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Afghanistan: A woman against “peace” with Taliban

Thursday 14 March 2019, by siawi3


Kabul Dispatch
She’s a Force of Nature, and She Just Declared War on Peace With the Taliban

Image : Laila Haidari drives her own car in Kabul, which is a rare and shocking scene to most Afghans. She doesn’t drive slowly, either.CreditCreditKiana Hayeri for The New York Times

By Rod Nordland

Feb. 15, 2019

KABUL, Afghanistan — The driver of a car that was stopped in the middle of the road, blocking traffic, was shocked when a passing motorist rolled down the window and shouted at him, “Dirty donkey.”

He was even more surprised when he looked up to see that the insult came from a woman. A woman driving a car. A woman driving a car without wearing the obligatory hijab.

That was Laila Haidari, who runs a popular cafe in Kabul that allows men and women to dine together, whether married or not, with or without a head scarf, and uses the profits to fund a rehabilitation clinic for drug addicts.

Nearly everyone addresses Ms. Haidari, 39, as “Nana,” or “Mom,” and her supporters describe her as the “mother of a thousand children,” after the number of Afghan addicts she has reportedly saved.

Now, Ms. Haidari plans to start a popular uprising against the continuing peace talks with the Taliban.

“Guys, the Taliban are coming back,” she said one day recently to a mixed group of diners at her restaurant, Taj Begum, which has been subjected to virulent attacks in the local media that have all but compared it to a brothel.

“We have to organize,” she told her customers. “I hope to find 50 other women who will stand up and say, ‘We don’t want peace.’ If the Taliban comes back, you will not have a friend like me, and there will be no restaurant like Taj Begum.”

Image: Ms. Haidari’s Kabul restaurant, Taj Begum, where men and women dine together, whether married or not, with or without a head scarf.CreditKiana Hayeri for The New York Times

Her nearly always crowded restaurant, on the banks of the sewage-drenched Kabul River, is named after a 15th-century warrior princess from Herat who helped rule a vast kingdom, a rare example of female power from that time.

Ms. Haidari is as unusual in her own age.

While most women’s activists in Afghanistan have been Western-financed and supported, she has insisted on organizing her political activity herself, and on her own terms.

“We need to change our own men and our own families first,” Ms. Haidari said in an interview. “Don’t think of me as a victim, like so many of our women in public life seem to be. I’m not going to sit across from the Taliban wearing hijab begging for my rights.”

Few women’s activists here challenge patriarchal social norms to the degree Ms. Haidari does, and those who do, tend to do it quietly and politely. They also tend to come from Western-educated, liberal families who support their rebellion.

Ms. Haidari does it loudly and often rudely, and comes from a religiously conservative family who married her at 12 to a mullah two decades older.

“Ever since age 12, I feel like I’ve been in a boxing ring,” she said. “Back then I didn’t know that child marriage was something unjust, even though I had this feeling I was being raped every night by a full-grown man, and that was wrong.”

Her family had fled to Iran as refugees, and Ms. Haidari bore the mullah three children there. Her husband allowed her to take religious classes, but she secretly began studying general subjects and eventually went to an Iranian university, where she earned a degree in filmmaking.

Ms. Haidari divorced her husband — under Islamic law, he kept the children — and returned to Afghanistan, where she discovered her brother Hakim living under a bridge in Kabul, a heroin addict. She promised God she would open a treatment center for addicts if she could save him, and she did, using the Narcotics Anonymous 12-step method, and a dose of tough love.

Image: Ms. Haidari during a visit to her Mother’s Trust drug rehabilitation clinic.CreditKiana Hayeri for The New York Times

After talking with the patrons of the restaurant, Ms. Haidari bustled out to her car, followed by a small entourage, to visit her addiction rehab center.

She drove herself, and inevitably shouted at other drivers — who, in Afghanistan, are nearly always men — to get out of the way.

She also scolded the driver of a journalists’ car following her, for going too slowly.

At the treatment center, Mother’s Trust, the 20 male addicts have their heads shaved and wear purple uniforms, to discourage them from leaving.

“If they relapse and come here a second time, I shave their eyebrows off too,” Ms. Haidari said.

No smoking is allowed and daily exercise required, and the men share in the work of cooking and cleaning.

“If they break the rules, I’ll beat them,” she said as the men, gathered around her in an affable group, laughed.

Among the men was a severely disabled youth, not an addict. Ms. Haidari said she found him in a trash dump, injured and unable to speak. Despite appeals on social media, no relatives have come forward.

Image: Ms. Haidari performing a body search on a male visitor to the drug treatment center after she was dissatisfied with a guard’s search. Every visitor is obligated to go through a complete search, to stop drugs from being smuggled in.CreditKiana Hayeri for The New York Times

“We don’t even know his name, so we call him Omid,” she said. The name means hope.

The addicts all care for Omid, feeding him, bathing him, handling his toilet needs. “It’s good for them to have someone to take care of,” Ms. Haidari said.

Many of the addicts tell of having been in government treatment programs like Camp Phoenix, financed by international donors, only to find them rife with easily available drugs.

Ms. Haidari says 1,000 graduates from her center have stayed clean for a year or more, out of some 5,000 she says she has treated since founding the clinic eight years ago. She has just opened a second treatment center for addicted women.

Ms. Haidari employs addicts who stay clean in her restaurant, and also in two small shoe factories she has financed.

Back at the restaurant, there is a perpetual cloud of smoke from numerous hookahs, or hubbly-bubbly water pipes, burning flavored tobacco.

Image: Ms. Haidari enjoying tea and live music with her regular customers and friends at her restaurant.CreditKiana Hayeri for The New York Times

Unmarried young Afghan men and women socialize together, something culturally taboo in most Kabul establishments, but the drinks are tea and coffee as alcohol is banned in Afghanistan. The curtains and inner doors have all been removed, to forestall accusations of improper behavior inside.

“This is not just a restaurant,” said one of the diners at Taj Begum, Ilyas Yourish, 24, a filmmaker. “It’s a social center, a place to organize, and we all know she takes the money and puts it into the treatment center. Laila is the most powerful woman around here.”

Hard-liners have complained about the restaurant, and the police have visited too.

Often arrested, she is always released. “I have a lot of friends on social media,” she said.

Neighborhood drug dealers came after her as well, angry at losing customers.

She lives alone in an apartment, which she said two men broke into late one night, not expecting her to have a shotgun under her bed.

“I blasted a hole in the ceiling and they both ran,” she said.

The recent news of a preliminary deal between the Taliban and United States negotiators, calling for an American withdrawal from the country, has fired up Ms. Haidari with her new cause.

“We are face to face with an ideology, not a group of people,” she said. “They believe that women are defined as the second gender and you can’t change that ideology, so I have no hope for Taliban talks.”

Ms. Haidari’s three children, now aged 16 to 21, have fled to Germany from Iran, and while she has not been able to visit them, she is in touch by WhatsApp.

Her work is for them, she said.

“I should have something to tell my own children and my grandchildren, when they ask, ‘What did you do when the Taliban came?’”

Image: A mural at the recently opened Mother’s Trust treatment center for female addicts.CreditKiana Hayeri for The New York Times

Fahim Abed, Fatima Faizi and Kiana Hayeri contributed reporting.