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We do not accept the Taliban as the rulers of our country: Madina Darwazi

Madina Darwazi is considered one of the influential figures in the women’s protest movement against the Taliban in Afghanistan. Already a victim of a forced marriage, as well as social traditions, and the patriarchy in Afghanistan, she experienced the violence meted out by the Taliban in the streets as well as their torture in notorious detention centres. After her release,  Darwazi had to flee to Pakistan, where she endured harassment and humiliation by its police. Eventually, she obtained asylum in Norway where she continues her campaign against the Taliban’s ideology and anti-women regime with unwavering determination. 

Zan Times interviewed Madina Darwazi about her experiences, her campaign, and her hopes. Note: This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.  

Zan Times: Tell us about your life before the Taliban took power in Afghanistan. 

Madina Darwazi: I am 28 years old. During the first period of Taliban rule [1996-2001], we were forced to leave the country because my father was a teacher and he believed in the education of female students. I was 16 when we returned to Afghanistan. We were five sisters and brothers, along with our parents, and there were no jobs, and the living conditions were not good. These difficulties and existing stereotypes forced my family to marry me off. What I experienced was an unpleasant and bitter life – including oppression and injustice. In the end, I became the mother of two children. 

Starting a fight from home is difficult, but I accepted all these difficulties. I embraced the risk of losing my children and psychological injuries, but I did not want to continue my life with a man who tortured me. Although divorce was considered a disgrace by our family and relatives, I went for it. Although it was difficult, I managed to end that life. 

I stood on my own feet, selling scarves on the street, working as a waiter, a teacher in a school, managing an administrative section during elections, and working with a magazine. In short, I did various jobs to support my children. I gradually managed to connect with people and other jobs. I tried to be active, especially in the women’s sector. As a woman who was forced into marriage in childhood and had unpleasant experiences, I did everything I could to prevent this from happening to other girls. 

Before the Taliban’s takeover, we established an association to support vulnerable and single moms, aiming to empower them economically and engage them in various activities. Alongside these activities, I edited books to generate income. I loved writing and recently wrote a book. It remained unpublished until recently, when I managed to get it published, and the proceeds are intended to help two single moms in Kabul. 

ZT: Tell us about the book “Gisoo-e-Daar.” Why did you write this book? 

Darwazi: My goal was to narrate the violence, forced childhood marriages, and bitter experiences I went through. Some friends and relatives did not welcome my book because exposing truths in a traditional and conservative society like ours is not easy and is considered a “loss of honour” and “shame.” However, I wrote the truth, starting with my own story. If I don’t speak out about the things happening in my household, these bitter, hidden truths would persist and affect others.  

The book narrates my life as a young girl in Afghanistan and my forced marriage. I suddenly went to the house of a man who was no different from a Taliban – he spared no physical or mental torture towards me. I wrote about how I endured those days and how I separated from him and raised my two children as a single mother in a conservative society. I concluded the book where I began my struggle for a bright future.  

I wrote this book hoping that girls would read it and understand that no one has the right to darken their futures and that they shouldn’t allow anyone to take away the freedoms and happiness they can experience. The reason I clandestinely unveiled the book in Kabul was also a protest move, aiming to draw attention to the situation of two of our comrades who were detained and to highlight the rights that had been stripped from women in Afghanistan.  

I am working on the book’s second part, which covers the recent fall of Afghanistan and subsequent events. 

ZT: What led you to join the women’s protest movement? 

Darwazi: After Kabul fell into the hands of the Taliban, I tried to calm myself for a few days, thinking that there was nothing we could do. I kept telling myself that today I was at home, tomorrow I would be at home, and the day after tomorrow I would be at home, as well. I envisioned history repeating itself, us being confined at home again, and the thought of what the future holds for my children was harrowing. When I realized that the Taliban were again imposing their strict rules, I tried to join protest movements.  

I began this with friends I was in contact with. I wasn’t present when friends started the protests, but I followed them. Later, we gradually organized and planned protest movements to do something, however small, that would change our destiny and that of our fellow women. 

ZT: Can you share your experiences and challenges during the protests? 

Darwazi: My last protest was in front of Kabul University [in January 2022], where I had beaten one of the Taliban soldiers. They threatened me, beat us, insulted us, and humiliated us. They even sprayed us with pepper spray. 

