'They are so defiant and so strong': Photojournalist Paula Bronstein on documenting women and girls in Afghanistan

Photojournalist Paula Bronstein has covered Afghanistan for 20 years. She was recently evacuated from Kabul, shortly before the Taliban took over the capital city. Bronstein tells Yahoo News about some of the human rights issues faced by the Afghan women and girls she's documented through photos since December 2001.

Video transcript


PAULA BRONSTEIN: You know, we're back where we started 20 years ago. US bombed the southern part of the country to get rid of the Taliban. Now they've taken over the country 20 years later.

I knew I was in flight. That's when the president left the country. As soon as the president left the country, chaos ensued, OK? I left before President Ghani flew.

The photos of the IDP camps were taken just a couple of days before I left. This is obviously the rush of the desperate, you know-- the desperation of leaving their villages behind because the Taliban swept through the north and took every single province. In the immediate aftermath of that, that created a huge, huge flow of refugees, displaced people, internally displaced people, that ended up at makeshift camps, mostly at city parks.

Because at the time, there was really no other formal place to house them. I mean, these things, you know, it was happening way too fast and furiously and nobody could keep up with it. And so when, eventually, though, when-- I'd say only like three or four days later, they were already getting shifted to mosques. So I would say that's where they still are now.

There's going to be more women and children. There always are. Some of their husbands were killed. Maybe they were former soldiers. Or maybe they're staying behind to be part of the Mujahideen, you know, to be part of a different fighting force.

But I can't speak to all the situations. I can just say that quite often it is more women and children. But usually they're not traveling alone. They're traveling with extended family members. I mean, the woman in the tent with her two children, she was a widow, but she was with extended family members. She was not by herself.

When my book came out in 2016, "Afghanistan Between Hope and Fear," I didn't realize the title was going to be so topical today. The cover of the book is a picture of a woman who tried to kill herself by self-immolation. In 2004 and 2006 that was happening a lot. It was influenced by Iran.

Because it was happening-- women were doing this to themselves. They're somehow-- I shot that story in Herat, which is right on the border with Iran. It's not a story that continued years after I did it, I would say.

I think it was more awareness, more ways to help women. because this is a really horrific way to try to kill yourself, where you, basically, you know, taking hot cooking oil and pouring it below your neck to destroy your body so no man can touch your body.

But that was just one of many stories I did on human rights issues dealing with women. Because, you know, there's so many. There's many that you can't document. Domestic violence at home, you can't document. Women being sold, you know, sold off, young women being sold off to marry men that are three, four times their age. Very common.

It's all fear. There's not much hope at the moment. The problem is, I don't think people have the power to tell the Taliban what to do. So it's-- I think it's up to the strength of the youth. Which I have met some incredible, incredible students, very talented musicians, women and girls in every industry.

I just went to the largest girls school in Kabul. It's a high school. It has 8,500 students that have two sessions. One that starts early morning and finishes up at, like, 1:00. And then the other is an afternoon session. And that's the way they take on as many students as they have.

So for all the families and all the Afghans that will remain in Kabul, the students are going to insist on going back to school. I feel like none of that is going to change with the Taliban takeover. This is 20 years later. There's thousands of girls going to school. That will not change.

The older ones that I talked to at the high school were just so defiant and so strong. Most Afghan women are. They are very-- and young, you know, young girls-- they're very, no, they're not going to tell me what to do. I'm going to keep on going to school. My education is important.

This is all changed. And especially in the capital city, I mean, if you were to interview a student in a conservative province in the southern part of the country, you could get a totally different answer. It would be all fear. But I think in Kabul, you'll get less fear. I mean, they're fearful of the future, but they will be determined to continue education. I can tell you that with certainty. There's no doubt in my mind.