many hours of audio interviews. These materials have been used to produce her written Master’s thesis, “Hazara Women Identities and Oppression”, a short documentary “Oppression of Hazara in Afghanistan”, and this photography exhibition and book.

For more information please visit www.zareentaj.com

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Journey to Empowerment: Women After the Taliban


Journey to Empowerment Women After the Taliban Created by Zareen Taj In Collaboration With Jay Simpson

Zareen Taj

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Copyright © 2011 Zareen Taj. All Rights Reserved. No parts of this book may be reproduced or utilized in any form or by any means, mechanical or electronic, including, but not limited to photocopying, scanning and recording by any information and retrieval system, without permission in writing from Zareen Taj. First Edition, printed 2011. Editing & Design by Jay Simpson. Based on the photography exhibition “Journey to Empowerment: Women After the Taliban” created by Zareen Taj in collaboration with Jay Simpson. Photographs scanned by Full Circle Photography, Baltimore, MD. To arrange a public or private event with Zareen Taj and/or host the “Journey to Empowerment: Women After the Taliban” Photography Exhibition, please contact Zareen Taj directly at Zareen Taj (410) 343-9537 zareen2005@gmail.com For additional book purchases or bulk order requests, please visit www.zareentaj.com

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Journey to Empowerment: Women After the Taliban


My heartfelt thanks goes to David Tosi for sponsoring my trip to Afghanistan and being a strong patron of this book and photo exhibition. He has given me much encouragement and constant support during the process of all this work. I would like to thank Jay Simpson for working so hard to edit my documentary and finish this book and photo exhibition. Without his artistic vision, creativity, advice, and critiques, I would not be able to complete these projects. I would like to give special thanks to Full Circle Photography for their generosity and support of this project. Additional thanks to my best friend Nasiba Amiri Hazem, former Head of Training and Gender Advocacy in the Ministry of Women’s Affairs in Afghanistan, for personally escorting me to every place we visited in Afghanistan. I would also like to give special thanks to Colonel Mohammed Jawad Amiri, for acting as my security advisor throughout my trip as we navigated dangerous areas in Afghanistan. I would like to thank all my cameramen and photographers in Afghanistan and Pakistan. I want to give special thanks to my husband Ali for unlimited patience, enduring the never ending daily pressures that my work created for him, and for his continuous support of my work. I would like to dedicate this book to my children, Saba and Sara, and my mother.

Zareen Taj

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Journey to Empowerment: Women After the Taliban


Upon entering Afghanistan I felt disappointed and hopeless for the lives of the people. I saw people living in burned-out houses and in caves, so silent and full of grief. I heard the stories of starvation, murder, and abuse and I had no control of myself; I was in shock and powerless. Their lives remained trapped in a world of oppression I experienced twenty-five years ago, where time collapsed and childhoods were lost. However, thirty years of war, victimization, destruction, and hardship have changed the role of Afghan women. Through their struggle and determination, they are no longer purely victims. They are bread-winners for their families, they are survivors who never want to go back to the life they had; they are awake. Right now women are decision-makers, politicians, activists, and community leaders who struggle to better the lives of their families, communities, and nation. This journey gave me a new perspective on Afghan women, inspiring me to feel strong, motivated, and hopeful. Their stories reflected my story and my story bore theirs. Their resilience taught me that empowered women have the potential to change Afghan society. This moment is critical for Afghan women. The intensity of their struggle has motivated them to take charge of their lives, and that moment must not be lost. The international community needs to realize that their challenges continue and that Afghan women deserve to be championed throughout their journey.

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My reflection from meeting Nargis, pictured on previous page: “I entered her house and she greeted me with tea. Her face was a reflection of great pain and suffering. I thought she had so much to share with me, but she displayed no emotions and said nothing. In her eyes I saw she was lost and trapped in a world of fear, decades of war, trauma, and the loss of family members. It was the sole burden of responsibility and the lack of financial and physical security that made her and many other women numb and speechless.� I recognized the look in her eyes from my own family, from when my aunt lost two of her sons and had to help feed their surviving wives and children. That was during the many decades of war with the Soviets and local disputes- when we lost many male members of my family and moved to Pakistan as refugees. Like many others, the women and widows in my family started to work making textiles and clothing while my generation attended school for the first time. Growing up in underground schools and refugee schools, we created the earliest generation of educated Afghan girls- now playing a critical role in the development in Afghanistan. 10

Journey to Empowerment: Women After the Taliban


A woman rushes by in the Blue Mosque of Mazar-e-Sharif. Throughout my journey, Burqas were the sign of oppression but also a shield for traveling and working anonymously.

