Why This Female Civil Society Leader in Afghanistan is Urging Greater Engagement With the Taliban

In this episode, we are joined by Zuhra Bahman, the Afghanistan country director for the peacebuilding NGO Search for Common Ground.

A year ago, when the Taliban captured Kabul and became the de-facto authorities, Zuhra Bahman happened to be out of the country on a previously scheduled business trip. Yet when she and I spoke for the podcast last September she told me that she was determined to return home and get back to work. And when she and I last spoke for the podcast, back in March, she had finally made it back to Kabul.

In our conversation, Zuhra Bahman reflects on her life and work in Afghanistan as a female civil society leader one year on from the Taliban’s takeover of the country. Contrary to what people might think, she is still able to do her work and lead her team. And in our conversation she argues that the most effective way to preserve the space still open for civil society, including those that support women and marginalized communities is regular engagement with the de-facto authorities.

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Transcript lightly edited for clarity

What is Daily Life like in Afghanistan for Women in Civil Society?

Zuhra Bahman [00:00:00] When you look at the Afghanistan coverage of the media, it feels like everybody who was somebody who could do something has left but that’s not true, and I really want that narrative to change.

Mark L. Goldberg [00:02:47] This is the third time in the course of the year that you and I have spoken, and I’m grateful for the opportunity to speak with you. For those who have not listened to our previous conversations, you happened to be out of Afghanistan on a previously scheduled business trip when Kabul fell to the Taliban, yet you decided to return. Can you walk listeners through that decision?

Zuhra Bahman [00:03:11] I always knew I was going to be in Afghanistan. This was not a question I had to ask myself as Kabul fell. This is a place I belong to, and this is a place where I feel most effective. And I’d also experienced being a refugee for a brief period and that did not suit me. So, when I was outside Afghanistan, I was looking for ways to get back in, and that was tough, but I got back and found the peace that I knew was in Kabul. And since then, every day I realized that that was the right decision for me.

Mark L. Goldberg [00:03:42] Why is that? Why do you realize every day that returning to Kabul in these circumstances was the correct decision?

Zuhra Bahman [00:03:50] I think that as an Afghan woman, there is a space that I need to hold and there is a space that my sisters need to hold and some of that space can only be held when we are inside the country. Afghanistan’s women are suffering from a lot of problems. Historically, we have been kept away from education. Socially, we have a lot of problems. We do not have access to justice. We do not have our fair share of decision-making power. We have a lot of issues. And then the few of us that are very, very privileged and I am one of those women — I was lucky enough to be born in a household that gave me an education, that gave me a sense of responsibility and space to grow — and I feel that I need to stay here and I need to make sure that the privilege that I have, I use that to change the situation for the people in my country, for my sisters. And I feel that for me to physically be here is the most effective way of doing this. And I see the results of it every day, and more so now than I did in the last 20 years.

Are women able to work in Afghanistan at the present moment?

Mark L. Goldberg [00:04:59] So are you permitted to work? And if so, are there restrictions put on your ability to work or your freedom of movement by virtue of your gender?

Zuhra Bahman [00:05:10] We are allowed to work, yes. There is no such decree that prohibits women from working in Afghanistan right now. So legally, we are allowed to work, but it differs in sector to sector. So, in the government sector, a lot of women have been fired or asked to not come to work but come in and sign their attendance every now and again and some of them are getting a salary, some of them are not. In some parts of the public sector, like health and education, women are going to work; in certain other ministries like Ministry of Refugees women are providing certain services, and similarly in some other governmental organizations, such as the department that issues ID cards and passports, women are allowed to work. There are also some policewomen active. So that’s the government sector, which has been most affected by this restriction on women’s employment. Private sector is still open for women’s work and so is the NGO sector. So, there is no such decree. However, the nature of the society has changed. So, Afghan women have always had to fight at so many different battle fields to be able to go to work, so society has become more restrictive, and also Taliban are not really coherent in their restrictions. So even though there is no overall ban on women’s work. In certain places, for example, we’ve had experiences where Taliban have asked women to not work, even in the sectors where they’re allowed to work in the rest of the country, like the NGOs and humanitarian agencies and so on. And then those of us that are going to work, there are some restrictions, again, not written down, not proposed as a decree, not applied as a law per say, but there is ad hoc imposition of a mahram rule, which means that women traveling a certain distance are not permitted to travel without a close male relative. Some areas this is not being implemented; in others they are, and again, this is a question of privilege. So professional women, women who can stand their ground, women who have the right skills and support networks such as myself and a lot of my colleagues, women’s rights activists inside Afghanistan, women who are involved in businesses, a little bit more experienced women, they can negotiate travel without the mahram, but most people cannot. Especially women who do not have the support of their families because some of these rules are being implemented through male members of the family. So, the authorities are saying that if you do not have a mahram or if you aren’t covered the way we want you to be covered, then your male members of family are going to be reprimanded. So, it’s a very complex situation. So, I would say, yes, there are restrictions over our work, but there is still a lot of space for us to work. And right now we have women working in our office across the country, in our projects. We have 22 local, national organizations that are our partners, some of them are led by women. Some of the most successful projects that we run are contracted to these women led organizations. So, there’s a lot of negotiations that happen on a day-to-day basis to keep the women’s right to work operational.

