LAGHMAN, 07 March 2016 - International Women’s Day celebrated in Laghman City, with Governor of Laghman Afghanistan High Peace council members, professional women, students and civil society representatives. Photo by UNAMA / Fardin Waezi.

Why This Female NGO Leader Decided to Return to Afghanistan

I last spoke with Zuhra Bahman in early September 2021. She happened to be out of Afghanistan on a business trip when the Taliban overran Kabul a few weeks prior.

Despite the apparent danger and uncertainty, Zuhra Bahman told me that she was eager to get back home and return to work as the Afghanistan country director for the peace building NGO Search for Common Ground.

Today, she is back in Kabul, which is where I caught up with her for the conversation you are about to hear

And she kicks off explaining why and how she returned home.

We then have a long conversation about how she navigates her life and work as a professional woman in Taliban-controlled Afghanistan, and how her work on peace building issues continues under the new political order in Afghanistan.


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Transcript lightly edited for clarity

What Restrictions Could Stop a Woman from Entering Afghanistan under Taliban Rule? 

Zuhra Bahman [00:02:36] Well, there was never a question for me to stay outside. This is where I belong, this is where I was born and brought up and wrapped in everything I am, and everything I stand for and want to do links back to Afghanistan. So, there was no question that I was going to come back. But what I was going to come back to was always a question. The extent to which the freedoms that I had would be limited, the number of friends I would have would be limited, and the rights I would enjoy would be limited and generally life was going to be going to be very different to when I left Afghanistan. So, there was an anxiety around that and also the mechanisms of getting back was something that that concerned me a little bit but there was no doubt that I was going to come back.

Mark Leon Goldberg [00:03:27] What were the mechanisms that concerned you about getting back?

Zuhra Bahman [00:03:31] Well, with the collapse of Kabul, the airport, the international airport, I’m sure everybody saw on the international news that the airport was impacted the most. That became the hub for the mass evacuations and terrorist attacks as well. And a lot of international airlines decided not to continue their flights into Afghanistan. The state that was previously an ally to everybody internationally was no longer there to guarantee safety of the planes landing in the country. The infrastructure was being lost and so on, so just the mechanisms of getting into the country was a lot harder. The land borders between Afghanistan and its neighbors got tightened, and also there was a question of whether a woman on her own could travel over a land border. And so, these were some of the concerns, and slowly some very few flights started to happen, and doors reopened, and I was very, very pleased to come back to Kabul.

Mark Leon Goldberg [00:04:46] And when did you arrive back in Kabul?

Zuhra Bahman [00:04:50] Back in early December, I came back and from the airport, everything was very emotional, and my colleagues were saying just spend a day at home and see how things are. And I said, ‘No, I really want to see what is going on in the city, let’s go to work and let’s go past the checkpoints and see if I have my most important right, the right to work.’ Because I really wanted to see if I had lost it and I wanted to see that as soon as possible. I went to the office, I still had my luggage on me and went through a few checkpoints, and the Taliban stopped our car in the security checkpoint near our office and asked us who we were and we told them who we were, and they waved us in and that that was the first surprise that there was the most important right for me was still intact to a certain extent and I really wanted to maintain that. But of course, there’s lots of challenges, but that was sort of the first experience and the first, you know, facing the new reality.

In your experience, are women able to work and live safely in Afghanistan?

Mark Leon Goldberg [00:06:03] Well, when we spoke last time, you said there are really two conditions that would need to be met before you could come back, even though you were desperate and eager to get back. One was your ability to work, the other was a guarantee of your personal safety. Did you receive any sort of guarantees of your safety?

