The poet says that despite restrictions, she is determined to keep writing to guide younger generations.
"I have not given up because, as a poet, I feel responsible for society."
Afghan Witness has changed the name of the interviewee.
In the weeks following the Taliban’s resurgence, news reports detailed how artists buried paintings, film-makers hid hard drives of their creations, and booksellers removed forbidden titles from their shelves. Afghanistan’s arts and culture sector – which had been flourishing despite the challenges the country faced – swiftly went silent.
Since the Taliban’s return last August, many of the country’s artists who were unable to leave have reportedly gone into hiding. Others continue, but only within the parameters of the Taliban’s restrictions.
Before the Taliban takeover, Rangina, a poet and teacher from Herat, had just published her first book, was attending English classes to prepare for her TOEFL exam, and was regularly participating in book clubs and literary events. The literature group she attended would gather weekly so writers could share their work and exchange feedback, though this was halted with the Taliban’s return.
“After the Taliban's takeover, one of our colleagues was arrested by the Taliban's GDI or intelligence,” Rangina tells Afghan Witness (AW). “The Taliban closed the doors of our association and told us that women and men could not be in the same place.”
Rangina says the association appealed the Taliban’s decision multiple times. After numerous attempts they were eventually allowed to resume their meetings, but only if they were gender segregated. Since then, numbers have dropped – only some women attend the meetings, and men have stopped coming all together.
Rangina also tells AW that the Taliban allow the association just two hours for their meeting, after which they check the hall to ensure there are no men among the participants, before telling everyone to go home.
Fear of arrest
The Taliban declared a general amnesty upon their return, but widespread reports of reprisal killings, forced disappearances, and arrests have sparked fear among activists, journalists, former government and security personnel, and artists.
“When the Taliban arrested Khalid Qaderi [Afghan journalist] in Herat, we were terrified,” Rangina says. According to news reports, Qaderi has been sentenced to one year in prison for allegedly spreading anti-regime propaganda and committing espionage for foreign media outlets. Rangina tells AW she changed her Facebook account and turned off her phone – despite having a large audience who visited her social media pages to read her poetry.
“We writers are truly restricted – we can no longer write with freedom as we used to,” she adds.
In December last year, a group of Afghan artists and creatives wrote an open letter to Boris Johnson, President Biden, and other world leaders pleading to be rescued. In the letter, the authors describe themselves as “jobless, futureless” and “in constant fear of arrest and death”, adding that “we do not live but merely exist.”
While Rangina’s literary meetings have been allowed to continue, she says she has only been able to attend one meeting since the Taliban’s return.
“I have no motivation left, and I cannot write anymore,” she adds. “Nothing gives me inspiration or energy to write.”
Many of Rangina’s friends who were poets and artists were evacuated to neighbouring or European countries, though she is yet to be evacuated herself.
“My name was on the evacuation list, but I did not get any response on how to get evacuated – getting a passport is also extremely difficult at the moment,” she tells AW. “The initial lists that my name was on got rejected by different countries.”
Rangina says her family plan to leave the country by the end of the year as they feel they’re “running out of options.”
“I have no desire to leave the country, but what should I do?” she adds. “At least it is better than living under the Taliban's rule.”
Women and girls have been particularly affected by the Taliban’s return. Last month, the Taliban issued a decree which saw Afghan women forced to cover their faces in public, while girls' high schools are yet to reopen.
“I also teach in a primary school... but I have to wear a long Arabic Hijab and cover my face with a mask,” she says. “Otherwise, I wouldn't be allowed in, and they [the Taliban] will make complaints. I have become extremely restricted even in my workspace.”
While the Taliban have not explicitly banned women from the workplace, many women have been unable to work unless employed in roles considered essential. Those who are able to work, keep a low profile, Rangina explains.
“At the moment, it's pretty scary to continue working like this. We [women] at least want to go back to work and be part of society – although I think this seems wishful thinking.”
Writing to survive
While Rangina finds it difficult to write, she uses her writing to record her daily thoughts and experiences as a woman in Afghanistan. She says she also writes to raise awareness of the situation – so the world understands “how we live here”. Rangina is hopeful that if someone reads her experiences, they may help evacuate her and her family.
“If life continues like this – as it is under the Taliban, it feels no different than a prison,” Rangina says. “Imagine the city you were blooming in has turned into a large prison.”
Rangina tells AW that some of the things she’s witnessed have taken a toll on her mentally. She says that on her way to work one day, she saw the dead body of an alleged kidnapper that had been publicly displayed by the Taliban.
“That was a shocking moment – it negatively impacted my mental state, and I could not teach my class that day,” she recalls. “I became sleepless for many nights, fearing someone would get into our house and do the same to us.”
Earlier this year, AW geolocated three bodies of alleged kidnappers that were publicly displayed by the Taliban in Herat. A similar incident, in which the bodies of three men were hung from cranes in Herat also took place in September, which AW was also able to geolocate and verify.
Despite her fears, Rangina tries to focus on Afghanistan’s younger generations – particularly girls – who she feels need her support.
“I have not given up because, as a poet, I feel responsible for society,” she says. “Younger girls who just began their poetic journeys need guidance and advice – I have to be there for them.”
Interview by Afghan Witness