What does Search for Common Ground do in Afghanistan?

Mark L. Goldberg [00:08:21] Can you describe your work with Search for Common Ground before the Taliban took over and how it is similar or different from today, substantively, understanding, as you said earlier, that there are certain new rules and restrictions imposed around the country. But has the nature of the work of Search for Common Ground changed in any meaningful or significant way over the last year?

Zuhra Bahman [00:08:46] Yes, it has. We work by listening to people, so Search was the only non-humanitarian international organization that was open as the Taliban took over. We actually never closed our offices and that allowed us to start interacting a little bit earlier with the local civil society as it regrouped, and we listened to them. So previous to the Taliban takeover, we had focused on the formal peace process. We were looking at access to formal justice. We were looking at youth empowerment and a variety of work with women. But we listened to the new priorities and the new operational challenges, the new environment in Afghanistan, and we have now made some changes. We are still working through local partners, so that hasn’t changed. We are still very much localized. We are very much embedded within our community. We also always believed in more engagement rather than less, so these basic principles have always been there. We always believed in reducing polarization, but some programmatic focus has changed, so there’s no formal peace process but now we are instead focusing on community cohesion. We are looking at how can we reduce the general polarization within the country, and that has intensified in the last year. We’ve seen that the gender-based polarization has increased and we need to reduce that. We have realized that ethnic and religious polarizations have increased. We’re looking at polarization between those that have more and those that have need have increased as well and different economic groups. So, we’re looking at that instead of the formal peace process. We want to bring in people together, continuing to look at the women and youth leadership and enhancing that. But we are also looking at enhancing the capacity of civil society in a different way. So previously we were looking at how could we make the work of civil society more peacebuilding friendly? But now we’ve been pulled into, by demand of local civil society, towards the re-energizing of the civil society, on rejuvenating a civil society that has not been impacted only by the Taliban takeover, but also by the mass exodus of the civil society leaders and also the cutting off and the reduction of the non-humanitarian aid into the country. So, we have changed a little bit, but the basics are the same. But then we also see that as formal structures have collapsed, as our sister organizations have had to pull out, there is a greater demand for peacebuilding interventions. And one new area we’ve introduced to our work in Afghanistan is making sure that humanitarian aid, as it’s distributed across the country, is conflict sensitive. We want to make sure that people are not causing any harm in the conflict dynamics in the communities where they’re meeting basic needs of people.

What is conflict-sensitive humanitarian aid and why is it important?

Mark L. Goldberg [00:11:42] Can you walk me through what that program looks like? How is it that you are able to ensure or make conflict sensitive the distribution of humanitarian aid?

Zuhra Bahman [00:11:56] As the Taliban took over, a lot of things changed for us. What we see in the media about the great humanitarian aid need that came up in Afghanistan, that’s very well covered. We know that there’s a lot of hunger, partly because of the cutting off of the international aid to Afghanistan, businesses being pulled out by banking collapse and so on, but partially because of the drought and other natural disasters, so there’s a lot of need for international aid. But at the same time, a lot of new areas, geographical areas have opened up. Places that international organizations couldn’t go into have now opened up for receiving aid. A lot of people are going back, a lot of IDPs are going back to where they originated from. But a lot of new people are becoming IDPs because of these challenges. A lot of polarizations are intensifying, ethnic and linguistic and so on. We don’t have the technical capacity within the authorities to deal with these issues anymore. So based on this, whatever aid is being delivered is being delivered in the already very fragile communities — communities on the brink of conflict and intensification of existing conflicts. And when you put resources in those places, the decisions you take in your programing can destroy those communities or can build those communities. So, what we do is we look at the dynamics, the relationships in those communities. We look at the changing dynamics. So, things we knew about the communities, about the local governance structures and formal conflict and mitigation and resolution structures, the role of religion, the community relations between different ethnic and religious groups, those now mean something different. And we need to know that as we make decisions. We partner with other aid agencies, U.N. bodies, to help them understand those dynamics so they can deliver aid better. And also, we need to listen to people who are receiving this aid. We need to not take people’s dignity and their agency away. We feel that in times of crisis, sometimes delivery of aid becomes a priority and these other things become secondary, but we want to make sure that people are involved in these decisions, even if they’re going through a crisis right now. They need to become active participants in the process rather than passive recipients. And this is also a skill that we help larger agencies develop.