I always acted cautiously and so I didn’t directly go home. I tried to roam the city and markets so they wouldn’t know where I was going or my home address if I was being followed. I had informed my friends that three people were following me, and if my phones went off, they should be sure that they had taken me. I entered a market and they were gone about 45 minutes later.  

Two or three days after that protest, I was busy with social media at home in the morning when the guard informed me that someone had come to the block’s gate. He said they had my picture and asked if this lady was there. Unaware of the situation, the gatekeeper said she was there. When the gatekeeper mentioned this to me, I was sure the person was from the Taliban because no one else was looking for me. I don’t know how the Taliban found my home address that day, but I managed to escape, wearing a burqa as a disguise. 

I was forced to leave my children at home because they would have recognized me if I took them outside. I contacted my mother and asked her to get my father out of the house because he was old and weak and couldn’t confront the threats and terror of the Taliban. 

Around 8 or 9 in the evening, I saw on Facebook news that Tahmina Zariab Paryani and her sisters had been arrested. That morning, after the Taliban came to my block, I had video-called the sisters and insisted they not say anything to members of the movement about me being followed. I told them I didn’t want any trouble or dispersion within the movement because of my arrest. I told them to continue their path. 

Then I saw bizarre reactions when the news of Tahmina Paryani’s arrest with her sisters was published that night. Everyone was mocking it. For example, they said it was a lie, it wasn’t real, and it was a drama! After that, I posted online, urged my dear friends to take the issue seriously and warned that they should seek refuge in a safe place because the Taliban had come to my door that morning. 

Around midnight the same evening as Tahmina’s arrest, Taliban intelligence came back to my house. They broke the gate, entered the hallway, and finally broke into our apartment. My mother, brother, sisters, and my two children were home. They beat my mother and sister, who were taking care of my two children. They frightened my children and wanted to take them with them. They beat my sister when she wouldn’t allow them to take my children. They even tried to take her forcefully, but our neighbours intervened. 

I wasn’t there, but my family said there wasn’t even space to step into our hallway! Imagine about 20 to 30 people entering a house to arrest one woman! I wasn’t a murderer or an assailant. I hadn’t done anything against the laws and norms of my country. I just wanted my human rights as a woman and asking for such rights anywhere in the world is not a crime. I wanted my rights and I wanted the rights of my fellow women, so I took to the streets. 

For about 20 days, I moved from one house to another in Kabul, changing my location to stay alive and continue my path. We were waiting for friends to find a way out of Kabul. For about five or six days, I stayed in an apartment in Shar-e-Naw with some fellow women activists. Our contact brought my two children there. Though I was in a precarious situation, having my children with me was important. We stayed until we found out that the Taliban had arrested Mursal Ayar, who had seen our place. Fearing our address might be in the hands of the Taliban, we moved to another safe house. The next day, our contact told us that the Taliban had raided the old apartment the previous night.  

We were told they were transferring us to a safe place where nothing would happen to us.They moved us at night to a building that didn’t even have locked doors. It was a ruined building with filthy rugs, where our children trembled from the intense cold. Gradually, more activists joined us. I said that I don’t feel safe here. We were in a condition where we couldn’t make rational decisions or speak because stress and terror were with us all the time, especially when we heard that our friends had been arrested. I was petrified and extremely terrified. Of course, I wasn’t so afraid of death, but I feared rape. 

ZT: Were you arrested from the same safe house? 

Darwazi: Yes. One night, while my children were playing and I couldn’t sleep due to exhaustion, suddenly a Taliban soldier with a turban and black clothing came to me and asked for my mobile phone. I raised my head, handed him my phone, and said nothing. I couldn’t speak and was in another world for a few minutes. I couldn’t understand what was happening. My children, who had witnessed the Taliban’s attack on our previous house, started screaming and yelling when they realized the Taliban were there. I was in shock until I saw a Taliban approaching them. I snapped out of it, stood up, screamed, and hit my head and face. I kept repeating, “Oh, I raised these two unfortunate ones and handed them over to the Taliban.” 

The Taliban backed away from my children, and I hugged them. The only thing I heard at that moment was the screams and cries of my friends. My throat was dry, and I only saw the Taliban roaming with their guns there. 

