The fear of being hunted

November 26, 2023

The hasty implementation of Afghan repatriation policy is disproportionately affecting women and artistes

The fear of being hunted


efore Kabul fell to Taliban in August 2021, SpezalyZazai and her oldest daughter used to work with a non-governmental organisation to fend for themselves. That changed when Taliban took over and issued a decree banning women from working.

Suddenly Zazai, a mother of three daughters and their only guardian found herself unemployed. Next the Talibanbanned girls’ education andZazai had to pull her daughters out of school.

“Women were confined to their homes. We weren’t allowed to go outside and work. If we did, we found no jobs,” Zazai tells The News on Sunday. “Girls were barred from going to school,” she recounts.

After four months of remaining confined to her home and living frugally, without a male guardian, Zazaiconcluded that life, as she had known it, would no longer be possible in Afghanistan.

Worried sick about her daughters’ future, she decided to emigrate. Peshawar was more than a convenient option. The city represented much more; arefuge for her household, but also a place pregnant with the promise of a fresh start. She could begin anew.

On arriving in Peshawar, her first task was getting her daughtersadmission in public schools;the second was finding a job. After her younger daughterswere admitted in the 9thand 5thgrades, she started working as an instructor in a ladies’ fitness gym. Soon, her elder daughter also found a job in one of the mega marts, selling beauty products.

“Together, me and my eldest were earning enough money [to sustain the household] and live a respectable life,” she says.

That was until the new policy on Afghan immigrants was rolled out by the government.

Zazai says those who migrated to Pakistan were facing death threats from the Talibanin Afghanistan. “When the immigrants arrived in Pakistan, they weren’t expecting to be expelled,” she says. She adds that the policy could put a lot of lives at risk.

MeenaAkbari, who had worked in the media for about eight years, also had to leave her country about two years ago. According to Akbari, hundreds of journalists and artistes – a majority of them women – were facing threats from the Taliban and had to seek refuge in other countries.

“Afghan women are facing many challenges,” says Akbari who now works for a Pakistani television channel. “For some who were formerly associated with journalism and performance arts, fleeing to Pakistan was the only way they could save their lives.”

SpezalyZazaiagrees with her. She says she is worried about the hundreds of women repatriated in October. “The winter has arrived. The Afghans who have been forced to return are ill-prepared for it,” she says.

Since the deportation drive started, many of the Afghan citizens currently in Pakistan, have been reluctant to comment on the issue. Fear is palpable in the community.Information is scarce.

Another segment of the refugee population that has been deeply impacted by the repatriation policy is singers, musicians, artists and performers. Adnan Safi is one of them. Back in Kunar, he used to earn his keep through music.

After the Taliban takeover, music was banned. Safi says the Taliban “used to burn musical instruments and humiliate artiste. Soon, it was clear that there was no future for musicians,” he says.

“We had to migrate to Pakistan because we could find no work in Kunar. We lived in fear and were worried for our lives.” He says he has been living with his family in Peshawar for the past two years. “We’re still worried. We’re worried about being hunted down and deported now that we’re here.” He says he hadn’t left home “for days, out of fear.”

“Now the government is sending us to Afghanistan. We don’t want to go back to a hostile situation. We want to live in peace. Our lives will be at risk if we are repatriated,” Adnan Safi says.

Safi says that after the Taliban banned music in Afghanistan, many Afghan musicians had moved to Pakistan and resumed their profession.

The policy of repatriation of illegal immigrants has affected hundreds of Afghan artists living in Pakistan. Many of them have been confined to their homes for weeks, unable to perform at musical shows [out of fear that they will be arrested and deported]. A majority of them came on valid visas that have expired. Some have applied for extension in their visas and are waiting to hear back from the authorities.

Before Kabul fell to the Taliban, most of the artists had been busy. Every summer,many artists from Peshawar visited Kabul, where they attended music programmes. After the ban, there has been no music activity in Afghanistan.

“We request the Pakistani authorities to accommodate Afghan working women and artists since their lives will be at risk in Afghanistan.Afghanistan is unsafe for working women until a stable government is formed and there is peace in Kabul,” says MeenaAkbari.

As many as 156 Afghan artists have filed a petition before the Peshawar High Court, requesting to be allowedto live in Pakistan. Mumtaz, a lawyer representing them, says, “we have asked the court to register these artists as refugees. Under international protocols signed by Pakistan, refugees cannot be sent back without their consent. We are hopeful that the court will declare these artists refugees and allow them to stay on,” he says.

The writer is a freelance multimedia journalist. He tweets @daudpasaney

The fear of being hunted