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With salons shut down, Afghan women lose key income, and the last safe space: activist | CBC Radio

As It Happens8:23With salons shut down, Afghan women lose key income, and the last safe space: activist

When the Taliban government ordered the closure of beauty salons in Afghanistan, women lost more than a place to get their hair and nails done, says Mahbouba Seraj.

Many women also lost a key source of income for their families, says Seraj, a veteran journalist and women’s rights advocate in Kabul. And all women have lost the last safe public space where they could freely congregate, communicate and be themselves, she said. 

The Taliban says it banned women’s salons because they provide services forbidden by Islam and caused economic hardship for the families of grooms during wedding festivities.

Seraj doesn’t buy that. She is the executive director of the Afghan Women Skills Development Center. Here is part of her conversation with As It Happens guest host Robyn Bresnahan.

What’s the atmosphere like in Kabul today with the closure of these beauty salons?

One of the biggest questions with all of us women is: Why did that happen? Why was it that they closed it? Because they could have actually, you know, put a lot of restrictions on these beauty salons, like “Do this, and don’t do that, and charge this much” … like regulating it. They didn’t have to close it.

Closing in a country like Afghanistan, especially at this time [when] women are running their families and they are the breadwinners of the families, it’s really affecting a lot of people.

Women in headscarves sit in a salon getting their makeup done.
Beauticians put makeup on customers at Ms. Sadat’s Beauty Salon in Kabul, Afghanistan, on April 25, 2021. Seraj says places like this provided income to the women who worked there. (Rahmat Gul/The Associated Press)

Given how few spaces remain for women to congregate outside the home under Taliban rule, can you give us a sense of what these beauty salons meant to women?

Any time when I went to these salons … you would sit down and talk to the women. And there were other women around, and there was always this whole congregation of women, you know, sitting around and talking and each one of them doing something. And that was a place for women to get together.

And now that is not happening…. It’s taken away, like everything in Afghanistan. A woman cannot go to a bathhouse, for God’s sakes. 

They couldn’t go and sit at a park somewhere underneath the shade of a tree and just breathe some air.

Where is left where a woman in Afghanistan can go to feel that they’re in a safe space somewhere, that they feel that they can be themselves?

Nowhere. The only place is their houses, and I’m sure [the Taliban is] going to enter the houses too, because that’s the only place left. 

How lonely does it feel for you to be a woman in Afghanistan?

Very. Very, very, very. You know, I am right now working, trying to have things as normal as possible, or at least in my head.

Over here, maybe I have a little bit of grass outside in my yard that I can sit there underneath the shade of a tree. But not every woman has access to that.

This is, like, unbelievable. Unbelievable.

I know how it is to be a woman. I was born and raised in this country. I cannot take this anymore.– Mahbouba Seraj, Afghan Women Skills Development Center

There was a small protest last week, of about 50 women. What happened?

The 50 women … went and they protested. And then [the authorities] used these [fire hoses] and they just threw dirty water on them, all of them. And then they did some shots, you know, in the air. And that is, of course, scary for the women … and they all scattered.

This is tyranny. It really is. I mean, what? What are we doing here? What is happening? And the world is watching us. I don’t know. I don’t know what they’re waiting for.

I’m not saying for them to enter and save us and start a fight with the Taliban, another war. That’s not the point. But somebody has to enter and talk about this and get it under control. The Taliban are dying to talk to the Americans. And Americans are refusing to talk to the Taliban. And because they are refusing to talk to the Taliban, the Taliban are doing what they’re doing right now. They’re taking it out on women. 

You’re very upset by this.

I am. Because I’m living it. I’m living it every day…. I have to talk about it. If I don’t talk about it, Robyn, who’s going to talk about it? 

And that’s why you do it? Because I’m afraid that you’re putting yourself at risk even by talking about it [to me].

I know. I know, honey. But I have to do that. I’m the only voice.

There are some … [who] say, you know, “She doesn’t have to do that. She’s not our representative.”

OK, I’m not. But I have a conscience. I’m a woman. I know how it is to be a woman. I was born and raised in this country. I cannot take this anymore. I’m 75 years old.

And from here on, these are the things that I want to do for my people. I have to. I have to do it for the women.

When it comes to the rationale [the Taliban] have given for closing down these beauty salons, they say that they made this order because the large sums spent at these salons … was causing hardships for poor families, [and] some treatments weren’t in line with Shariah law. What do you make of that rationale?

I know that they were charging exuberant amounts of money. [The Taliban] didn’t have to allow that…. They should have said, “No, you can charge this much, not more than that.”

They should have said, “These things you can do to the face or to the hair. But this particular thing, which is the plucking of eyebrows or whatever, don’t do that. That’s not Islamic.”

There’s a lot of things that are not allowed in the male salons, and the male salons are still open.

WATCH | Mahbouba Seraj on the fight for Afghan women’s rights: 

Mahbouba Seraj on the fight to preserve women’s rights in Afghanistan

Mahbouba Seraj, the head of the Afghan Women’s Network, discusses the Taliban’s return to power and the future of women’s rights in Afghanistan with CBC’s Susan Ormiston.

You have told this program in the past that you think Afghan women should return to Afghanistan and stay. But you have also just told me that there’s no public place for women to go anymore. So do you still feel that way?

In the beginning, I wished the women could’ve been here and I wish they would have come back. Now, I don’t want them to come back. Why should they come back? 

No, they shouldn’t. 

Why do you stay?

I have commitments to some women in here that … have been under my care for many, many years in Afghanistan. And I have some commitments to yet more women [to provide] … a safe place for them, [to escape] their houses, their husbands, whatever, they are being treated very badly. 

It’s unbelievable what is going on. Unbelievable… I was among the ones we started all of this. We started to put a system into the country as far as the judges and the courts and the whole thing … to make it work for the women of Afghanistan. And now I see that completely falling apart.

I have to be there. I have to be a witness of history. I have to be here to witness it and to talk about it and to say it. And maybe — maybe — still there might be some people in this world, including the Taliban, that might listen.

I am a living history of Afghanistan, believe it or not. 

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