Brave Afghan librarian sheds light on the atrocities committed by the Taliban

The air crackles with terror and disbelief. Wahida Amiri is curled in a protective ball on the floor after being struck with an electric baton. All around her in Kabul’s Waterfall Square women are being beaten, electrocuted and pepper-sprayed for daring to stand up to the Taliban.

The female protesters are surrounded on all sides by the Badri 313, the so-called Taliban elite forces, driving abandoned US and NATO armoured vehicles. Astonishingly these courageous women hold their ground for a further two hours, withstanding violence and abuse in order to expose the Taliban’s brutal regime.

Tomorrow will be two years on from the fall of Kabul and the world has shifted its gaze, but memories of the cataclysmic plunge back to the dark ages are forever etched in the mind of 35-year-old protester Wahida.

Wahida was a librarian in her previous life, but after the fall of the city she became one of the leading voices against the Taliban.

She has been called “an ordinary librarian”, but is there ever such a thing? Three thousand miles away, in Ukraine, women librarians are leading the fightback against another dictatorship by opening bomb shelters in libraries, just as librarians did during the Second World War.

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As book censorship alarmingly begins to rise across Europe and America, Wahida’s story shows the true power of a book to transform a life. It is inextricably bound to English author Virginia Woolf.

A 20th century feminist writer seems an unlikely ally for a young Afghani woman, but the late author acted as a muse to the librarian. When Wahida stood eyeball to eyeball with the Taliban, she insists it was Woolf who gave her the strength to hold her ground.

“The Taliban arrived at the protest within seven minutes and ordered me to ‘Go home’,” says Wahida, speaking about the second demonstration she took part in in September 2021. “I stepped forward to face the lead Talib. He was armed to the teeth. I had nothing, except a pen in my pocket. I told him the Taliban were committing crimes against the women of Afghanistan.

“He pointed his gun in my face and said, ‘If you don’t go home, I won’t just shoot once, I will empty every single bullet into your face.’

“I was so scared – this man appeared colossal in his power – but then I remembered the writing of Virginia Woolf when she wrote in A Room Of One’s Own, ‘Women have served all these centuries as looking glasses possessing the magic and delicious power of reflecting the figure of man at twice its natural size.’

“The Talib was not the man he thought he was. I was the magnifying glass that gave him his mistaken superiority over half the human race.” Wahida met his gaze, refusing to look away and told him: “OK do it. I’m not afraid of you.”

She pulled her pen from her pocket. “I have this. It is stronger than your weapon,” she said.

The image of one librarian and her pen staring down the barrel of centuries of hatred and terror is a poignant one.

Wahida’s journey from illiterate adolescent to Virginia Woolf-quoting activist is a long one. “I could not read until I was 25 years old,” she explains.

“My school was closed when the Taliban first rose to power in 1996. Then came September 11, 2001. I watched the fall of the twin towers on TV, but it wasn’t until much later that I properly learnt about 9/11 and how much that day changed the lives of ordinary Afghani women.

“Gradually, all around me, girls started going back to school, but nothing changed in my life. Keeping the house tidy and serving guests was regarded by my family as more valuable than my education.”

It wasn’t until seven years after the end of Taliban rule that Wahida finally went back to school and learnt to read. In 2016 she enrolled at the Dunya University of Afghanistan to study economics, law and politics and it was here that she encountered the woman she credits with providing her real education.

“My tutor Ramin Kaminger lent me a Persian translation of A Room Of One’s Own. I was spellbound. It was as if the author had been watching my whole life and was whispering in my ear, ‘Women, I am with you.’”

Wahida read it while stirring soup over the stove, whilst washing dishes, or preparing bread at home, its pages growing dusty with flour. It came as no surprise that after she graduated she opened a small library in the basement of a building in Taimani, in the north-west of Kabul.

“The library was my happy place where everyone was welcome, especially women,” she continues. “We discussed topics like feminism over chai sabz, the traditional Afghanistan green tea with cardamom, and slices of cake.”

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Wahida begged everyone she knew for book donations, from universities to NGOs. Through persistence and the founding of a network of literary contacts in Kabul she obtained another 900 books.

“Afghanistan wasn’t perfect but we had freedom,” she says. But that freedom was crushed with the Taliban’s return to power on August 15 2021.

The speed of the collapse was breath-taking and the first Wahida realised something was wrong was when she turned up for work to find the doors to her library locked.

“Immediately I was taken back to that 10-year-old girl who found the doors to her school locked, but unlike last time, I was educated.”

Wahida joined a protest group called the Afghanistan Valorous Women’s Spontaneous Move- ment and took to the streets. “Our aims were to show the Taliban that we were not the women of 20 years previously and that we cannot be eliminated from society.”

Despite the explosion of violence, Wahida protested 12 more times with the group, risking her life, especially when her face became known to Taliban intelligence.

“They used to send me threatening messages on WhatsApp,” she recalls. “We were all aware of the extreme danger we were in. Female protesters were being kidnapped and tortured by the Taliban, their genitals electrocuted, their bodies dumped in rivers and deserts.”

Wahida used a series of safehouses but eventually, in February 2022, her luck ran out and she was kidnapped by the Taliban. “The night they came was the most terrifying experience of my life. There were dozens of military vehicles, tanks and soldiers.

“It looked as if they had come prepared to arrest a whole village, not just a few women marching to live freely in their own country.”

Wahida was terrified when a Talib burst into her room screaming, “Where’s Wahida Amiri?” before beating her with a handheld radio. She and the other protesters were driven under armed guard and with a convoy through blocked-off streets.

Suddenly she heard a thud from above. A stench filled the air and blood gushed down the window,” says Wahida. “The doors of the car opened and a guard screamed, ‘What did you do?’ I was too scared to speak, but another guard from the vehicle behind shouted.

“It turned out the armed soldier on the roof of her car had been decapitated after the car passed under a low barrier. He bled to death on the street next to the car.”

There was no time to process the bloody turn of events, for soon they pulled up at the Ministry of Interior. Wahida and 29 other women protesters were held for 17 days and nights and subjected to repeated interrogation and abuse by groups of Talibs.

“They questioned me over and over, never letting me sleep. They could not believe that women could protest without the aid of male resistance. They didn’t believe me when I said ‘I am just a librarian.’

“They said I was dirty, shameless and impure. We were not allowed to sleep or wash and all the time at the back of my mind I was terrified they were going to rape me.”

Finally, the women were told they could go provided they agreed to be videoed saying they had only protested in order to leave the country. It was a lie but, desperate for freedom, they complied.

Shortly after their release, the Taliban gave the forced confessions to TOLOnews, one of the largest TV stations in Afghanistan. Two months after her release, in April 2022, Wahida was offered help to leave Kabul by an American charity.

She packed a small bag of clothes and her favourite books, including A Room Of One’s Own, and waved goodbye to her motherland.

Today you will find this humble yet heroic librarian in Pakistan.

“I want people around the world to know the women of Afghanistan didn’t just give up, they fought and when they were silenced and defeated they rose again,” Wahida says.

“My aim is to make sure the international community never recognise them as an official government. I want them to put pressure on the group to reopen schools, to let our girls learn, to let us live freely in our own country.

“We urgently need to recognise the war crimes that are being committed right now and the generation of boys now being radicalised in schools.

“I’ve wasted too much time not being able to read. I don’t want the same for future generations of my country.”

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