Afghan activist who was ‘erased’ by Taliban reveals how women are ‘suffering’ in Iran


A young women’s rights activist from Afghanistan recently left the country and travelled to Iran.

Women in both countries have few rights – but the activist told Sky News that when she arrived she saw a massive difference between the two places.

That was until Iranian women revealed how they suffered under the Islamic Republic’s regime.

We are keeping the activist anonymous to protect her safety. This is her story:

Almost three years of living in Afghanistan under the Taliban regime has systemically erased me and my fellow Afghan women from public life.

During this time, I struggled with deep depression and mental health crises, like countless women in the country.

There was no hope my situation would improve so my brother urged me to go travelling with him.

For most of people in Afghanistan, there are two countries we can travel to – Pakistan and Iran.

But because I’m a women’s rights activist and there has been a women’s revolution in Iran after the death of Mahsa Amini, I chose to go to Iran.

Mahsa Amini
Mahsa Amini. Pic: Reuters

In the first days of our arrival, I could see women everywhere – in the streets, schools, universities, parks, restaurants – free to wear and do what they want at any time.

One day, I went to a beauty salon in the Mashhad area of Iran.

When I entered, there was a woman who just entered the salon before me. She was crying and all the women in the salon were welcoming her with tears and open hugs.

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Waiting for my turn, I got more information about Sapideh. She was a well-known client of the salon for years.

She had lost her father recently – her only parent – and had been at home overcoming her grief and loss. It sounded like she didn’t have any other family or friends to support her in this difficult time.

The ladies in the beauty salon listened to her words and cries and everyone did their best to comfort her.

When I was leaving, I could see that three women were working on her face, hair, and nails. She had stopped crying.

FILE PHOTO: Iranian women walk on a street amid the implementation of the new hijab surveillance in Tehran, Iran, April 15, 2023. Majid Asgaripour/WANA (West Asia News Agency) via REUTERS ATTENTION EDITORS - THIS IMAGE HAS BEEN SUPPLIED BY A THIRD PARTY./File Photo
Iranian women on a street in Tehran as new hijab surveillance was implemented last year. Pic: Reuters

In Afghanistan, beauty salons – the small spaces that allow women to help and support each other – are all closed.

On my way to the hotel, I saw women driving, or women without hijab who were free – and my mind could only think of Afghan women.

Because we are used to it, we don’t know that our rights and our freedoms have been stolen from us.

The Taliban have dramatically curtailed the rights of women and girls since they regained power. Pic: AP
The Taliban have dramatically curtailed the rights of women and girls since they regained power. Pic: AP

During those first days, I was constantly comparing our situation with Iranian women – I couldn’t find any similarity between our struggles, even though both countries can be described as having gender apartheid regimes.

In Afghanistan, women are fighting for basic human rights that we are denied, but Iranian women already appear to have them all.

afghanistan women
Women in Afghanistan. Pic: Reuters

Iranian women are suffering but I wasn’t able to see that as I am one of the millions of Afghan women who are subject to suffering, oppression, and pain.

Meeting Tranom, a young Iranian teenager, in the bathroom of a shopping mall, changed my mind.

Tranom, who was 16, had short purple hair, no hijab, and was wearing a T-shirt and jeans. She told me that when she had a proper hijab, she had been arrested three times.

“It was too bad for a woman to be arrested in my society but now I’m not scared anymore. I wear what I want,” she said.

A young women films during a protest in Iran earlier in October
A young women films during a protest in Iran in October 2022

When I was in Tehran, I met Zari, a construction engineering student.

We discussed my first impressions of Iran. Zari said that the regime is mostly targeting the young generation of Iranians.

Areas that have more young people also have more trouble and tensions.

“You might have not seen the vans of Gasht-a Ershad, the Iranian morality police, in other areas but you can see one of them in [the] neighbourhood where the university is located and the parks where female and male students go,” said Zari.

Young Iranian women, especially students, are oppressed every day under the pretext that their hijab is not worn correctly, I learned from Zari.

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When I travelled with my brother to Kish Island, in southern Iran, I met Fatima, a teacher who was there with her daughter and husband.

She spoke about a deep mental health crisis and depression among Iranian women.

EDITORS' NOTE: Reuters and other foreign media are subject to Iranian restrictions on leaving the office to report, film or take pictures in Tehran. A couple watches swimmers as they stand on the beach of Kish Island, 1,250 kilometers (777 miles) south of Tehran April 26, 2011 . REUTERS/Caren Firouz (IRAN - Tags: SOCIETY TRAVEL)
A couple watch swimmers on Kish Island. Pic: Reuters

While we were sitting on the beach of the Persian Gulf, she asked me to watch each woman who was passing in front of us.

She told me that Kish Island is one of the most expensive places in the country – many Iranians dream of visiting. The people here are the wealthy of Iran, she says.

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Meet the women living in a warzone

“When you are looking at women, you see they wear expensive clothes and they have plastic surgery and sometimes heavy make-up,” said Fatima.

“But none of them are happy because they have been oppressed by the regime. Because they are not free.”

“The fear from the morality police [is that they] never leave them alone. They all are aware of countless young women who have been arrested under the hijab pretext, and they have been raped, tortured, killed and disappeared. We all are alive but we are not living.”

Gender apartheid must be codified as a crime against humanity – let all Afghan and Iranian women live free.

On World Press Freedom Day, our contributor’s story shows there is no freedom for Afghan women

There is so much that is revealing about this young Afghan woman’s observations and comparisons with life for women in Iran.

And so much that is tragically sad too.

After more than two years of oppressive restrictions, she’s almost inured to them.

She’s horribly aware she’s lost a lot but like an old photograph, the memories of those “freedoms” are fading.

She almost casually mentions how her brother accompanies her to Iran for a “holiday” – a trip possible after obtaining a Taliban permit allowing her to go but only if she is escorted by her mahram or blood relative who acts as her chaperone (in this case, her brother).

Even beyond the country’s borders, the long arm of the Afghan Taliban stretches and curtails.

How restrictive this is for women with no male relatives or who are living with those who wield dominant control.

She observes how women in a regime considered one of the most restrictive in the world appear almost blessed compared to Afghan women.

Those in Iran have the one “freedom” cruelly denied to her and her fellow Afghan women: being able to learn.

In Afghanistan today, women cannot freely work, walk, or wear what and wherever they want.

She visits a beauty salon in Iran and is delighted to see women supporting others.

They were once female-only safe havens for Afghan women – where women sought support, comfort and exchanged ideas.

But this too was deemed unacceptable in Afghanistan under the Taliban.

They figured the salons may have been where women plotted their protest marches.

Now women spend days, weeks and months locked away in their homes, too scared, too intimidated or simply unable to leave without breaking the Taliban code.

Access to parks is restricted to certain days, the sexes segregated entirely but also the ability to talk and mix with other women has been inevitably curtailed.

The vast bulk of female journalists have had to stop work since the Taliban seized power in 2021.

Some fled the country and are in exile. Others fled underground – and write secretly and anonymously – like our contributor.

There is no World Press Freedom Day for female Afghan journalists and without media freedom, there is no freedom for Afghanistan.

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