Dispatch

The view from the ground.

Meet the Woman Who Makes the Taliban Squirm

Tafsir Siyaposh has spent the past year pressing the Taliban on women’s rights by besting them at their own theological jousts on live television.

By , a freelance journalist based in Kabul.
Tafsir Siyaposh visits a friend in Kabul to discuss what can be done about the current situation of women in Afghanistan on June 2.
Tafsir Siyaposh visits a friend in Kabul to discuss what can be done about the current situation of women in Afghanistan on June 2.
Tafsir Siyaposh visits a friend in Kabul to discuss what can be done about the current situation of women in Afghanistan on June 2. Ali M. Latifi for Foreign Policy

KABUL—When Tafsir Siyaposh sat down to debate a self-professed religious scholar on Afghan television last September, the Taliban had just announced an all-male, all-Taliban caretaker government only a month after returning to power in Afghanistan.

 The 31-year old former government spokesperson was more than prepared to debate the man sitting only a few feet from her about the lack of women in the Islamic Emirate’s cabinet. She wore a black abaya with gold trim and looked straight into the camera as she calmly asked why no woman was consulted about the Taliban’s new acting government. Using her deep knowledge of Islam, Siyaposh wanted to show the Taliban and their supporters that the Afghan people didn’t need instruction in their religion.

She reeled off a litany of the most common recitations and sayings of Islam that should—but don’t—serve as a moral compass for a government calling itself an Islamic Emirate. 

KABUL—When Tafsir Siyaposh sat down to debate a self-professed religious scholar on Afghan television last September, the Taliban had just announced an all-male, all-Taliban caretaker government only a month after returning to power in Afghanistan.

 The 31-year old former government spokesperson was more than prepared to debate the man sitting only a few feet from her about the lack of women in the Islamic Emirate’s cabinet. She wore a black abaya with gold trim and looked straight into the camera as she calmly asked why no woman was consulted about the Taliban’s new acting government. Using her deep knowledge of Islam, Siyaposh wanted to show the Taliban and their supporters that the Afghan people didn’t need instruction in their religion.

She reeled off a litany of the most common recitations and sayings of Islam that should—but don’t—serve as a moral compass for a government calling itself an Islamic Emirate. 

“We recite, ‘On the righteous path,’ God guide us on the right path, so, why today, when we want God take us on the correct path, do we distance ourselves from that path?” Siyaposh asked her co-panelist and the host, journalist Bahram Aman. She pointed out that the Islamic Emirate is not granting Afghan women the rights bequeathed to them by Islam.

When her co-panelist countered that Islam only keeps women from being president of a country, Siyaposh responded by saying that, for now, the women of Afghanistan are only asking to be part of the cabinet once again, not the presidency.

That night, her knowledge was on clear display, and it evidently impressed the young host. Aman was struck by the fact that the guests appeared to be on equal footing when talking about Islam. “We are so fortunate to have two guests who have a deep understanding of religious matters,” he said.

Siyaposh insists that her knowledge of Islam is the norm, not the exception, among Afghan women. “Afghanistan was Muslim in the past, it is Muslim, and it will remain Muslim tomorrow,” she told me. This belief is why she has been motivated to take on the Taliban and their ideological supporters on the Afghan airwaves over the last year.

She often reminds people that she always wore a black abaya with traditional embroidered trim, even during the Islamic Republic, and that it was her father who encouraged her to speak up and pursue excellence in academics and athletics without sacrificing her Afghan culture or Islamic beliefs. 

“Every Afghan knows how to dress and respects the hijab in accordance with our Afghan culture,” she said in response to Taliban statements that their current restrictions on women are in fact a reflection of the Islamic faith and Afghan traditions.

