As she meticulously dripped the last few drops of oil onto her aging sewing machine, she uttered a frustrated remark, “When it rains, it pours. Why does this old machine have to break down at the busiest of times?”
Kobra, a 30-year-old woman, resides in one of Kabul city’s impoverished neighborhoods. Married off in her childhood, she now shoulders the responsibility of providing for her eight children – five girls and three boys. Kobra shares a heartbreaking tale of how her husband left for work in Iran, only to disappear for an extended period. When he finally returned, he was plagued with illness and drug addiction, rendering him unable to work and leaving Kobra as the sole provider for her family.
Sewing has been Kobra’s lifeline, providing sustenance and educational fees for her children. However, with the Taliban’s oppressive restrictions on women, Kobra has been forced to dismantle her sewing workshop from the marketplace and relocate it to her home. But the Taliban’s demands for taxes on her meager tailoring income persist, even in her own home.
Filled with frustration and anger, Kobra expresses her sentiment, “It feels like we’re extracting bread from the jaws of the Taliban these days. I work tirelessly for a mere two Afghanis, only for the Taliban to confiscate half of it as their own.”
In an interview with Nimrokh, Kobra said that she used to work at a women’s sewing workshop with her old sewing machine, using the income to pay for her children’s schooling. However, imposing restrictions on women’s work forced the workshop to shut down, leaving Kobra to work alone, struggling to make ends meet. Despite the seasonal surge in demand for her services, in the run-up to the New Year and Eid, for example, Kobra’s income remains insufficient to cover her living expenses.
Kobra had engraved the name of her women’s sewing workshop onto a metal plate and hung it over the wooden gate and worn mud wall of her home. However, the Taliban seized an unjust tax from her for displaying this plate, further eroding Kobra’s already meager income from sewing women’s clothing. The amount extorted by the Taliban amounts to at least half of Kobra’s monthly earnings.
“It’s a grueling task to take care of my children while simultaneously sewing and embroidering clothes on an old wheel,” Kobra lamented. “But what’s even more painful is to see half of my hard-earned income end up in the pockets of the Taliban.”
Despite removing the plate from her house gate, the Taliban continue to extort money from Kobra by visiting her home. Her resistance and attempts to refuse payment did not work and the Taliban even threatened her. Recalling a particular instance, Kobra recounted, “Once I told them that I couldn’t pay because I didn’t have a shop or use electricity. How could they demand tax from an old manual sewing machine that only provides bread for my children? But they accused me of tax evasion and threatened me with a fine.”
Having observed Kobra’s presence in the women’s sewing workshops during their tax collections, the Taliban are familiar with her as well as most of the female tailors in the city. As a result, armed Taliban fighters would sometimes make sudden visits to Kobra’s home to collect their demanded taxes.
Kobra firmly believes that the Taliban’s actions of collecting taxes from home-based Seamstresses are nothing but harassment and theft. The frequent visits of the Taliban to her home not only cause trouble but also result in the extortion of money which Kobra perceives as a blatant act of theft. She feels that the money taken away by the Taliban is nothing but the hard-earned income of women like her who work tirelessly behind their sewing machines from morning till night to provide for their families.
As a result of the decline in Kobra’s income, her children were unable to attend educational centers, and this winter, they were unable to pursue their language and art courses.
Disappointed by the fact that her two daughters cannot continue their education, Kobra is teaching them sewing and handicrafts in order to provide them with skills that could help them earn a livelihood in the future.
Kobra explains that she is trying to keep her daughters occupied during their free time to divert their attention from the disappointment of being unable to attend school. She is also trying to instill in them the importance of financial independence by teaching them professions and crafts. However, her efforts have not been successful so far as her daughters are still longing for education and do not seem interested in learning those professions and crafts.
Despite feeling hopeless about improving their life situation under the rule of the Taliban, Kobra remains determined to keep her daughters hopeful.
The absence of their father is another void in the lives of Kobra’s children, who sometimes long for him and feel his absence. Kobra has to play the role of both father and mother for her children, which is a huge responsibility. After clearing the Pul-e-Sokhta area in Kabul City from drug addicts, Kobra’s husband disappeared and her search for him has not been yet successful.
Millions of women in Afghanistan have been adversely affected by a combination of low income, restricted job opportunities, and an uncertain future for working women, resulting in a struggling women’s economy.
Amidst the restrictions imposed on women, earning a livelihood through hard work can feel like a defiant act against the Taliban group’s oppressive regime. The group shows no signs of loosening its grip on women’s access to education and work; in fact, the Taliban has further tightened restrictions on women in the workplace, while also imposing higher taxes on both male and female small business owners.