‘The Taliban know they need us’: the Afghan hospitals run by women

Female medics continue to save lives, but rely on the Red Cross to get by because the Taliban cannot pay their salaries

Few places in Afghanistan are run by women. Public life and business are male-dominated and, since the Taliban’s takeover, even more women have vanished from view. While some say they are stuck in conservative societal structures that rarely let them take control, others fear draconian new rules, the travel and education bans.

But behind the walls of several female-run hospitals in Kabul, a different reality exists: here, women save lives on a daily basis, offer marriage advice, care for and adopt abandoned children. Many of the doctors and nurses working here have raised children and often remain their family’s sole financial supporters. And they all agree: things work better when women run the show.

Two women in gowns and headscarves laugh; one holds a glass of tea
Dr Mariam Maqsoodi says she manages to combine her work and caring for four children at home because she loves her job Photograph: Stefanie Glinski/The Guardian

“We actually had a few men working here before the Taliban took over, but since this is mostly a maternity hospital, they kicked them out. Today it’s women working for women,” Jagona Faizli, a gynaecologist, tells the Guardian. She is a mother of “three beautiful daughters” whose husband is a stay-at-home father, covering her regular night shifts.

“He’s the strongest man I’ve met, because he pushes against society’s norms here,” she says. “We married for love and I’d choose him again any day.”

Faizli, 31, says her position at the hospital has given her the opportunity to talk openly and to get to know both her patients and staff well.

“There is no man to be seen, which is why I feel free in this hospital. Many of the women coming here tell me about their marriage difficulties. I try to give them advice and counsel them; I try to help where I can.”

That is not all the women do. Mariam Maqsoodi, a 29-year-old resident doctor, says that after a rise in abandoned newborns at the hospital – probably due to Afghanistan’s economic crisis – they have formed an “adoption committee” to ensure the babies are taken care of.

“We register families who can’t have children and would like to adopt, and if we can’t find a family for the babies, one of our staff usually adopts,” she says, adding: “It’s sad. We recently had a little boy whose mother died while giving birth, and his father ran away without taking him home. We make sure each child is taken care of.”

Dr Ghazanfar Shaharbanu does her rounds at a Kabul maternity hospital, where she runs a neonatal ward
Dr Ghazanfar Shaharbanu does her rounds at a Kabul maternity hospital, where she runs a neonatal ward Photograph: Stefanie Glinski/The Guardian

Up to 100 children a day are born at the hospital where Maqsoodi works – the doctors asked for the name of the clinic to be omitted for security reasons – and at least 140 female staff take care of all operations.

“I have four children myself and I miss them during the day, but I tell them I have an important job to do. When the Taliban took over, 12 of our hospital’s doctors left the country.

“We were all afraid and most of us wanted to leave,” Maqsoodi adds, “but we’re still here saving lives.”

It has been difficult. The women say they feel under pressure from the Taliban. After the Islamists’ takeover in August, many of the medics stayed at home for weeks, too scared to go to work. Slowly, most of them returned to their jobs. “We keep pressing on,” Faizli says. “Even the Taliban know that they need us.”

Places run by women are now even rarer in a country run by an all-male government, which has removed women from public office since August and continues to ban older girls from receiving an education.

A woman in a headscarf cradles a tiny baby
A quiet moment for Negina, 26, and her newly born second child, a boy called Yasser Photograph: Stefanie Glinski/The Guardian

As the Taliban scramble to set up a functioning government, criticism of Afghanistan’s new leaders is widespread. Human Rights Watch has accused them of imposing policies that have violated rights and created huge barriers for women.

For months since the Taliban’s takeover – and the subsequent freezing of the Afghan central bank’s reserves abroad – doctors and other healthcare staff throughout the country have not received their salaries even though they have been working full-time.

Recently, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) took over salary payments for thousands of health staff – men and women – across Afghanistan.

Student midwives learn from a gynaecology teacher, Nasina Frutan, during a class in Kabul
Student midwives learn from a gynaecology teacher, Nasina Frutan, during a class in Kabul Photograph: Stefanie Glinski/The Guardian

Eloi Fillion, head of the ICRC’s Afghanistan delegation, says: “We’ve seen over the past months just how dedicated and courageous female health staff have been in showing up and doing their best to save lives every day, regardless of not receiving a salary, of having to travel long distances, working in health facilities that are struggling to function.

“Women are critical in ensuring the health system continues to function. Without them, the health system simply would not work.”

Still, many women in healthcare say their futures feel uncertain. “Most girls in Kabul still aren’t attending secondary school, so what opportunities will my daughters have here?” says Faizli, adding: “Afghanistan is no longer a place where I’m envisioning a future for my children.

“We’re running the show at this hospital – and we could do this anywhere. We are leaders – including the future leaders of this country.”

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Stefanie Glinski in Kabul

The GuardianTramp

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