After a disconcerting week when the Taliban forcibly took control of Afghanistan, the last few days in Kabul city and the airport have been nothing but chaos. Fear and uncertainty has gripped the country while thousands try to flee, including by clinging to the wheels of planes. In some cases they tragically fell after the planes took off, sending a clear message that Afghan lives don’t matter.
Without any warning and preparation, millions of Afghans have been left disoriented, trying to make sense of their new world while absorbing a new reality – a reality that they did not choose. A “government” is being formed that has a history of killing innocent civilians, including newborn children and high-profile female activists, journalists, and politicians.
The Taliban’s control over the country is once again a reminder of the brutal style of war that took place in Afghanistan in the 1990s. Back then, Zarmina, a woman shrouded in a blue burqa, a mother of five, including 1-year-old twins (a boy and girl) was accused of killing her abusive husband to protect her children. At Kabul Stadium, Zarmina was made to kneel in front of 30,000 spectators before being executed by the Taliban.
Anyone who thinks that the 21st century Taliban is a new version is delusional. Taliban spokesperson Zabiullah Mujahid publicly stated, “Women will be afforded all rights within the limits of Islam [Shariah].” However, they have not explained what they mean by “the limits of Islam,” given their messages are not in sync with their actions on the ground. What form of education will be provided and will women’s rights be safeguarded as before? Will women be able to maintain their positions in media and government?
Even if the Taliban stick to their words, they would still fall short of their obligations under international human rights law. The Taliban’s way of justice translates to harsh punishments, including public executions and beheading of accused murderers and adulterers. It is very unlikely that they will accept any form of criticism, which is incompatible with the universal declaration of human rights.
My sources have confirmed that Taliban have already launched their offensive by going door to door in search of retribution, identifying women’s rights defenders and those who worked with the government. There are videos and images emerging on social media showing Taliban commanders forcing girls as young as 12 into marrying fighters. My sources have confirmed the legitimacy of these videos.
A female source in Kabul who spoke to me and would like to remain anonymous recounted a near miss:
The Taliban entered my house because community elders told them that I helped a 13-year-old girl who was going to marry a 50-year-old. I am a woman rights activist. The community knew about it and today they were searching and they took a couple of people who worked with the government. I wasn’t at home and had gone to see my parents but the Taliban beat my husband because I wasn’t there and said they will come back looking for me.
Another woman who would also like to remain anonymous stated:
I am feeling terrified; the situation is uncertain. The Taliban has released a lot of prisoners on the streets. There are all sorts of people. We can’t tell who is Taliban and who is a petty criminal. It’s increasingly difficult for us to judge whom to trust. We are at home and worried about our economic future. I need a marham (male guardian) to leave the house. My daughters, who are 8 and 10, won’t be allowed to go to school. I am extremely worried about their future. My daughters are worried that Taliban would take them or kill them. Please help us!
The future is bleak for women who are going to see restrictions on their ability to get an education, freedom of movement and work. Many women activists and journalists in Kabul, worried about their own and their daughters’ lives, are desperately trying to flee the country, despite encountering horrifying chaos and insecurity at the airport, as well as Taliban checkpoints during the journey. They are aware what Taliban rule would bring to the country and they are prepared to risk their lives in extreme ways to get out.
“I went to the airport this morning with my husband and 3-year-old daughter; we have passports and Indian visas. The Taliban and U.S. Army started to fire guns in the air. My daughter started screaming and saying she wanted to go home. There was no way we could enter the airport,” said a woman activist from a religious minority who has been working with a U.N. agency. “My daughter isn’t eating since then and is not playing with her toys.”
“I am so sorry, I am sorry,” she said, breaking down visibly. “I can’t hold myself together when it’s my daughter.”
