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Award-winning human rights defender Mahbouba Seraj does not bend in the face of violence

Publication date 11.12.2023 13.36
Mahbouba Seraj.
Photo: Marcus Yam via Getty Images

International Gender Equality Prize recipient, Afghan Women's Skills Development Center's leader Mahbouba Seraj runs Afghanistan's only remaining women's shelter. The need for protection only grows by day.

Text: Katri Merikallio

A safe hand on the shoulder, a cup of tea, a warm bath. Only after that do we start talking to the abused girl in the shelter. Organization leader Mahbouba Seraj, 75, has seen the darkest face of domestic violence: ears cut off, noses cut off, arms broken, bodies beaten black and Deaths.

"But only when the girl bathes and has put on clean clothes, we talk and write their story down. And then there will be crying."

For a video interview, Mahbouba Seraj has covered her silver white hair with a gray scarf in Kabul. To the 70 women and girls living in the shelter, she says that she is first and foremost a mother, and to the youngest girls, a grandmother. To the reporter, she speaks in a gentle voice about her "girls", and says that she is concerned for their future.

Violence against women is a huge problem in Afghanistan. Most of the women who end up in shelters have fled from abusive husbands or in-laws. Young girls are running away from their parents, who want to marry them off by force. 

In a situation of violence, women generally have only two options: run away from home or commit suicide. More and more women choose the latter, because it has become very hard to find safety.
When the Taliban came to power more than two years ago, there were 27 shelters in the country. Only one is left now. All others have had to close their doors. There are 20 million women and girls in the country, and there is a huge need for new shelters.

The shelter was founded by an NGO called the Afghan Women's Skills Development Center. Seraj has led the organization since 2018. Now the organization has received an International Gender Equality Prize from the Finnish government for its meritorious work. It is 300,000 euros in size.
Seraj says that Finland's long-term support for Afghan women has been substantial.

"Finland has also supported the operation of the shelter already in its early years. The support has been invaluable."

The rope was waiting

Taliban policemen bring girls they find on the streets to Seraj, but many are also taken to prison – or returned to abusive husbands. Running away from home has been defined as a crime by the Taliban. As punishment, women have been flogged in public.

Prison in Afghanistan has never been safe for anyone. Human rights organizations have reported that Taliban men have raped, tortured and killed women in prisons. "Prison is definitely not a place where these girls belong," says Seraj.

She knows what she's talking about. Seraj herself has spent time in the country's most notorious Pul-e-Charkh prison - albeit 45 years ago and for just a few weeks. There was a military coup in the country in 1978, and the entire royal family – including Seraj – was taken straight to prison.

“I was sure we would be shot right away. But when I got off the bus, I saw the gallows in front of the prison. I started walking towards them. It was clear that would be our fate. And then someone grabbed my shoulders and turned me towards the prison. I rejoiced.”

A few weeks later, in the dark of the night, a guard escorted 28-year-old Seraj out of the cell. Two days later she was already in Germany. The family's relations with the world were strong.
For a quarter of a century, Seraj lived in the United States as an exile and tried to forget her homeland, which had sunk into violence - but failed.

"I couldn't get Afghanistan out of me. When the Taliban were driven out of Kabul in 2001, I decided it was time for me to return and become a mouthpiece for Afghan women. I knew I would be good at it.”

Mothers in danger

After the Taliban's five years of power from 1996 to 2001, the country was in an inconsolable mess. Afghanistan was one of the most dangerous places in the world to become a mother: women were dying while giving birth, babies were dying. Something had to be done, Seraj thought. 

She started campaigning for safe childbirth with both international and Afghan NGOs.

"I spoke about hygiene, I spoke about the importance of training midwives, I spoke against forced marriages and against all the bad cultural traditions that women in Afghanistan are subjected to."

Seraj also hosted a radio program called "My Beloved Afghanistan, Mahbouba Seraj", which discussed the same issues. "It became a very popular program, and the message reached even the most remote villages."

Over the years, maternal and child mortality began to decrease, the position of women in legislation improved, and more girls got to school. And when the position of women in working life became stronger, domestic violence against women also decreased.

