‘I Cannot Protect Her’: A Granddaughter Gone Missing. A Leading Activist Unable to Help.
While FRONTLINE correspondent Najibullah Quraishi was filming an interview for the new documentary Taliban Takeover with Mahbouba Seraj, one of Afghanistan’s leading women’s rights advocates, something unexpected happened.
Another woman entered the building, photo in hand of her 22-year-old granddaughter, who had gone missing and, the woman feared, might have been abducted by the Taliban.
“She said: ‘Mom, I don’t know where they’ve taken me. The Taliban are around me. I don’t know what’s happening. They’re asking me if I’m engaged. If not, they can marry me to someone,’” the visitor told Seraj and Quraishi, describing the last phone call her granddaughter had made to her mother.
“She said she was not allowed to talk more. They switched off the mobile phone,” the woman continued. “Since then, we haven’t heard from her again.”
Unable to help and worried her visitor would be out after dark, Seraj encouraged the woman to return home: “Night is going to fall, and you shouldn’t be around here, my dear,” she said, walking the woman to the door. “Go in peace to your home. I’m dying of worry. Go safely to your home.”
Once the woman had left the building, Seraj turned to Quraishi, her voice rising, her anger apparent.
“I cannot protect her,” Seraj said. “I cannot protect any woman.”
The remarkable scene — which unfolds in Taliban Takeover, premiering Oct. 12 and excerpted above — is a stark window into the fear and uncertainty many Afghan civilians, especially women and ethnic minorities, face in the wake of the Taliban’s return to power and the U.S. withdrawal after 20 years of war. FRONTLINE has hidden the identities of the woman seeking help and her granddaughter for their safety.
“In the previous regime, you had power? You could do something? Before the Taliban?” Quraishi asked Seraj, who was named one of TIME magazine’s most influential people of 2021 and is the executive director of the Afghan Women’s Network.
“Of course!” Seraj responded, saying she could have made calls and demanded answers about the young woman’s disappearance. But now, Seraj said, “there’s nothing I can do.”
Before the U.S.-led invasion in 2001, the Taliban imposed a harsh interpretation of Shariah law. Girls were not allowed to attend school. Women were extremely limited in their ability to work, and their movements and appearance were strictly policed. Harsh punishments were meted out to both men and women accused of violating the group’s rules.
Although the Taliban was eager to project a new, more moderate image in the days just after the American withdrawal, Quraishi, who was born and raised in Afghanistan and has been covering the conflict for two decades, observed signs of extremism while reporting for Taliban Takeover that recalled the group’s rule 20 years ago. His findings — including an account of women being whipped as they protested for the continued right to study and work — mount throughout the film, revealing just how rapidly the Taliban’s rule has transformed daily life in Afghanistan and how the threats from Al Qaeda and ISIS are also intensifying.
Seraj told Quraishi that despite the Taliban’s quick moves to clamp down on women’s rights, she wants the new government to engage with her on the issue.
“I cannot tell you how much I want to really talk to them. I am here in Afghanistan, I want to tell them, and I’m not going anywhere. I’m sitting right here,” said Seraj, who had recently passed up a chance to leave the country. “Because the women, the 18 million women of Afghanistan, are not dead, and the 18 million women of Afghanistan, they really need a voice. And I will be that for as long as I can. And I would love to sit down with them and talk to them. I would really love to.”
But in the moments after the woman’s visit, Seraj felt powerless.
“If you see such type of cases every day — they’re coming to you. They think there’s only one hope. It’s you. And you’re hopeless,” Quraishi said.
“I’m hopeless,” Seraj echoed.
The situation, she told Quraishi, makes her furious.
“This is not the time to be sad. This is the time to be angry,” she said. “If I can do something, I want to do something.”
Then her voice grew quieter.
“There’s nothing I can do,” she said. “There’s nothing I can do.”
For the full story, watch Taliban Takeover:
In addition to streaming above, the documentary is now available in our online collection of films, in the PBS Video App and on FRONTLINE’s YouTube channel. Taliban Takeover is a FRONTLINE production with Clover Films. The correspondent is Najibullah Quraishi. The producer is Jamie Doran. The senior producers are James Jacoby and Molly Knight Raskin. The executive producer for Clover Films is Jamie Doran. The executive producer for FRONTLINE is Raney Aronson-Rath. Subscribe to FRONTLINE’s newsletter to join an exclusive conversation Thursday, Oct. 14 about the making of the film.