Have many non-profits been able to continue their work in Afghanistan?

Mark L. Goldberg [00:14:27] So it sounds like you have developed a sort of modus vivendi with the de facto authorities. I’m curious to learn if that is an aberration or whether or not other international NGOs with branches in Afghanistan have similarly found a way to work with the Taliban to advance their causes, their issues.

Zuhra Bahman [00:14:55] We were always very clear that we wanted to talk to the Taliban, and this is not only an organizational standpoint that I’m sharing. I personally believe that one of the reasons why Afghanistan had such protracted conflict was because we never talked to each other. It’s because we framed each other as enemies, as enemies that we either had to destroy or completely convert to our way of thinking. That is why so many people died in my country. I’m very happy to work for an organization who shares these views with me. Any given moment is the right moment to engage more rather than less to understand each other’s perspectives. When we want to sit down with the Taliban, and this is a story that I keep hearing from other international and national organizations as well, that when we sit down with the Taliban, it’s a two-way interaction. They saw us as the enemy as well, and we saw them as enemy as well. So, the conversations are very tense to begin with and a lot of international organizations, but more importantly, national organizations have spent the last year to sit and build this relationship, to try and see how we can work together. This is not to say that we don’t disagree with each other. Yes, we disagree with each other on quite a lot of things, but we have managed to find the common ground on certain issues, on delivery of aid, for example, or delivery of certain development or even peacebuilding activities. And this has been a long process. We have had to find people within the authorities who showed some positive deviance from the party line and then we built those relationships and continuously working on it. And there are people from the Taliban side who actually engaged with us. So, from, let’s say, beginning of the Taliban control of Afghanistan, where we saw each other with a lot of doubt and so on, we’ve reached a point where we are registering our projects, we are signing MOUs, we are holding roundtables together to familiarize the de-facto authorities with the role of NGOs and civil society organizations. We are taking civil society leaders to sit down and meet and talk and in these conversations that we have, we talk about incredibly sensitive issues. We talk about women’s hijab. I was part of a delegation of women, Afghan women, that went and sat with the deputy prime minister of the Taliban, and that was actually organized by a local organization. And then we sat there, and we talked about women’s right to work. We talked about women’s right to get an education. We talked about compulsory hijab. We talked about a lot of these issues. And I wouldn’t say that a lot of these issues were resolved, or we concluded but now we realize that holding these kinds of conversations is good and it opens up a lot of physical operational space for good projects, but it also is good to build relationships on which we can then build our further advocacy and we can hopefully influence the de facto authorities.

What kinds of negotiations are happening with the Taliban in Afghanistan?

Mark L. Goldberg [00:17:58] So you’re saying engagement at the local level, your participation in a conversation with the deputy prime minister from the Taliban over women’s rights was impactful, or at least you were able to nudge the situation of women in Afghanistan in a better direction just by virtue of your engagement.

Zuhra Bahman [00:18:23] When I say locally, I mean inside Afghanistan. Right now, there is an assumption that I see in media and also within the policymaker circles that we have to focus our advocacy on important issues in Afghanistan, outside Afghanistan, that we need to talk at the Taliban: that you have to open girls schools and you have to give women the full right to freedom and work and so on — that we have to say these important things at the international level. Yes, we have to do that because we are part of the international community but at the same time, we have to have these conversations inside Afghanistan. And that’s what I mean by local. This is not something that just a group of international organizations are doing. It’s actually very few international organizations that are doing that outside of creating a better operational environment for their own programing. But it is a lot of women led and general civil society organizations that are doing this. There’s a lot of conversations happening at district level, provincial level. There’s a lot of people sitting in line ministries that relate to their work and talking with them. There’s a lot of women’s entrepreneurship bodies, women’s business councils that are actually sitting with the Taliban, ensuring that they can get business permits and they have succeeded in getting business permits. And there are women and men who succeeded in allowing online schooling, which to me is a success, and they managed to negotiate that in certain parts of the country so that now private schools can teach online and there are girls graduating from 12th grade, which is banned in most of Afghanistan. Those girls can now get a certificate for graduating from 12th grade, and that’s a good progress for that girl that wants to graduate and go to university and wants to be part of the class and learn. So, there are these changes that have happened. There are women and men who go and negotiate and mediate with the local authorities around access to justice, they follow up cases where the formal justice sector is collapsed — they go and negotiate with local authorities on cases, on freeing up, for example, journalists, freeing up civil society activists who’ve been arrested or other issues that they feel is important at the local level. So, this method actually works, and this is one of the most important things that I’ve learned in the last year.