That night, they put us in Rangers and transferred us to the Ministry of Interior. Early one morning, a female prison guard woke me up to say that my stoning sentence had been issued! I was genuinely stunned, and after my tears flowed, the first thing that came to my mind was my children, and I said, “If they stone us, what will they do with the children?” She said they would give the children to your families or an orphanage. When I looked at my friends, I couldn’t tell them to prepare for our stoning sentences. I couldn’t speak. Imagine lumping in your throat that you can’t swallow or spit out! I was very horrified and couldn’t say anything. Fortunately, this didn’t happen, but I will never forget those 18 days I spent in the detention centre. The bitterness of it still accompanies me, and I experience a gradual death every day. Although a long time has passed since then, I still die and come to life every day. When I see my son becoming more aggressive and experiencing fear and stress, I die and come to life. 

I will never forget what I experienced. I saw a friend try to suffocate herself with her chador. I took the scissors from my friend’s hand because she wanted to cut her neck. Can I forget these bitter experiences? The physical torture of being beaten, the pain, and the wounds may heal, but being under psychological pressure is terrifying. 

ZT: What did you do after being released from Taliban prison? 

Darwazi: I genuinely didn’t want to leave Afghanistan after my release. My children and I didn’t have passports, and we weren’t pursuing obtaining them because I had tasted the bitterness of migration and knew there was nothing worse than leaving your country and wandering in exile. Therefore, I stayed for a few months and resumed my previous activities, including distributing food to single mothers. 

However, because I was under the surveillance of the Taliban intelligence, I was forced to leave the country. A group contacted me, saying they could help. With a passport they arranged for me, they transported me to Pakistan. I stayed there for a while, and when I saw no progress in moving forward, I confided in an Iranian woman I knew from the early days of protests. She spoke to the Norwegian ambassador, and I received a message through the embassy that they wanted to relocate me. I accepted and was transferred to a hotel arranged by the embassy. About five days later, I was granted a visa, and I went to the airport with my two children, intending to leave Pakistan. We had passed all the gates at the airport until, at the last gate, where I was supposed to board the plane, Pakistani police stopped me and said my passport was fake. I asked, “What do you mean? I’ve been in Pakistan for four or five months and got a Pakistan visa with this passport, and I got a Norway visa with this passport. How can it be fake?” 

They kept me and my children at the airport for two nights and then handed us over to the Federal Investigation Agency (FIA) or the internal intelligence. The police were well-behaved until one of their soldiers said, “Bustard Afghans.” I was shocked for a minute and then confronted him, asking why he called Afghans bustards. “Have I wronged? Have I stolen money?” I asked. He said, “We come here with fake passports.” I said, “If I have committed a crime, insult me, but don’t generalize it to everyone.” He treated me very rudely and aggressively. My children were scared. My son was crying, asking if they were going to give our mother back to the Taliban. 

I stayed in prison for almost two nights until finally my children and I were freed. I had to go to court every day for six months and endured repeated troubles, bitterness, and misfortunes. I was so exhausted that I thought it would be better if a Taliban shot us with a gun and ended it there rather than enduring this much misfortune. After six months, with the help of the Norwegian government, to whom I am forever indebted, they allowed me to leave. 

When we stepped onto the streets, our only goal was to reclaim the rights taken from us. We wanted to make our voice heard to the international audience, which itself was the cause of our rights being taken away. We wanted to show that this generation is not the one to sit quietly in the face of injustice. We were very optimistic that we could achieve good results in this regard; however, a concern bothered me: the involvement of some individuals who had previously benefited from the republican government and were now trying to align themselves with our protests. After that, our struggle took on two dimensions: the struggle against the Taliban and the struggle against individuals who have Taliban-like thoughts and pursued their interests. 

Slowly, I saw that, though the protests spread in other parts of the country, the fear that girls might fall victim to the Taliban’s rape, assault, and torture prevented the expansion of the protests. Our friends and comrades who managed to move to safe places still have activities, and we have kept our voices loud through social media networks to make others understand that we are entirely against the thoughts and beliefs of the Taliban. We refuse to accept this group until fundamental changes are made, and we refuse to let the Taliban rule our land in any way.