Women and girls are living in constant fear and many are refusing to leave their homes. Women’s requests to remain anonymous in this article are an indication of the level of anxiety, uncertainty, and distrust of the new “authorities,” who took over by force. The Taliban’s objective of re-establishing the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan is the very opposite of secularism, where everyone is able to exercise basic human rights regardless of their religion, gender, sexuality etc. Afghans, especially women, feel completely betrayed. Women are worried that restrictions based on Taliban’s interpretation of Shariah are going to return if and when they officially form a government.
Angeza Timorian, a 30-year-old woman, was brave enough to both leave her house and share her name. “Today, after three days, I went outside the house with my husband in our car. There is not even a single woman on the street. All the shops were closed, there were no cars, as if something has happened to these people. No one is coming out of their houses,” she said. “The Taliban say they have right [on their side] but they are a conservative interpretation of Islam. I won’t be able to go to a health center without my husband or if there is a male doctor.”
“I was surprised and wasn’t aware that in three days they would take the capital of Afghanistan,” Timorian said, still in shock at the last week’s developments. “For 20 years we have fought for women rights.”
The country has been left traumatized, as few were expecting that the Talban would take over control, or at least move so quickly. This also includes female government officials. I interviewed a local MP who would like to remain anonymous and shared similar sentiments:
We were not expecting for the U.S. to hand over power to the Taliban like this. No requirements, nothing. They have handed our country the way you hand over a book or a bottle of water. The Taliban have said you can carry on as usual, but I don’t trust them. We were happy for the war to end, but we didn’t expect the end to be like this. We were hoping [for a] power share with the government.
Women feel like dead bodies already. Women are taking sleeping tablets to get some sleep. They are facing trauma after [President] Ashraf Ghani left and the Taliban took over the country. They tell me that I am not a Muslim, I am afraid of Shariah Law. They say we are pretending to be Muslims.
I had spoken against the Taliban quite openly in the media and social media. I didn’t think they were going to be in power so soon. They now are sending me threats. We will live like slaves under Taliban. We are going back to the time when the Taliban was ruling us before. People are giving up on their hope, their dreams.
Of course, in 20 years we were unable to reach every woman around the country. We didn’t make it happen for all women but we did for millions of them. We can’t give up on that. The future of the women should be guaranteed for all women. Right here in Afghanistan.
As someone who has worked in Afghanistan for over a decade, I can say that that we need some bold actions for a country abandoned by its president and international community. We would need to form a legitimate government and support female activists and women to continue their work. A local women-led resistance and civil disobedience against the Taliban is growing in Kabul. However, these women are in a minority with no external support and in need of resources.
“Women are burning [their] certificates and diplomas. They miss having good leaders. They want to start again so they can get up again. You might be able to help me evacuate but how about millions of other women who are unable to leave the country?” said the female MP. “You can’t remove us and delete us from the society. This is our past, future, this is our country.
“My brain is frozen and I can’t think anymore. The international community should help with making sure that the new government of Afghanistan respects human rights values the way you do in the West. It is also important for our society – women’s participation, girls’ education, rights to speech.”
As the country awaits a complete departure of the U.S. forces and its allies, some of these women are in hiding and terrified. Many women activists fear they are at risk because of their work to promote women’s rights or because they took on high-profile roles by serving as judges, police officers, soldiers, and government officials.
The hope for peace amongst ordinary Afghans after the Taliban remerged has been crushed. The Taliban’s idea of consultative process or consensus-building to form a government would fall into two categories: believers and non-believers, with even Muslims who disagree with the Taliban put in the second category. Ethnic diversity would not be sufficiently represented in their movement. Decision making processes will become highly centralized, secretive, dictatorial, and inaccessible. Their sole claim to restoring law and justice is through violence.
The women I interviewed have reiterated that this is not the government they chose. They need leaders who can stay and become the voice of the people. The United States and its allies must not give up on Afghanistan yet.
Note from the author: Thank you to women who bravely spoke to me and shared their stories. The interviews might have been distressing at the time, but I hope they also meant relieving some traumatic experiences.