Mark L. Goldberg [00:20:43] I presume it’s borne from necessity. These are the de facto authorities. You need to learn how to operate in this new environment, and that requires a degree of engagement.

Zuhra Bahman [00:20:57] Yes, I often talk to my friends and colleagues outside of Afghanistan, and this is one of the most important questions; they say, why don’t you just disengage? Why don’t you just do your good work but not talk to these people? They don’t see that we live in a Taliban ruled country, that they are the de facto authorities. This means that every single government structure is under their control. They make all the decisions that affects our lives. Our electricity company is run by them. Our taxes are collected by them. Our streets are cleaned by them. Our local news comes through the local TV that’s controlled by them. We are constantly engaging with them. When I land in Kabul, they are the ones that check my passport and allow me to enter and allow me to exit. They are truly the de facto authorities, and we have to work with them. We cannot ignore them. And the only way forward sitting inside the country is to try and influence their decision making by bringing the people in a relationship of accountability towards them so that as they’re making decisions, they know that they’re accountable to people rather than keeping the people away from them and allowing them to implement their own ideologies only. We have to hold our space and we have to influence.

How can the United States and the international community support people living in Afghanistan under Taliban rule?

Mark L. Goldberg [00:22:24] The international community, specifically the West and the United States has been obviously very adversarial with the Taliban, including this holding of Afghan foreign reserves in a U.S. bank. Are there opportunities you see for the United States in general and the international community more broadly to engage the de facto authorities of Afghanistan in ways that benefit the Afghan people without providing comfort or relief to the Taliban authorities themselves.

Zuhra Bahman [00:23:04] I’d like to make two points about this. Number one, that this money is the collateral for the Afghan nation. This money is not supposed to be spent; it’s not spending money. So, we have to be very careful about how it is used. These are the reserves, and it has a specific use. And the second thing is, I do not like to present the only two options as either spend this money through the Taliban or spend it through the international organizations and structures like the United Nations. I don’t think either of these are the most productive or most beneficial for the Afghan nation. We need to seriously think about this. If this money comes through the de facto authorities, of course, that’s not a viable option because the de facto authorities do not have the technical capacity to utilize this money. They have come through by force and they don’t have the legitimacy to hold that amount of money on behalf of the nation. There’s a lot of other complexities, but at the same time, the alternative shouldn’t be international organizations. This money is not money that needs to be spent on overheads and on international salaries and then buying of flour and cooking oil that gets distributed and then consumed within a couple of months or so. This money needs to be looked at more carefully, and it shouldn’t be looked at politically. It should be looked at economically, it should be looked at technically and viable, intelligent options should be put on the table. I was very pleased to see that renowned economists, Nobel Prize winner economists are looking into this issue, but I hope that their statements are not limited to just political statements, that this money should be freed and spent for the nation. But they should provide some viable technical alternatives to these two options that we keep hearing about for the last year.

Mark L. Goldberg [00:25:02] Beyond those specific reserves, what can the international community do? What can the United States or other major powers do to at once support the Afghan people, but not provide support directly to the de facto authorities? Is there a tightrope that could be walked to that end?