Zuhra Bahman [00:06:22] No but when you’re outside of Afghanistan, when I was outside Afghanistan, of course I saw the country differently and when I came back, and I realized I could go back to work—and I know there’s a lot of a lot of other women who could not go back to work—that really gave me a confidence boost. I never asked the Taliban if I could go back to work. I just went back to work and hoping that I wouldn’t be challenged. So, I never sought any guarantees, but I did educate myself into all of their edicts and statements and so on, on women’s right to work so that if I’m challenged, I could produce something that sort of indicates my freedom to work. Around personal safety, no. Then again, I never sought any guarantees. I mean, it wouldn’t be provided to me as an ordinary Afghan woman anyway but once you’re here in the country, security feels different as opposed to when you were outside looking in and consuming the news. So, for me when I came back, I actually had a sense of safety. I remember the first day and it was a—Kabul has very sunny winters, so it’s either really cold and snowy or really sunny and bright—I just really wanted to go sit near the window, and I had never sat near the window in Kabul before because there’s so many explosions and so on, you always try and stay away from windows. And I thought, ‘You know what? There’s not going to be an explosion.’ So, I moved my chair and I’m still sitting next to a window and so that kind of sense of security. Or going down the road where I was always fearful of an explosion which we had almost on a weekly basis, explosions. So, I could just feel the relative safety and security in that sense but as a single woman living on my own and you know, a professional woman and not a lot of sort of usual safety mechanisms, I haven’t really sought anything extra.

Are you concerned about the reports of professional women being disappeared in Afghanistan?

Mark Leon Goldberg [00:08:42] That’s interesting to me because, you know, I’m hearing and I’m seeing lots of news reports about professional women, journalist women being disappeared. And so, it’s sort of interesting for me to hear from you directly that this is not necessarily a concern of yours. Could that be like the nature of your work?

Zuhra Bahman [00:09:05] There are no doubt disappearances however, first of all, a lot of the times when I encounter these issues, I look at how can we make sure that these women have similar experiences as other women, such as myself? How can they create a safety mechanism around themselves? How can we connect them to networks that they could reach out before it gets to a point where they have to face the worst? And is it because of nature of my work? Perhaps to a certain degree, I work for a peace building organization and personally, my values align with the organization I work with. I believe in continuous dialogue; I believe in listening and talking and in non-confrontational methods of getting our points across. So based on that, perhaps but there’s no guarantee that the fate of these women wouldn’t be my fate at some point. So, individual cases are not, I don’t think, as significant and the differences are as significant. What is significant is that we are living in a situation where a lot of us are in danger of that and we need to create the safety mechanisms around us.

What has changed about life in Afghanistan as a single woman under Taliban rule?

Mark Leon Goldberg [00:10:38] In a minute I want to talk to you more specifically about your work that you’re doing now and how it’s changed since the fall of Kabul and the rise of the Taliban, but you know, before we get there, I’m interested in learning a little bit more about how your day-to-day routines have changed now as compared to before.

Zuhra Bahman [00:11:05] I still live more or less in the same way I used to before if you consider the bigger picture. I still live in the same building, I live on my own still, I travel the same way, I walk to work, or I take the same vehicle, and the way I dress hasn’t changed, but I did dress quite conservatively for my part of Kabul. So those kinds of things haven’t changed but what has changed is the general feel of the city and in some degree of self-censorship that a lot of women are choosing to engage in. So, for example, for me, I have limited my movement to certain parts of the city at certain times of the day, I tend not to be out and about too much on my own. Sometimes if I’m traveling a little bit further away to certain parts of the city, I tend to take somebody with me. And also, we are a little bit more vigilant of people around us because when situation get worse than there’s a lot of opportunism and people who may not like a woman for any reason. They may start to create trouble. So, I am afraid of certain things. So, things like, would I be reported to morality police for some sort of a crime? Would I be stopped if I’m traveling? Would I be humiliated and things like that? So, a lot of these fears are making us self-censor a little. I have also gone off social media. That’s why I’m using our organization’s handle because there’s a lot of polarization in the Afghan society right now and we live in a very exhausted environment. It’s an exhausting environment where we’re constantly being pulled apart. Our opinions are being pulled apart and in a situation like that to maintain your mental health and to make sense of what is true, what are rumors so there as well there’s some degree of, you know, changes in behavior that that that I’ve adopted. I do fear sometimes for people that I know and then to a certain degree, for myself, the possibility that that somebody I know or myself would be arrested because I keep hearing about people who are, not due to any specific crimes that they’ve committed, but perhaps by association, have attracted the attention of the authorities and they’re being arrested and then they disappear. Sometimes they appear back and depending on how much, how linked they are with these online communities, with the Diaspora, the evacuated civil society activists, then people might hear about them. But usually, people don’t hear.

