As the world returns to work after New Year’s, the author, one of JURIST’s Afghanistan correspondents, invites readers to step into the shoes of someone who might have booked a holiday ticket to her hometown, Herat…
So you decided to vacation in the Afghan province of Herat. Who, you may be asking, would voluntarily spend their holidays in Taliban territory? But I ask that you suspend your disbelief and entertain the notion on this choose-your-own adventure journey.
You packed your bags and you headed to the airport. The flight goes smoothly, and now your plane has begun its descent over the city of Herat. You take in the breathtaking aerial view of the medieval city. But after you disembark and exit the airport, it quickly becomes apparent that birds-eye may be the city’s best angle — a fact those of us on the ground have known all too well since Afghanistan’s collapse.
As you emerge into the city, you can’t help but notice the omnipresence of Taliban forces, clad in the distinctive attire you’ve come to identify with them from the news. Their weapons, unlike those of any airport security officer in any nation, are unrestricted and can be wielded at their discretion. Accordingly, they are armed to the teeth, intent on evoking a sense of fear.
Once you make it through customs and to your hotel, your hopes for an exciting vacation are dimmed by the daunting rules you must comply with — including strict dress code requirements that compel modesty — but you take heart knowing you’re in Herat — a city filled with incredible historical sites. After all, the city is home to Princess GoharShad Begum, Khaja Abdullah Ansari, the Grand Mosque, Herat minarets, and the magnificent citadel of Alexander. But why am I telling you this? You’ve traveled a long way to explore these wonders.
This is the point where your gender identity is really going to start dictating your vacation.*
If you’re a woman: Did you bring an escort? Women are strictly prohibited from traveling without a male escort (either a husband or a male relative). If you don’t have one, not only will these sites be out of reach; you won’t even be allowed to use public transport to get to the historic sites you’ll be turned away. Ridiculous, yes, but such are the rules. So fingers crossed, your escort is with you; otherwise, we hope you like the room you’re staying in as you’ll be spending the entirety of your time in Herat cooped up in there.
If you’re a man: Carry on; you’re allowed to take in the sites without a minder.
Editor’s note: Despite an ancient regional tradition that has inspired neighboring countries to recognize nonbinary individuals, Afghanistan does not formally recognize or extend legal protections to transgender or otherwise nonbinary people. Discrimination related to this has grown stronger since the Taliban’s latest rise. As these issues warrant their own exploration, the author has opted not to speculate about what would be expected in this hypothetical scenario. We encourage you to read this 2022 report by Human Rights Watch documenting some of the grave threats faced by Afghanistan’s LGBTQ+ community under the Taliban. Because unaccompanied women and nonbinary people face the profound limitations described above, the author assumes for the remainder of this article that you are a man or a woman with an escort.
On the next day of your journey, you (a man or an accompanied woman, that is) venture outside to explore the city. As you wander the neighborhood, you notice the prevalence of Taliban forces and a scarcity of women. And beyond that, it becomes clear that Herat’s people are fighting an uphill battle against inequality, oppression, and ever-diminishing rights.
Perhaps to take your mind off these grim realizations, you decide to go shopping; after all, Herat is renowned for its luxurious fabrics and custom tailoring.
But wait, even if you’re a woman with an escort, you’re out of luck. See, women in Afghanistan aren’t allowed to work outside the home, and male tailors are prohibited from fitting women’s clothing under a recent Taliban order. Alas, you head back to the hotel to reflect on whether this vacation plan may have been a regrettable decision.
The next day, you hope for a better experience by visiting antique stores in front of Herat Grand Mosque. While buying antique lapis lazuli dishes, you might encounter someone who has suffered at the hands of the Taliban. An intelligent person who worked with foreign entities in Afghanistan lost his job when the Taliban regained power, facing ongoing persecution. His privacy was violated, and his life was at risk during his detention. This glimpse into Afghanistan’s harsh reality may shock you.
On your way back to the hotel, you witness little schoolgirls crying. Despite finishing the sixth grade, they can’t continue their education due to Taliban restrictions. It’s a heartbreaking scene that leaves you saddened.
As it’s winter, you may wish to cheer yourself up by building a snowman. Not so fast: The Taliban has interpreted Shariah law in such a way as to ban the construction of snowmen. This is one of many recent crackdowns on mirth. Additionally, celebrating cultural and historical events like Yalda Night or Nowruz, let alone non-Islamic events like Valentine’s Day and Christmas, is strictly prohibited. This all stems from the Taliban’s extreme views.
Now it’s your last day in Afghanistan. At the airport, the Taliban’s security guard inquires about your escort. For Afghan women, traveling without one is nearly impossible, but as a foreigner, you’re allowed to proceed.
As you sit in the airplane, reviewing your trip, you feel relieved to leave a place described as a prison for women and a death camp for men. Your journey may not have been enjoyable, but it has offered vital insights into the oppression, inequality, suppression, cruelty, and darkness imposed by the Taliban.
As you return home, remember the millions of Afghans enduring this miserable situation under Taliban rule. Share your experience. Be our voice.
Opinions expressed in JURIST Commentary are the sole responsibility of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of JURIST's editors, staff, donors or the University of Pittsburgh.