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I returned to Afghanistan viewing Afghan women as victims and helpless. This perception was easily reinforced as I talked with those women whose lives were shattered. Sughra, pictured on the previous pages, was a widow I talked to in a hospital in Bamian. The stress of not being able to feed her family and her feelings of hopelessness cause her to be hospitalized. During my visit to her in the hospital, she was completely detached from reality but continued to worry about her children. Her worry over their livelihood imprisoned her in a world of fear and anxiety. Violence, war and poverty also placed women in powerless situations. Time collapsed for them as they only had energy to struggle in the present. Zahra, pictured to the right, worked at a home I visited. The trauma from her past was too great to remember or discuss with me, but from reading her face, I knew that she had many stories of loss and pain inside. I noticed that the combination of trauma and continued pain and suffering severely damaged the bodies and souls of the women I spoke to. Farzana, pictured on next pages, only had this to share with me: “I cannot talk about my past. It makes me sick and causes my body to shake. Whatever happened, this is my life now. No home, no family and no life.�

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Zahra started working after the death of her husband to support her seven children. The stress and burdens of life after the war make her look older than her thirty-five years.

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The seventy-year-old woman in Bamian said: “Taliban entered my house and started shooting the men. First they killed my three sons and then my husband. I begged them not to kill the old man and held my grandson. They shot him and the baby and hit me in the head with their guns and I fell down. I thought that children are innocent and would escape the ethnic hatred of the Taliban toward Hazaras. Once they killed all our men they left the house. My eleven-day-old grandson was dead under their feet when they were shooting the men in the house. They buried them all in the yard of their house, because they had nobody to help them to take the dead bodies to the graveyard. We women were scared to go outside in case the Taliban would do some more horrible things to us.” She told me all of her story but never cried. She said, “I have to be very strong for these orphans and widows we have.”

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Before my trip, I witnessed the burden placed on women once they lost their husbands, brothers, and sons and recognized it as primarily a financial pressure. It was easy to see that the loss of the bread-winner required that the woman take complete responsibility for her family, but as I listened to many mothers recount their stories and share their current situation with me, I realized that the impact of losing of a male supporter was much more. Women take on the ownership of their homes, becoming not only property owners but decision makers for matters concerning their families. Decisions about schooling, employment, and daily travel are now able to be made without consulting a husband, brother, cousin, or adult son. By becoming the decision makers women are stepping through previous gender barriers to control their families’ well-being, but take on stigma which adds an additional threat of violence.

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Kubra, pictured with three of her five children, lost her husband in a terrorist attack as her family lived as refugees in Pakistan.

“During the day I live in fear because my children are in school and I hope something doesn’t happen to them. During the night I am worried because there is no male in the house. I do not have one minute in my life to live without worry and without thinking of horror. I do not know where we can go and where we will be safe.� Without extended family nearby she has many fears about raising two teenage-girls without any male protectors. As we talked she did not even seem to have time to reflect on her personal coping with the death of her husband.

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There is now an entire generation of young adults and children without older siblings, parents, or other family members. This void of support leaves children emotionally fragile and requires they become responsible for adult tasks. Wada and Lida, sisters pictured together previously, moved into a cave in Bamian after the Taliban burned their home. Wada takes care of her younger siblings when her mother is absent and has aged beyond childhood. Daily tasks of collecting water and firewood, cooking, and cleaning keep her away from school and time to play as a child. While he was working on the side of the road, I talked to Kabeer, pictured previous, about collecting dung used for starting fires at his cousin’s household. As an orphan he did not have any hope or dreams for his future as he had no opportunities. After the Taliban murdered much of their family, Husna, pictured right, is depended on to support her mother’s needs and new burdens. She is less likely to be able to move freely, attend school, or even marry. She is left unprotected and is more vulnerable to harm her as father’s honor is no longer there to define her value. Her brother Assad, also pictured right, will be expected to provide financial and physical security to the family, but is not given any emotional support. Memories and images of his father may turn into unattainable expectations and constant reminders of pain.

