By Mehreen Rashidi
Gul-e-Badam has always worked hard.
In Afghanistan, she worked two jobs, clocking on at 8.00am for police duties and then switching to taxi driving when her police shift was over.
She was the sole breadwinner raising her young family, but Gul-e-Badam considered herself lucky – with her government salary and taxi driving income, she could provide for herself and her children.
The 44-year-old had moved to Balkh with her husband after getting married. The pair worked on farms, plowing, sowing, harvesting, pruning, or watering the rice fields, cotton fields, gardens, and agricultural lands in all seasons.
But her husband died suddenly 11 years ago while Gul-e-Badam was carrying their fourth child and youngest son.
In the blink of an eye, she found herself single, pregnant, with three other children – two sons and a young daughter – to care for.
She continued working on farms for a time, but at the urging of a neighbor, she joined the women’s police in Balkh. Once her police training was complete, the Balkh Police appointed her as a guard in Balkh primary court.
Gul-e-Badam says that working as a police officer allowed her to get to know and connect more with the capital city Mazar-e-Sharif and urban affairs, especially working women.
That’s how she met Sara Bahayi, widely known as the first female taxi driver in Afghanistan.
In the driver’s seat
The certificate of appreciation given to Gul-e-Badam by the Balkh Police Training Center.
Gul-e-Badam was inspired and joined one of Sara Bahayi’s driving courses to learn how to drive.
With Ms Bahayi’s credit system, Gul-e-Badam bought a taxi and paid it off in installments from her monthly taxi income.
She says she’ll never forget the elation of her first journey to Mazar-e-Sharif with her taxi in the company of four other taxi driver graduates.
Despite the hours and her husband’s absence, she recalls this chapter of her life with joy, especially that she could provide for her children.
Despite the taboos of female drivers in Mazar, Gul-e-Badam says she faced fewer cultural and social challenges than expected. And when harassment did surface, it rarely affected her.
“When I stopped at the taxi station to wait for a passenger to arrive, the male drivers or the young children passing by would say something. But I was not bothered by their words,” she says.
“They would leave, it would be over, and gradually it got better and no one bothered me.”
After three years as a police officer, she no longer wanted to work with the police and her taxi income was good. So in 2017, she left the police force.
Gul-e-Badam with a woman in Noor Chowk, Mazar-e-Sharif.
But her good fortune soon changed.
Her son-in-law, an army officer, was on duty in the neighbouring province of Faryab when he was killed by the Taliban on the Mazar-e-Sharif-Maimana Road.
Gul-e-Badam began spending time helping her daughter with her two young grandchildren.
The time she could spend in the taxi grew shorter and with the changing economy, the trips became less profitable, she says.
With the family struggling to make ends meet, Gul-e-Badam sold her taxi to cover expenses. She would instead rent a taxi for 300 afghanis (US$5) a day to continue work.
The return of the Taliban upends life in Mazar
When the Taliban took control of Afghanistan in August 2021 and immediately began dismantling women’s rights, Gul-e-Badam grew fearful of working outside.
Despite her family depending on her income, she struggled with leaving her house.
Two weeks after the Taliban seized power, she was in her taxi headed towards the city when she stopped at a usual road checkpoint. The armed Talib manning the stop cursed at her and warned her to never be seen driving again.
“He said, Get out of the car, quickly! I asked, Get out for what? He said with more anger to get out again. I got out and apologized, explaining that it had been many years since my husband died. I said, ‘I have a children, I have grandchildren. If I don’t work, everyone will starve’,” Gul-e-Badam says.
“He told me, ‘Don’t let me see you driving again. This is a warning and if I see you again, I will kick you.’ I got a lump in my throat. I said, ‘Okay’ and I came back home. I cried. My children all gathered around me and were crying.”
But the family needed money to eat.
“Two or three days later, I went out in the taxi again. I came to the city and he stopped me at the checkpoint. He said, ‘Didn’t I tell you that I don’t want to see you again? Why did you come back?’ He raised his gun. He wanted to hit me. I just cried.”
Fleeing Afghanistan and losing a son
Gul-e-Badam says not long after this incident she sold all her belongings and paid a smuggler to take her to Iran with her then 12-year-old son, her only daughter, and two grandchildren. Her eldest son had already left for Iran with his wife and child.
Her second son, 20-year-old Mohammad Youssef, stayed in Mazar-e-Sharif because the family could not afford to also pay the smuggler for him. The plan was for him to work a little longer and join them later.
But instead, her 20-year-old son would not be alive much longer.
When he was still in Mazar, Taliban forces came to their house. Gul-e-Badam wonders if they had been tipped off about her work in the police force.
“Maybe my neighbors or some other people told the Taliban that I was a police officer. The Taliban came to our house one night. My son was alone. He was young, maybe he said something to the Taliban because they beat him up a lot. They hit him on the head with the butt of a gun,” she says.
Her son made the journey to Iran soon after, but he never recovered from the bashing.
“He always had a headache. The doctor I took him to said that he had a brain infection. He had an operation, but he did not recover and died,” she says.
In Iran, Gul-e-Badam again turned to taxi driving, trying to earn a living to support her family. But she was stopped by Iranian police who prevented her from continuing a journey because she had neither an Iranian residence permit nor a driver’s license, so she had to give it up.
Resigned to a life of uncertainty
Gul-e-Badam working on the ground in the suburbs of Tehran, Iran.
Gul-e-Badam now works and guards agricultural land in the suburbs of Tehran.
Her daughter and grandchildren were smuggled to Turkey last year, while her eldest son remains in Iran with his wife and child.
Gul-e-Badam looks back on the years of working two jobs to raise her children and remembers it as a relatively peaceful life despite the conflict raging in Afghanistan.
She reflects on the mountain of grief she carries for her son who was bashed and killed because of her job.
Gul-e-Badam says life carries little hope these days as her family is split across countries, facing the poverty of life in Iran and Afghanistan no longer a place she can return to.