Mark Leon Goldberg [00:14:33] You know, speaking to me right now in this public forum is not something that you are concerned about?

Zuhra Bahman [00:14:41] No, because I also see the other side of the situation, which is that engagement can create that space where we can find some sense of security. We can try and reach some agreements with the authorities; we can negotiate around our freedoms, and we can put our point across. One thing that really stands out when I got back to Afghanistan, something that really, really stood out for me was that the Taliban are the de facto authorities. We may not like the way they came in; we may not agree with them, we may have legitimate grievances against them, but the reality is that they are the single most influential group of people for Afghan men and women right now. The decisions they make, they directly impact us and as such, we need to hold them accountable. They need to listen to our voices. They need to know what we are thinking, what we stand for and how we want them to be. Because if we disengage, if we don’t talk in forums like this, they wouldn’t know. In doing that, we have to take certain risks, and because nothing is without risk. If we want to have a social movement, if we want to bring about some change, then we need to act with some degree of bravery and take some risk.

How has peace building and non-profit work changed in Afghanistan with Taliban rule?

Mark Leon Goldberg [00:16:24] Last time we spoke, you described your work in Afghanistan in terms of promoting peace building initiatives at the local level—what Search For Common Ground does in Afghanistan— how has your work changed and what programs, if any, are you running or operating in Afghanistan today?

Zuhra Bahman [00:16:48] The major change that we have experienced is the dwindling donor funding and the restrictions imposed by the donors. We never stopped our programs, we negotiated with the local authorities for the continuation of our programs and sometimes they would say to us, ‘you’re a peacebuilding organization, there’s peace in Afghanistan.’ But then we would engage in a discussion with them and describe the kind of peace we are seeking to create. We want to create a kind of peace where people wouldn’t kill each other over a conflict, over, let’s say, access to water or land rights or settlers and travelers disputes. So, we would explain to them about the nature of the positive peace or social peacebuilding and then they would come on board and our local partners, and we managed to gain their support for the delivery of our programs. But a lot of our programs were halted pending redesign by donors so that created a little bit of an issue. The other issue was that lots of people left the country and, although Search didn’t lose a lot of colleagues, our partner organizations collapsed. Several of our most important allies within the national civil society collapsed and we were suddenly dealing with established organizations that no longer existed or were on the verge of collapse. And we were being asked, what could you do as an organization that that was still functioning? So, we had to change our programing to meet that need, to make sure that the civil society wasn’t going to totally collapse because we actually realized the need even in the times of crisis for the civil society to be there. So, we changed and adapted some of our programing so that we could help struggling small NGO’s, previous partners and so on to stay afloat and have something to do. And still, as they try to reestablish themselves, stay relevant to the needs of the community. We have had to make some programmatic changes especially around gender. We would never exclude anyone, especially, you know, women who are a major constituency in peacebuilding, but we have had to change the way we work with women and the women that we work with have actually helped us create these new ways of working with women.

How can women be involved in peacebuilding work in Afghanistan under Taliban rule?

Mark Leon Goldberg [00:19:37] What would be an example of the new way of working with women in this context?