To her, whether Afghan women are taking to the streets in protest, appearing on television, or holding meetings and press conferences, they are not asking for much. What Siyaposh has been asking for over the last year is a return to all facets of Afghan society by women and girls. Siyaposh says the most egregious offense by the Taliban is the continued closure of secondary schools for teenage girls. To Siyaposh, it is the ultimate example of the lack of respect for Islamic norms. When discussing this issue, she often refers back to the story of the first time the Prophet Mohammed received the word of God from the angel Gabriel. “What was the first word uttered to him? ‘Read.’”

But it’s more than just secondary schools. Siyaposh wants all Afghan women to be able to return to work. Again, she comes back to Mohammed, whose first wife, Khadija, was a notable businesswoman, when making the argument that women should not be kept from the workplace.

And as a government worker who is now unable to do her job, she wants Afghan women to be included in the government, saying women are half the population and know what they need better than anyone else.

Since the Taliban takeover last August, the reinvigoration of women’s rights in Afghanistan has come to a screeching halt. Women have been told not to return to most government offices (though they still receive a reduced government salary at home), and fewer venture out on the streets. They also need a male relative chaperone to travel long distances. The Ministry of Women’s Affairs was replaced by the Taliban’s Ministry for the Propagation of Virtue and Prevention of Vice, whose workers wear white lab coats and “suggest” to women and men   how they should dress and behave in an Islamic Emirate.

The Taliban “keep saying ‘give us time,’ but what they don’t realize is that all we are asking for is our basic rights under Islam,” Siyaposh said.

Like millions of other women in Afghanistan, Siyaposh’s life has seen major changes since the Taliban returned to power. She lost her job as a spokesperson in the former Western-backed Islamic Republic (though she does still receive wages) as a result of the Taliban’s restrictions on education, employment, and travel for women. But she refused to be confined to the four walls of a house.

Over the last year, Siyaposh began lecturing at a private university in Kabul. Most importantly, though, she has made countless appearances on local and international media. Each time, she has set out to remind the Taliban and their supporters that the religion she has practiced her entire life grants rights to all people, including women, rather than taking them away. Whether she is addressing the Afghan public on television or having an intimate conversation with a group of friends in a Kabul residence, her conversations are always sprinkled with verses from the Quran, the sayings of the Prophet Mohammed, or the writings of the 13th-century poet Jalaluddin Balkhi, also known as Rumi.

“I’ve been with the people, so I saw it as my duty to raise their voices,” she said.

Given the widespread nature of the Taliban crackdown on civil rights, she acknowledges that all Afghans need to be supported right now. But she is most often called on to speak about the restrictions the Taliban have placed (again) on women. Afghanistan is the only country in the world where girls are banned from attending secondary school.

“Right now, women feel shut out from education, the economy, and society, but that’s not Islam,” she said, explaining why she continues to go on television and debate men who try to come up with justifications for shackling women. “We must speak the truth at all times.”

She said that quest for truth is what has protected her in a year when the United Nations and human rights groups have repeatedly documented Taliban abuses in Afghanistan, with women suffering an especially brutal year.

Her authenticity has won her a large following, even though she has eschewed social media for traditional outlets. Whether she’s shopping in a market or just walking down the street, she said she gets stopped by supporters who want a selfie with her. Even the security manager at an upmarket Kabul hotel proved to be an avid follower. When he found out she would be conducting an interview in the hotel’s cafe, his face lit up in delight. “I follow all of her interviews. She’s so smart and well spoken. It’s really a source of pride for the entire Afghan nation,” he said.

Siyaposh said that level of support is ultimately what has kept her safe—so far—at a time when so many other voices have been silenced. Her deep grounding in Afghan culture and her encyclopedic knowledge of Islamic theology offer a shield of sorts against Taliban intransigence.

“When we stand by Afghan culture, they can’t help but respect us.”

Ali M. Latifi is a freelance journalist based in Kabul. He has reported from Qatar, Turkey, Greece, Washington, and more than a dozen provinces of Afghanistan. He has worked with Al Jazeera English, the Los Angeles Times, CNN, and Deutsche Welle.

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