We feel like we are losing everything”: the future for Afghan women and girls looks unimaginably bleak

After 20 years of equality, the Taliban is placing cruel restrictions on women’s freedom again. Lynne O’Donnell, who was on one of the last flights out of Kabul last week, reports

August 24, 2021 (Evening Standard) Choice is being ripped away from the women of Afghanistan by misogynists who wrap their hatred of women in religion.

Under the cover of Islam, the Taliban are forcing women from their jobs and back into their homes. In the capital Kabul, television presenters at a state network have been barred from work. A senior editor at a private TV station says the Taliban are demanding all women adopt the full hijab even when on air. Out on the streets, women are no longer seen in the few cafés that have reopened since the Taliban takeover of Kabul on August 15. Billboards featuring women have been painted over, and photographs and depictions of women in the windows of hairdressing salons and fashion retailers have been defaced. Women are disappearing from public life, bringing an end to 20 years of freedom and equality.

The fall of Kabul to the Taliban has taken Afghanistan back to the days of the extremists’ regime from 1996 to 2001, when women were invisible, ordered to wear all-covering burkas outside their homes and banned from school and work. After a liberating two decades of education, work, and participation in public, political and economic life, women in Afghanistan are now facing a return to that same fate. The return of the Taliban has extinguished the security that women felt with the presence of the international community — that they could make the choice to educate themselves and their daughters, work, enter politics or open a business.

That choice is no more. Women who have worked in government and the media, in particular, say they now live in fear of retribution as the Taliban send gunmen to search for people who have spoken out against them in the past. At least one women’s rights advocate has disappeared from her home in the western city of Herat, sources there have said. Her whereabouts are unknown. “Most women who were working in government or for the international community, or in non-government organisations did so with an anti-Taliban mindset and now they fear revenge, not just against themselves but also against their families,” said Munera Yousufzada, Afghanistan’s former deputy defence minister.

As part of the post-2001 constitution, of the 249 seats in Afghanistan’s parliament, 68 were reserved for women to ensure their participation. Holding on to that mandate has been challenging enough over the past 20 years — some MPs had called for the number of women in the parliament to be cut. Now, it looks likely that behind public statements supporting women’s participation in politics, the Taliban are trying to intimidate women to drop their political activities. According to media reports, the homes of some women parliamentarians have been searched and their cars stolen by the Taliban.

“I have the feeling of losing everything. Two decades of investment, efforts and hopes have been destroyed in a blink of an eye,” says a woman in her early thirties who returned to Afghanistan after university abroad and worked with the government until it fell. She spoke on condition that she would not be identified. “Taliban means suppression of women. Taliban means degradation of a woman’s personality, position and role in society. Taliban means no education, no work for women other than housework and giving birth. Taliban means deprivation of women from enjoying all kinds of life happiness,” she said.

The Taliban’s leaders have said publicly that women and their rights within the “Islamic Emirate” will be respected according to Islamic Sharia law, without elaborating on what their specific interpretation is. Spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid told a press conference in Kabul that women “can have activities in different areas and serve in education and health but of course within the frameworks we have”.

Actions though are speaking louder than words as girls’ schools are closed, and working women are told to go home and give their jobs to men. “The women in Kabul and in other provinces and rural areas, in fact all over the country, are living in terror,” says Munera Yousufzada, Afghanistan’s former deputy defence minister. “One of the major fears for women in Afghanistan is to be isolated at home. The Taliban are now implementing their rules, and this will prevent women from leaving their homes,” she said.

<p>Crackdown: a Taliban fighter walks past a beauty salon in Kabul where the posters of women on the shop front have been defaced</p>
Crackdown: a Taliban fighter walks past a beauty salon in Kabul where the posters of women on the shop front have been defaced / AFP via Getty Images

In some rural regions in Afghanistan, armed Taliban demanded lists of names of women and girls they say would be married to their fighters. Reports of sex slavery and ethnic cleansing confirmed the worst nightmares of both women and men across Afghanistan.

In the remote district of Saighan, in the central highlands of Bamiyan province, I met women who had fled after the Taliban took control in mid-July and warned that women and girls — including the widows of soldiers killed fighting the insurgency — would be rounded up for marriage. Nafisa Sakhizada, and her sister-in-law, Basira, told me the local mullah announced over the mosque’s loudspeakers that the Taliban wanted the names of all girls and women of marriageable age. Nafisa said the mullah “told people that everybody must make a list of the young girls and bring it to us. There were a lot of young men among the Taliban and this was for them. They wanted a list of young girls, young women and widows. They wanted to marry the girls themselves. It was terrifying”. In Saighan, the militants looted shops and homes, and beat up men who resisted the kidnapping of their wives and daughters.

Since 2001, when the United States led the invasion to topple the Taliban regime following the September 11 attacks, Afghan women have benefited from enormous aid inflows, conditional on improving their status.

Armed Taliban demanded lists of names of women and girls they say would be married to their fighters

After almost 20 years, millions of girls were in school, visible on the streets across the country in their uniform of black tunic and white headscarf. Thanks to international funding, schools and universities were renovated or newly-built. By 2016, more than nine million children were estimated to be in school, more than 35 percent of them girls. Nevertheless, the Taliban’s disdain for educating girls has been evident for much of the past 20 years. Many schools for girls have been bombed in southern parts of the country. In areas where the Taliban have had control of rural districts, the only education permitted has been rote recitation of the Koran, mainly for boys.

While gaining and then maintaining their rights and freedoms has been difficult for Afghan women, even those who chose not to pursue higher education or go into business enjoyed the luxury of choice. That is now being wrenched from them and the future looks unimaginably bleak.