Behind the Story: The Other Afghan Women

How our reporter was able to meet with women in an area controlled by the Taliban.
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Inside The New Yorker
How our reporter was able to meet with women in an area controlled by the Taliban.

From Anand Gopal



This past spring, around the time that President Joe Biden announced that U.S. forces would be withdrawing from Afghanistan by September 11th, I happened to reread a short story by the science-fiction writer Ursula K. Le Guin, "The Ones Who Walked Away from Omelas." It describes a serene utopia, named Omelas, with grand public houses, avenues of trees, and a bountiful farmers' market. Through some cruel arrangement, though, this Valhalla of "prosperity and beauty and delight" functions only because, in a basement beneath one of the beautiful houses, a small child is locked in a cell. "I will be good!" the child cries. "Please let me out." The paradise depends on the continued internment of this child—a reality that most citizens uncomfortably accept.


When reading this parable about utilitarianism—the doctrine that we should judge right and wrong by what brings happiness to the greatest number of people—I couldn't help but be reminded of Afghanistan, a country I had once lived in for three years, and have been reporting on for more than a decade. When I first moved to Kabul, in 2008, I fell in love with the city's hillside houses, its smoky cafés, its stalls selling burgundy-colored rugs. I made dear friends, and the city came to feel like home. Several months ago, I called my friends to discuss the U.S. withdrawal. They were journalists, doctors, academics—the kinds of urban Afghans whose sense of liberty had expanded the most over the past two decades. They were deeply worried—as was I—about the fate of their city after September.


Yet there was another Afghanistan, in far-off provinces like Helmand, where the bulk of America's war was being fought. I wondered how the impending withdrawal looked through the eyes of people living there. In Helmand, the Taliban-controlled Sangin Valley was one of the most heavily bombed regions on Earth. Could Sangin be, like the imprisoned child in Omelas, the price of progress? I decided to go there.


The Other Afghan Women


In the countryside, the endless killing of civilians turned women against the occupiers who claimed to be helping them.


By Anand Gopal


The first challenge was securing the Taliban's permission to enter their domains. The movement is hostile to the free press, and rogue commanders have kidnapped reporters. Fortunately, over years of reporting in rural Afghanistan I'd developed contacts with the organization, and it approved my request to visit Sangin, although I did not explain my primary interest, which would have been too controversial for the Taliban: I wanted to speak to women living in their territory.


Meeting women in Helmand is difficult. The southern countryside is deeply conservative; you can spend days driving on the rutted dirt paths, or walking along the ill-kept irrigation canals, and not see a single woman outdoors. Usually, only grandmothers are given leeway to speak to unrelated men. Fortunately, a friend introduced me to a female relative of his, who helped connect me to other women. Each time, I'd tell them, "I'd like to hear your life story, from the beginning." We'd spend hours, sometimes days, poring over details and revisiting distant memories. I would call each woman's friends, asking for their recollections. Sometimes I met multiple women at once. Often they spoke with one another in Pashto, a language I understand, and I silently soaked up their stories.


By the time I met Shakira, the subject of "The Other Afghan Women," I had a strong sense of the arc of the life of an impoverished woman in Sangin. But Shakira's sheer determination to survive—to cling to hope for a better life for herself and her children—struck me as a powerful lens through which to view the past two decades. Like the other women I met in Sangin, she spoke of forced evacuations from her village, and of terrifying nights hiding in a ditch behind her house. When she mentioned deaths in her family, it was usually in passing. But, as our conversations continued, it became clear that Shakira, like other women in the area, had suffered an extraordinary number of losses. Although I had reported in Afghanistan for years, I was taken aback by the scale of her personal tragedy.


Not long after I left Helmand, the Taliban marched into Kabul. There are no easy answers to Afghanistan's tragedy: I mourned for my friends in Kabul, even as I breathed a sigh of relief for those in Sangin. Yet, as I watched pundits and cable-news anchors debating the ethics of our withdrawal, I could not shake Le Guin's description of Omelas and what it might suggest about America's role in the world. Many of Omelas's citizens accept the moral compromise at the heart of their society, but others cannot bear such a weight on their consciences. "They leave Omelas, they walk ahead into the darkness, they do not come back," Le Guin writes. "They seem to know where they are going, the ones who walk away."


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