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 headscarf, and uses the profits to fund the Mother Camp, a rehabilitation clinic for drug addicts.
Nearly everyone addresses Haidari 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, Haidari plans to start a popular uprising against the continuing peace talks with the Taliban.
“Guys, the Taliban are coming back,” she says 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 organise. 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.”
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.
Haidari is as unusual in the 21st century.
While most women’s activists in Afghanistan have been western-financed and supported, she has insisted on organising her political activity herself, and on her own terms.
“We need to change our own men and our own families first,” Haidari says. “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 Haidari does, and those who do tend to do it quietly and politely, and to come from western-educated, liberal families who support their rebellion.
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 says. “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 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.
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 centre for addicts if she could save him, and she did, using the Narcotics Anonymous 12-step method, and a dose of tough love.
After talking with the patrons of the restaurant, Haidari bustled out to her car, followed by a small entourage, to visit her addiction rehab centre.
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 centre, 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,” Haidari says.
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 says as the men, gathered around her in an affable group, laugh.
Among the men is a severely disabled youth, not an addict. Haidari says she found him in a trash dump, injured and unable to speak. Despite appeals on social media, no relatives have come forward.
“We don’t even know his name, so we call him Omid,” she says. 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,” Haidari says.
Many of the addicts tell of having been in government treatment programmes like Camp Phoenix, financed by international donors, only to find them rife with easily available drugs.
Haidari says 1,000 graduates from her centre 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 centre for addicted women.
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 bubbling water pipes, burning flavoured tobacco.
Unmarried young Afghan men and women socialise 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 behaviour inside.
“This is not just a restaurant,” says one of the diners at Taj Begum, Ilyas Yourish, 24, a filmmaker. “It’s a social centre, a place to organise, and we all know she takes the money and puts it into the treatment centre. Laila is the most powerful woman around here.”
Hardliners have complained about the restaurant, and police have visited too.
Often arrested, she is always released. “I have a lot of friends on social media,” she says.
Neighbourhood drug dealers come after her as well, angry at losing customers.
She lives alone in an apartment, which she says 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 says.
The recent news of a preliminary deal between the Taliban and American negotiators, calling for a US withdrawal from the country, has fired up Haidari with her new cause.
“We are face to face with an ideology, not a group of people,” she says. “The Taliban believes that women are defined as the second gender and you can’t change that ideology, so I have no hope for Taliban talks.”
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 back in touch through WhatsApp.
Her work is for them, she says.
“I should have something to tell my own children and my grandchildren, when they ask, ‘What did you do when the Taliban came?’”
© New York Times
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