Zuhra Bahman [00:25:27] Yes. I think practically in Afghanistan, very little of the international money that comes in goes to the Taliban, to the local authorities. A lot of money that’s coming through the international community, only taxes on salaries or VAT is going to the local authorities; it’s a very small percentage. The work of international organizations, and local non-governmental organizations are not taxed, so we don’t pay an extra tax. If you compare to the overall size of the money coming through, there’s very little that is going into the government pockets. And then all the big money that was coming through and sustaining the Afghan state, which was about 75% of the Afghan state, was coming through international aid. That has completely stopped. There’s no money going to the Taliban through any international organization. The Taliban are not partners in delivery of any development programs, the way the republic was, so that needs to be made clear. So, this means that the channels are there; international organizations can bring in money. But we have to also work a little bit on a broader scale and then a little bit with the idea of fairness in mind. One idea is to isolate parts of the state and create mechanisms to channel money to those parts of the state and do that through non-governmental organizations. So, for example, isolate the education sector or the public health sector, which has already been more or less isolated and then pay for that through international organizations. This is happening to a certain degree, but then this is happening at the cost to the Afghan nation, because when you channel money through international organizations, you lose a high percentage of that money to overheads and other expenses that if you channel it through a state mechanism, then that you don’t have to worry about too much. So, we have to do it fairly and we have to do it more swiftly. There are very few teachers that have managed to be isolated from the government sector and have their salaries paid. The health sector is collapsing because this mechanism hasn’t really worked yet, there’s a vast number of people that don’t have access to basic health services. So, we need to critically look at this isolation option and see how we can work that. And the other thing these decision makers can do is to invest in development. It is easy to see Afghanistan only as a humanitarian crisis, but Afghanistan needs development investment as well, so open up that investment. That investment was happening through international organizations and through businesses and so on, so continue that and you can do this very easily without going through the government channels.

What does Western media get wrong about the Taliban’s takeover of Afghanistan?

Mark L. Goldberg [00:28:17] So we are speaking at the one-year anniversary of the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan, the U.S. withdrawal, and in fact, today, Friday, August 26, the day we’re speaking, is the one-year anniversary of the attack on the airport, which led to dozens of people killed, including 13 U.S. service members. I’m sure you have been following much media coverage of this anniversary from Kabul, but what to you is missing in the Western media’s coverage of this anniversary of Afghanistan, one year on?

Zuhra Bahman [00:28:56] It’s the people of Afghanistan that’s missing. I see a lot of broad strokes in the painting of the present-day Afghanistan. I see us being painted as in crisis, hungry, IDPs because of drought and suffering and so on, but what I don’t see in international media is that how much the Afghan people have picked up the pieces and rebuilt. As those American planes left Afghanistan, nearly 40 million people stayed in Afghanistan, and these are not only queuing up to pick up the sack of flour or bottle of cooking oil and the humanitarian aid to use, but these people are actually building businesses. These people are trying to create alternatives to banking. There are people who are starting sort of e-wallet businesses and so that we can still exchange money and we could have our economy moving. There are people who started online schools, there are people who revamped the civil society, and there’s so much going on. Kabul is incredibly vibrant still in every sense. I sat together yesterday with 20 civil society organization leaders, and they were all women. And when we were putting the chairs out in the office, I was looking and I said, there are too many chairs and then by the end, so many women turned up that we had to bring in more chairs. And these are all these women and one of the questions I asked them was, what have you done in the last year? There was one woman, she joked. She said after the forced rest, which she was referring to the first few days of shock, she said she just got up and continued her work and out of those 20 something women leaders, the majority of them have worked without any international support, without any international money in providing humanitarian aid to IDPs and to others in need. Several of them were providing education opportunities for girls. There was a number who had created new collectives. There was a woman who had created a collective of Afghan women, senior civil servants who’ve lost their jobs, and they’re going around to different ministries there, trying to reclaim their right to work, and they’re trying to reclaim their pensions and so on. There are women poets and artists, there are women who now volunteer to teach at Kabul University because the university, the best in the country, has lost 30% of its faculty. And these women are going there teaching as volunteers because they think that this is the crucial time they need to stand up and do this. And I met the woman who teaches sculpture and another that teaches graphic design and another that teaches pharmacology. And these women are inspirational, but I never see them, or their work reflected in media and that’s what I see that’s missing. When you look at the Afghanistan coverage of the media, it feels like everybody who was somebody who could do something has left. But that’s not true. And I really want that narrative to change. And we have to change that narrative so that we can attract the technical support that we need to continue our struggles in Afghanistan and the financial support that we need and the networks that we need. Because if we are ignored and if our presence is politicized or weaponized, then we cannot bring about the change that we need to bring about so that we could educate our girls and so that we could build this country.

Mark L. Goldberg [00:32:23] Zuhra, thank you so much for your time and for sharing your perspective with me from Kabul. I sincerely appreciate speaking with you and I hope we can speak again in the future.

Zuhra Bahman [00:32:34] Thank you very much, Mark.

Mark L. Goldberg [00:32:43] Thank you for listening to Global Dispatches. Our show is produced by me, Mark Leon Goldberg, and edited and mixed by Levi Sharp.

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