But then it all came crashing down. In August 2021, the United States and its allies withdrew their troops from the country, leaving the Afghans at the mercy of the Taliban again. Most female human rights defenders fled the country, as did decision-makers, prosecutors, doctors and politicians. They sensed that, despite the promises, there would be no renewed version of Taliban. 

As it didn't come. Of the approximately 80 orders or edict imposed by the group, 56 of them specifically target women’s lives. Girls and women were once again covered in burkas and robes. Middle schools, universities and most workplaces were closed to them. A woman's place is at home, the Taliban announced.

"I'm not going to run away anymore"

In 2018, Mahbouba Seraj took over the AWSDC organization and its various functions across the country. When the Taliban returned to Kabul, Seraj could not leave the shelter girls at their mercy.

"I decided to stay. Someone had to witness what would happen to this country and its women.”

Since then, Seraj has been visibly and loudly fighting for the rights of Afghan women in different parts of the world, and has received high level recognition for her work. 

In September 2022, Seraj sat in front of the large round hall of the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva. She had covered her hair with a white scarf and looked confident.

"I saw with my own eyes how 20 years of work to build democracy disappeared within 24 hours," said Seraj. "Now my country is sinking into despair, when everything we have worked for has been lost."

"Afghan women no longer have human rights, we are erased, we have become invisible. Do you know how that feels?” she demanded to know from the full hall. The diplomats remained silent. Seraj's voice began to rise. "Today’s Afghanistan, human rights don’t exist. We are dying. For heaven’s sake, world, stop talking. You’ve got to do something.”

Seraj had come to Geneva to share his views at the request of the UN, and she did not spare her words any more towards the West than towards the Taliban.

But from Geneva, Seraj flew back to Kabul.

"I already had to flee my home country once. I'm not going to leave anymore. I'm going back home," she says.

Where do women make a living?

Working with AWSDC keeps Seraj's days full. She eats an early breakfast with her two adopted daughters at the shelter. After that, she meets people from various organizations and the UN, pushes things forward, encourages, inspires and, if necessary, puts pressure on the decision-makers.

Almost 300 people already work under Seraj, most of them women. Although women's work is prohibited, the Taliban look down on this. They know Seraj and know her reputation in the world. In 2023, she was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize. It protects her.

In addition to the shelter, the organization has small family centers in eight provinces. In them, the most disadvantaged women and their children receive food, medical care and emotional support.

"After more than 40 years of war, there are an estimated 3.5-4 million female widows in this country. After the Taliban came to power, they can no longer go to work or earn a living except in a very limited way," says Seraj.

According to the UN, every household headed by women suffers from a lack of food every day. The humanitarian crisis of the country hits them the hardest.

"We are trying to make the Taliban understand that these women are the only breadwinners of their families, that it is necessary for them to work, that they must be able to move out of their homes. But for some strange reason, the Taliban does not understand or accept this."

According to Mahbouba Seraj, women now above all need new skills to support their families. Traditional Afghan crafts – weaving, stitching and jewelry making – are not on the Taliban's banned list, at least not yet. Therefore, AWSDC is training more and more women to become experts in these fields.

"Afghan women are really good at handicrafts and clothing design. Women make, for example, high-quality jackets and jewelry, which are in genuine demand worldwide. We cannot rely solely on outside help. It quickly turns people into beggars."

Dialogue necessary

International pressure does not seem to bite the top leadership of the Taliban. Still, Mahbouba Seraj believes that dialogue with the Taliban is the only way to push for change for the better. She does not want a new civil war in her country. Over 40 years of fighting is enough.

Seraj herself directly, publicly and regularly challenges Taliban leaders to open schools for girls and jobs for women. And even though the Taliban leadership is now held by the old conservative men, Seraj believes in change.

"No oppressive system lasts forever. The Taliban may not have changed, but Afghan women have: they are more educated and have found their own voice. They are networking with other women in the world, and it is with the support of these networks that the voice of 20 million Afghan women is heard strongly."

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