By: Sherin Yousfi
The pungent scent of dampness hangs in the air of the rented room where Mina and her friend Shabana live in Kabul. It’s as cold inside the house as outside. The small kitchen, a study room, and a shared bedroom contain the pair’s worldly belongings – a few quilts, some dishes, and a pile of books stacked on top of each other in the corner of the room.
“We got used to it!” Mina says with a wry smile about the dank smell. At least it’s a place to call their own. But it might not be for long.
Mina, 23, and Shabana, 24, were living in Kabul University’s girls’ hostel until the Taliban decree banning women from attending university. The director of the hostel where they were living expelled all the female students when the universities were closed.
Mina was studying medicine at Kabul University and had been living away from her family for three years.
“When the order was issued to close the university for girls, the hostel ordered us to vacate the hostel the next day,” she tells Rukhshana Media. “Those who had relatives in Kabul went to live with them, but people like me, who had no one in Kabul, were confused about where to go and what to do.”
Mina and Shabana stayed with a friend for three days while they searched for a room, finally landing the small apartment in a remote area of west Kabul.
“We were only able to take our clothes and some books with us, the rest of our belongings remained in the hostel,” she adds.
Mina used to remain in Kabul every winter and pursue private courses in the university breaks. She could always find a place to stay in one of Kabul’s private hostels, but with the Taliban takeover of the country, the private hostels are no longer welcoming girls and women to stay.
“When the universities were closed, my father called me to return home to the province,” Mina says. “You can’t study in Kabul, at least you are safe with us.”
“I told him, I will stay here in Kabul. But he was not happy like in previous years for me to do that,” she says. “Maybe he will come to Kabul soon to take me back home, which I don’t want at all.”
Mina studied hard to get into the competitive field of medicine at one of Afghanistan’s best universities. When she talks about what she endured and her family’s hardships to support her, her face shows her desperation and disappointment.
“My mother makes qoroot to sell to support me financially to study and go to an English language center. My father is both a shepherd and a farmer,” she says, underlining how little money they had. “These days, I think all my hard work and my family’s efforts have been wasted.”
Even before the Taliban’s takeover of Afghanistan, female students faced challenges in renting a room and finding a place to live. Cultural norms meant it was not widely accepted for women to live without a male relative. But Mina says the situation has become much worse under Taliban rule.
“At the time of signing a contract, girls must introduce a man from their family as a party to the contract. This was a real restriction for many female students in Kabul,” she says.
Farhat, 24, is another student who was kicked out of her Kabul accommodation. With two other friends, she has managed to rent a room in the city’s west. Like Mina’s house, their place is freezing. They cannot afford a heater. But despite the university ban, they are not ready to give up on their dreams and have decided to stay in Kabul while studying English. All of them are preparing for the TOEFL standardised English exam.
“For years, as well as studying, I would teach at tuition centers and private schools through winter. I could afford my own expenses and did not ask for any money from home. But this year there are no work opportunities and I can’t study,” she says.
“I am worried about my rent and expenses. We have not even been able to buy a heater. But if I go back to my home province, I will never be able to achieve my goals.”
However, the computer science student admits that if universities are not soon reopened, she will have to return to Daikundi.
After universities and student hostels closed, some women do want to return to their home provinces. But a ban on women travelling without a male chaperone (mahram) has meant they are stuck in Kabul.
Parwana, 22, has been waiting for almost a month for her father or brother to come from Balkh province. She tried to travel alone 20 days ago – buying herself a ticket to Balkh. But after the driver realized she didn’t have a mahram, he forced her out onto the road.
“We were sitting in the vehicle, and about ten minutes had already passed when the driver said, ‘You don’t have a mahram, please get out.’ I was devastated and had a lump with my throat, but I got out and returned to my room, “ she says. “Now it’s snowing, my father can’t come. I am left here, with uncertainty and a lot of worry.”
Parwana’s roommate Najiba is also waiting for her father to take her back to Herat province. Najiba, 26, is doing her bachelors in education.
“About three months ago, when I wanted to go to Herat, the drivers did not allow me without a mahram, so now I am still waiting for my father to come,” she says.
“A few years back, I could afford to live in Kabul by working in a part-time job, but with the arrival of the Taliban, there are no more opportunities,” she adds.
The Taliban ordered universities close for women. So far, outrage both at home and internationally has not swayed the decision, which even has its critics among Taliban ranks.
Recently, Abbas Stanekzai, the Taliban’s deputy minister of Foreign Affairs, said that if a Taliban order is against Islamic Sharia law, it should not be accepted. Apparently, he was referring to the decree prohibiting women’s work and education.