Laila Haidari was a trailblazer before 2021 and is still making waves under Taliban rule — if under the cover of secrecy.
Before the collapse of the previous Afghan government, the 43-year-old owned and operated a popular restaurant.
The Taj Begum was known for its progressiveness, allowing both men and women to dine together regardless of marital status and for female customers to do without a hijab.
The profits generated from the restaurant went towards supporting the Mother Camp drug rehabilitation clinic, which she founded.
But her entrepreneurial spirit risked being quashed when an employee called in August 2021 to say the Taliban had seized control of Kabul. Ms Haidari said she was in a state of “shock, and believed that the arrival of the apocalypse was imminent.”
“I felt as though an earthquake had struck and taken everything away from me,” she said of her beloved restaurant closing. But leaving with the thousands of others fearing a return to the Taliban's brutal rule of the 1990s was not an option.
“I chose to remain in Afghanistan and provide a safety umbrella for some of the millions of women who had nowhere else to go, as everyone was engulfed by a paralysing sense of helplessness,” she said.
“Half of society has been wiped out from the face of the earth. As a woman, I have taken it upon myself to act not only for my own benefit, but for the benefit of all women.”
Rising from the ashes
Ms Haidari sprang into action, founding the Mother Educational Centre (MEC). The centre provides an opportunity for 500 girls to receive education in diverse subjects, such as photography, jewellery design, painting, maths, physics and the English language.
When MEC first opened, there were two centres, one hidden away in the backstreets of Kabul, another in the central Afghan province of Daikundi. Due to a lack of funds, the Daikundi outpost shut down last year, but girls still attend classes in the capital.
They are not only learning valuable skills in diverse subjects, but also beginning to earn an income from making jewellery and other items from discarded ammunition.
In most other nations, ammunition would be hard to come by. But in Afghanistan, scarred by 40 years of almost consecutive conflict, a number of shops sell decommissioned arms ranging from the Soviet era to the US invasion.
The jewellery has been exhibited in Paris and exported to be sold internationally, funding the MEC's work.
The use of ammunition as a material for jewellery provides a powerful message of transformation and resilience.
“Bullets serve as a tragic reminder of the destruction that war and conflict bring to our lives, cities, and hopes. We use discarded ammunition to express our resolute rejection of war and conflict,” Ms Haidari said.
“It is quite conceivable that over the past four decades of war, the number of bullets acquired or gifted to us surpasses that of any other commodity.”
Each artwork originating from the MEC in Afghanistan reflects a unique story and serves as a testament to the students' remarkable talents and experiences.
Despite facing systemic obstacles and cultural norms that restrict women's access to education and artistic expression, the students at the centre demonstrate resilience by honing their artistic skills and producing powerful works that convey their personal stories and struggles. They are shattering stereotypes and redefining societal expectations of female artists, Ms Haidari said.
“As a woman, my purpose is to assist other women in their battles and help them emerge victorious.”