Zuhra Bahman [00:19:43] Mainly it’s gender segregation so we held conflict management training our common ground approach training for Internally Displaced Peoples (IDP) communities so that they can resolve conflicts peacefully in their communities a couple of weeks ago, and those trainings were separate for men and women. And the other one is around facilitating women’s access to these kind of programs by making a provision for their mahram or their chaperone to be there. The Taliban haven’t actually does not officially require us to have that, but certain individuals feel that they are required to, and we want to facilitate that so that’s the other change that we have had. But we have had mixed sex conferences that had about a 150 youth from Kabul and then some other provinces where the local authorities, the Taliban, actually attended. So the key for us is to  not create restrictions, but when women feel that they need a chaperone or they need their own segregated spaces, then we provide that and then where women want to be in a mixed forum and even when those are attended by the Taliban, then we make sure that we provide that because for us, the key is a process where the people decide and we do not decide for them on how programs should be and also do this in a way that everybody is kept safe.

How has the economic meltdown in Afghanistan effected Afghans?

Mark Leon Goldberg [00:21:30] So your work and your return to Afghanistan more broadly, you know, is happening in the context of just like a broad meltdown of the Afghan economy. How is that impacting your daily life and the lives of the people that you work with?

Zuhra Bahman [00:21:52] I want all of us to understand that the seven billion US dollars that are frozen really impacts every Afghan. I have got a good job; I have a good salary and so on, but I cannot access my money right now. It’s stuck in a bank, and this is the situation for almost everybody who has money in their accounts in Afghanistan. So, the money is stuck, and we cannot take any cash out because there’s a crisis around cash flow. So that’s for individuals which always gets overlooked, but for our operational environment, of course, that’s become really, really tough as well. We cannot use conventional banks. We have to use informal money transfer systems and that costs a lot. So, we have to renegotiate with our donors for these extra expenditures. It also creates a security risk for a lot of organizations and extra expenses around managing that. Our partner organizations also feel the same, so it is just a lot of problems there. It has also created a lot of tension and I feel that it has pushed a massive part of the Afghan society into an undignified existence. So there were people that worked and had salaries and after eight months of not being paid because the funds are frozen and because the funds are not going to be channeled through the government structures so now these people, upwards of a million, who in turn support families and the average family size is about eight people in Afghanistan so I would say about seven-eight million people in Afghanistan who are reliant on the state sector, they were civil servants. They haven’t received their salaries for about seven-eight months. And that has made them from professionals into people who cannot afford anything, and they have to queue up in front of food distribution centers and get handouts. And these handouts are usually small amounts of cash and some basic food. These are not things like electricity bills and other expensive medical bills and so on, they still remain unpaid, and it’s a very hard, and undignified existence. International organizations have stopped development projects, and that has also made a lot of beneficiaries that were really productive like, I met a woman who used to weave carpets for a big development project, and now that project has stopped, and the donor has said that instead of buying her carpets and giving her money, they are going to just give her a sack of flour and a bottle of cooking oil. Now that’s very undignified. That’s not the way to deal with people in a country that was more or less functioning. So that’s the single most important thing for most people that we speak with, including myself.

What is the state of humanitarian crisis in Afghanistan?

Mark Leon Goldberg [00:25:36] Yeah. I mean, you’re describing an economic crisis that impacts every kind of sector of society, every kind of person: an educated person of means like yourself, people who were formerly professional now becoming destitute and I have to imagine it’s impacting most profoundly those who had little resources to start with. I mean, what can you say about the humanitarian situation throughout Afghanistan? And now it seems that things are going to get even worse given this decision by the Biden administration to not in fact release the funds to the Afghan central bank.