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Cousins Assad, 7 years old, and Husna, 8 years old, lost their fathers to a Taliban attack in Bamian. Within three days their entire family lost twenty-seven members.

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Children visiting the grave of their father who died in a massacre in Bamian, Afghanistan. Their grandmother said: “Whenever they are hungry, they go to the graveyard to tell their fathers that they are hungry.�

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Shakeeba, pictured left, was supported by her teenage son Hassan (pictured on following page) who was later paralyzed in a terrorist attack. I asked her about her feelings when she heard that her son was injured. “The moment I heard that, I felt I lost ‘my everything,’ and how will I live without him? He is my security and bread earner and what will my life be like now?”

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Hassan was injured by a grenade during a terrorist attack on a religious procession. “Once I was injured I did not think of myself at that time, rather I thought ‘What if I die? What will happen to my mother and little sister? How will they continue to live without me?’”

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Bonds created by shared tragedies, pain and suffering of many families bring women closer together as they work and struggle to rebuild their lives, the lives of their children and other families in the community. Fatima, pictured left, is a community leader in Bamian. After the Taliban murdered of all of the male members of her family, she started to produce honey and sell it in the market with the help of an international aid organization. Even without having any schooling, her success as a business owner motivated the community to nominate her to speak on their behalf to advocate for a community health center, housing aid, and educational resources. As I spoke with her, she kept a very practical perspective on the life around her. “Harshness of life cannot defeat me. I am committed to work for my community.� These women survivors have become new role models for their children, family members, other women, and community members.

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Students sitting under a tent in Bamian reminded me of my time in school at a refugee camp, but now with less fear of the Taliban’s restrictions of education of girls. 38

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A micro-business and literacy course acts not only as a place for education, but a comfortable place for support and collective awareness of issues affecting women.

A micro-business and literacy course acts not only as a place for education, but a comfortable place for support and collective awareness of issues affecting women.

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Dr. Habiba Sorabi, the Governor of Bamian and former Minister of Culture and Education as well as Minister of Woman’s Affairs. As the first female Governor in Afghanistan, she works on projects to encourage tourism in her province for much needed job creation.

“Afghan women of all walks of life should believe in their talent and potential... We do not need to be pitied for our lives, we need more opportunities in different spheres of life.” Dr. Habiba Sorabi started her activism by teaching at underground schools for girls in refugee camps in Pakistan and Afghanistan. She ran for office to prove to Afghan society that women are able to work at any level of government and are capable of many jobs.

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Afghan women are on a journey to empowerment. They are learning the strength of self-esteem and confidence to know they are capable of fights against the subordination of women in Afghan society. Growth and sustainability are only possible through a strong commitment of both Afghan women and the international community to promote women’s education, economic development, and political participation. It is education that changes the attitudes and value of women in a society. Women who work are empowered to be independent decision makers. Through political participation, women can create change to end discrimination and rebuild communities. Afghan women are at a critical stage of their journey. These gains are fragile and could be easily erased; this moment should not be lost. This requires strong action by all governments, institutions, and international organizations around the world. It calls for a commitment of resources and a realization that Afghan women require support. Women in all walks of life are awakened and are continuing to fight for change. I met four women working in a field (pictured on the next page) all living independently of men. Thirty years ago, this would be culturally unacceptable and economically impossible. Today they support each other –­ “Struggle is the only thing we know in our life. We work hard to overcome the oppression. Now we know we are able.” Afghan women are no longer just victims, but their struggles are not over. All that is certain is that they are survivors.

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Thank you for your support. “Journey to Empowerment: Women After the Taliban� was not created to raise awareness alone, but to fund for future research and travel for Zareen Taj in her pursuit of championing Afghan women and their stories. For more information, resources, news, and ways to contribute visit www.zareentaj.com

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The world was introduced to the Taliban on March 11, 2001 when it was globally reported that the Taliban had destroyed giant Buddha statues built into the sides of the cliffs of Bamian, Afghanistan. On September 11, 2001 the world saw another side of the Taliban’s ideology. In 2004, Zareen Taj felt urgency for making a trip to her country to explore the lives of survivors of Taliban massacres. The Taliban murdered men and burned homes and bazaars in an attempt to wipe out the population and economic means of the Hazara, an ethnic minority. The photographs in this exhibition are selected from the surviving women Zareen interviewed and present a unique window into the stories of many Afghan women.

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Journey to Empowerment: Women After the Taliban


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