Afghanistan‘s Generation Z – a photo essay

Afghanistan‘s Generation Z – a photo essay

The start of 2019 has brought for Afghanistan a tantalising hope of peace, as the Taliban sat down for talks first with Americans in Qatar and with senior members of the Afghan elite in Moscow. Donald Trump has told Americans his administration had accelerated talks for a political settlement in Afghanistan and would be able to reduce US troops there as negotiations advance to end America’s longest war.

No one knows what form a new government may take or how much control the Taliban might have under any deal, but for young people who were babies when the Taliban were driven from power by a US-led campaign in 2001, the prospect of peace with the hardline Islamists brings a daunting mix of hope and fear.

For villagers in rural Afghanistan, where traditional ways have always counted for more than central government law, life may not change much. But for the young of Kabul and other cities, there is much to lose, in particular the freedoms restored after the Taliban were ousted – from playing music, to modelling and adopting trendy haircuts – which they’ve grown up with.

“The thing I’m most worried about is that if they return, I’ll not be able to continue playing music,” said a 16-year-old pianist who attends music school in Kabul.

“It will be great if the government and the Taliban reach a peace deal. At that time there should be access to music for everyone and women’s rights must be protected.”

When the Taliban were last in power, they gained global notoriety for a harsh regime that forced women and girls to stay at home, restricted music and sports and imposed brutal punishment on infractions of a hardline version of Islamic law. More recently, they have adopted a more moderate tone, including pledges on rights for women and girls’ education, appeals for support from foreign aid groups and promises to maintain good international relations.

While huge doubts remain, the peace talks have given young people a sense of hope.

“I am optimistic about the Taliban joining the peace process,” said Hussain, 19, who like many young Afghans grew up in neighbouring Iran where millions have taken refuge from war. He now works as a hairdresser in Kabul. “It will be an end to the war and conflicts in our country. I want the Taliban to change their policy and not behave like before.”

Afghanistan has a strikingly young population, with more than 60% of its 35 million people under the age of 25, and half under the age of 15, according to the UN population agency. Like young people everywhere, Afghanistan’s urban youth rely on technology for their window on global trends and culture, and face huge problems finding permanent, stable work.

They have also had to deal with near-daily violence and a broken economy that cannot provide jobs for the 400,000 or so new entrants to the workforce every year.

Hundreds of thousands have migrated in the years since 2014, when most foreign forces left. Many have risked dangerous journeys in search of new homes in countries such as Turkey, or in Europe or further afield. For some of those who have remained, there is now hope that peace will bring opportunities.

Women’s rights have improved in recent years under the western-backed Afghan government, especially in cities such as the capital Kabul, where many women work outside the home and more than a quarter of the parliament is female.

However, a recent survey of 2,000 adults pointed to a gulf in attitudes between men and women. About two-thirds of men thought women in Afghanistan had too many rights, and that women were too emotional to become leaders, compared to less than a third of women. And while nearly three quarters of women said a married woman should have equal rights with their partner to work outside the home, only 15% of men agreed.

The male generational gap may be explained by younger men seeking rigid gender roles as they struggle to find work and stability in a country ravaged by war and poverty, said gender equality group Promundo. Religious teachings against women’s rights under the Taliban regime had also played a role in hardening views among younger men.

Sultan Qasim Sayeedi, an 18-year-old model scours Facebook, YouTube and Instagram to learn about fashion and modelling, and draws inspiration from his favourite models, including Saudi Arabia’s Omar Borkan, and Canadian popstar Justin Bieber. “We’re afraid that if the Taliban come then we will not be able to hold our shows,” he said. Despite that wariness, Sultan says it’s time the fighting ended. “If American troops will go peace will come, we want peace,” he said.

Maryam Ghulami, a 20-year-old living in the western province of Herat, says her generation will bring change that her parents never could. She is learning graphic design and computer coding at an online academy and likes to hone her skills with YouTube tutorials. While she believes Afghanistan faces many problems – a slow and unreliable internet connection, for a start – she has faith that her generation can bring change. “The new generation can change Afghanistan with knowledge, with technology,” she said.