Zuhra Bahman [00:26:18] Mm hmm. Well, the humanitarian crisis: Of course, Afghanistan was in the middle of one already, and it intensified severely. So, it wasn’t just made in the last six-seven months, we were in the middle of one already anyway due to drought and a lot of financial mismanagement and so on. However, it is quite horrible to see that this humanitarian crisis is being intensified by sanctions and to live in the middle of it, you really feel it. And you said that it’s those that were the poorest are suffering the most, but those that were poorest were dependent on those that were the richest for the market to work. So once the people who were involved in businesses, who were doing imports and exports, who were doing a lot of other manufacturing work, and so on, if they cannot move money around and they cannot work, then it has an impact on the poorest. And also, it’s with the Biden administration’s decision, I’m really concerned because 3.5 billion Afghanis that were the backbone, that were the guarantor of the Afghan economy, is now transferred into buying, you know, the basics and distributing the basics, the humanitarian needs of Afghanistan. Now I’m really worried that a large chunk of it is going to go back to the admin costs of international organizations that are going to be distributing it. A lot of this money was meant to augment the Afghan economy, and it was to move the economy to generate more wealth. It wasn’t there to buy flour and cooking oil, so we are spending a money that was meant to keep the economy of this country alive. I’m really concerned about that and also people don’t only want to survive, they want to live in a dignified way, they want to have infrastructure and so on. And if this is diverted to that kind of expenses, we’re going to lose out a lot on what we really want to see our country achieve.

How can the international foreign policy community support humanitarian and peace building efforts in Afghanistan?

Mark Leon Goldberg [00:28:41] You know, people who congregate around this podcast tend to be professionals in foreign policy, people who work in government, Think Tanks, the United Nations, journalism. What recommendation would you give to the foreign policy community more broadly, or what steps do you think the international community should take in terms of its approach to Afghanistan right now? I mean, as we speak no country has really formally recognized the Taliban, as far as I can tell. They’re not a member of the United Nations and this kind of question of how to deal with the Taliban kind of looms large over a lot of countries approaches to Afghanistan. You know, as someone who is dealing in local peacebuilding efforts as a woman in Kabul, what would you recommend the international community’s approach to Afghanistan be today?

Zuhra Bahman [00:29:36] I suggest that instead of creating a situation where the Taliban are looking at the international community around accountability and legitimacy, and Afghan people are looking at the international community around meeting their basic needs, what they need to do is to create environments and spaces inside Afghanistan for Afghan people to look at, because the Afghan people are already looking at the government of the Taliban for meeting their basic needs and reaching basic services and they are looking at the international community for that, but they need to also create a relationship between the people and the Taliban, where the people would hold the Taliban accountable. They would exert continuous pressure on the Taliban about rights and freedoms. So, let’s move the dialogue to Kabul and to other big cities where there is dialogue happening to a certain degree between people and the Taliban. Let’s make sure the Taliban worry about what the Afghan people think and want, as opposed to what the U.N. wants or what the international community want, and what a small nation thousands of miles away wants from them. So, let’s do that, and let’s make sure that we listen a little bit more. I think everybody’s experiences are legitimate and valid, but I see there is a gap in voices from inside Afghanistan in dialogue on Afghanistan. Some people choose not to talk because of the restrictive environment we live in, but many of us want to talk, and many of us reflect what we are experiencing in Afghanistan. We may not all have the same experiences, but it’s important to hear views from inside Afghanistan as well and the last thing I want to say is that please try and see if we can invest more in in peacebuilding in Afghanistan. There’s a lot being done on meeting humanitarian needs of Afghans but putting so much money in meeting the basic needs without looking at how this investment, these new dynamics that are being created, how these are impacting the security dynamics, the existing conflict, new conflicts, the grievances and so on, it’s not going to have good long-term impacts. It’s going to it’s going to create problems down the line. So, I have a lot to say on this, but let’s stop it here.

Mark Leon Goldberg [00:32:24] Well, Zuhra, I’m very thankful for your time and for your willingness to speak to me and for the opportunity you give my audience to learn from you. So, thank you!

Zuhra Bahman [00:32:37] Thank you very much!

Mark Leon Goldberg [00:32:40] All right. Thank you all for speaking with me. Thank you to Zuhra Bahman for her thoughtfulness and for her willingness to appear and speak publicly on my show about her life and work in the new Afghanistan. All right, we’ll see you next time. Thanks, bye!