Real life in Afghanistan – as told by a Taliban commander

Armed Taliban personnel in north-eastern Afghanistan, pictured earlier this month
Armed Taliban personnel in north-eastern Afghanistan, pictured earlier this month - AFP

Jamila Afghani, one of Afghanistan’s top women’s-rights activists, credits her success to having had polio as a child. Born in 1976 with a crooked leg that her family blamed on evil spirits, she was written off as a langak, or cripple, whom no man would ever want to marry. That made her focus on seeking an education instead, and with no chance of his getting a “bride price”, her father didn’t stand in her way. “She loved the freedom her disability had afforded her,” writes Norwegian journalist Åsne Seierstad in her new book, The Afghans. “She was spared both a husband and the stress of being married.”

Best known for The Bookseller of Kabul, written just after the Taliban’s fall in 2001, Seierstad’s latest work recounts the two ensuing decades through the contrasting fortunes of three Afghan witnesses and their families. The first is Afghani, who becomes a government minister during the years of US-backed rule, before fleeing to Norway after Washington’s chaotic pull-out in 2021. The second is a 37-year-old Taliban commander identified only as “Bashir”, who spends years fighting the coalition forces.

The third is 23-year-old Ariana, a pseudonymised female law student whose hopes of graduating – and pretty much everything else – are dashed by the Taliban’s return to power. Gone are the days when she could freely watch Netflix, listen to Justin Bieber and learn female empowerment slogans from Western NGOs; back come curbs on women’s education, and orders to cover up if going out in public. The Taliban’s Ministry for the Propagation of Virtue suggests that the “best burka” of all, in truth, is to stay at home like a dutiful housewife.

As this book makes clear, though, the Taliban aren’t the only chauvinists in Kabul. Traditional Afghan society can be equally conservative, with the rules enforced not by Taliban gunmen, but by zealous brothers and uncles who fear that family honour will be at stake if a woman seeks her own path in life. As a youngster in scripture class, Afghani even detects a whiff of sexism in Paradise, where men who’ve done holy deeds are rewarded with the “good company” of grateful virgins. When she asks her teacher what women who have done holy deeds will get, Afghani is told simply that “they’ll get their husband back”. This strikes her as somewhat unfair.

As a Talib who has kidnapped, killed and served jail time for the cause, Bashir doesn’t have to wait for the afterlife to get his rewards. He lives in a plush Kabul villa taken from a politician, and gets a £4,000-a-month Taliban stipend – roughly 50 times what many Afghans earn. He also has a sideline as a Mafia godfather from whom others seek favours, be it dodging debts or jumping hospital queues. He draws the line, though, at helping career-minded females. “Sorry,” he tells Seierstad, “but there’s no place for educated women in Afghanistan.”

Women protest against the Taliban's policires in Kabul on Sept 3 2021
Women protest against the Taliban's policires in Kabul on Sept 3 2021 - AFP

Simply persuading the likes of Bashir to talk is a coup for Seierstad. When she first meets him while visiting Afghanistan as a Taliban-accredited journalist in 2022, they joke together that had the meeting happened the year before, he would probably have kidnapped her. But while his insider account of life as a Taliban commander would make a perfectly good read on its own, what Seierstad’s book most vividly conveys is the unfulfilled lives of Afghanistan’s women.

Their scheming families pair them off with unwanted suitors, who compound the indignity by taking second and third wives. Even Ariana, whose parents are relatively liberal, ends up hitched against her will to Mahmoud, a creepy bald man at the same university as her. When they’re first introduced, he tells her how he has admired her from afar, watching her from his window every day on campus. While he thinks this is romantic, Ariana finds it stalkerish. Yet when she tells him she doesn’t want him, he replies: “Your father agrees, and that’s more important than what you say.”

Angry that the international community, though refusing to recognise the Taliban government, has eased the pressure on them too, Afghani arranges for some of her fellow female activists to meet the new interior minister, Sirajuddin Haqqani, a feared Taliban warlord who is still on a US “wanted” list. Showing considerable guts, they tell him that his sexist policies are an “atrocity against Islam”, to which he remarks – a little patronisingly – “By God, I had no idea that women in this country were so strong.” But despite his promising reforms, nothing really changes.

Modern Afghanistan has been well-chronicled in recent years, not least by Seierstad herself, but as an exploration of the social fabric of Afghan life, this book takes some beating. It’s also a deft potted history of the country since the 1960s, charting its journey from hippy hang-out to Soviet satellite state, jihadist battleground, and finally, failed nation-building project. A follow-up book in another decade or two might also be a compelling read – although, perhaps, an even unhappier one.

The Afghans, tr Sean Kinsella, is published by Virago at £25. To order your copy for £19.99,.call 0808 196 6794 or visit Telegraph Books