US Troops Are Finally Leaving, But Afghan Women Fear the Taliban's Return

As US President Joe Biden announces a full troop withdrawal, memories of the last time the Taliban were in power bring a looming sense of dread.
April 14, 2021, 4:00pm
Women wait to receive free wheat from the government emergency committee in Kabul on April 21, 2020.
Women wait to receive free wheat from the government emergency committee in Kabul on April 21, 2020. Photo by WAKIL KOHSAR/AFP via Getty Images. 

Unlike most young women in Afghanistan today, Fahim remembers life under the Taliban. The 35-year-old was 13 when a US-led invasion toppled the repressive regime in 2001.

“I was not allowed to go outside,” Fahim tells VICE World News over the phone. “It was a very bad time for us.”  

Nearly two-thirds of the country’s total female population is under the age of 25 — with virtually no memories of such a life. But that may change soon.

This week, US President Joe Biden is announcing that all US troops would be withdrawn from Afghanistan by the 11th of September, coinciding with the 20th anniversary of the 9/11 attack that led to the invasion of Afghanistan. This amounts to a pushback of the previous timeline set by the Trump administration of a full withdrawal by the 1st of May.

The number of US troops in Afghanistan currently stands at 3,500 — the lowest level of American forces there since 2001. The last two U.S. Presidents vowed but ultimately failed to remove all American troops from Afghanistan during their presidencies.

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The Taliban, which has been progressively regaining control of the country since NATO ended its combat operations in Afghanistan in 2014, had threatened to resume attacks against coalition forces if the Biden administration did not fulfil Trump’s pledge. A BBC study shows 15 million people – half the population – are living in areas where the Taliban either control or regularly attack.

“The majority of my female friends are worried,” Fahim, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, adds. “If the Taliban comes back to power, schools will be destroyed. Women will not study or work. Every woman will have to stay at home.” 

When the Taliban took over Kabul in 1996, the Women’s University was among the first things to go. Two years later, all girls over the age of eight were pulled out of school, while most women were forced to quit their jobs. The regime also enforced a strict dress code, restricted women’s access to healthcare, and strongly deterred women from leaving their homes. 

“Yesterday’s Taliban is no different from today’s Taliban,” says Elahe, a 24-year-old medical student in the north-western city of Herat, who spoke on the condition of anonymity. “We have fought and sacrificed a lot for education in this patriarchal society, and the return of the Taliban means the destruction of all that infrastructure, sacrifice and hard work. Undoubtedly, their return will create many restrictions on the young and educated generation, especially women, and this is a tragedy.”

“It is unlikely that the Taliban will choose a path that gives women much agency,” says Farah Pandith, an adjunct senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, and the author of How We Win: How Cutting-Edge Entrepreneurs, Political Visionaries, Enlightened Business Leaders and Social Media Mavens Can Defeat the Extremist Threat. “Their mindset and belief system does not support such a framework of that kind. This conservative approach will weaken the country’s progress...and damage its international standing.” 

A 2019 Gallup survey showed Afghan women were the least satisfied women in the world, with 80 percent out of the workforce and 91 percent with a primary education or less. UNESCO reports that the current literacy rate for Afghan men is nearly double the literacy rate for women.

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“Our most recent data paints a pretty bleak picture for women in Afghanistan, relative to where they stood even a few years ago and also relative to other women around the world,” Julie Ray from Gallup News tells VICE World News. “In 2019 Afghan women’s ratings of their lives today, and where they see their lives in five years – their hope for the future – were the lowest ratings in the world.  And they really don’t feel empowered to change that trajectory – only 31% were satisfied with the freedom they have to choose what they do with their lives. So it’s difficult to fathom their lives getting even worse.” 

“The Biden administration must uphold the US policy’s focus on women’s rights and insist on women’s access to healthcare, education and safety,” Pandith adds. “The administration can tie its economic aid to a basic set of requirements and continue to support civil society actors and organizations that work on women’s rights. In short, America must be vocal, present and a partner in the fate of Afghan women.” 

One positive has been the rise of social media, which has given young Afghans a voice and platform to organise and connect with the outside world. More than three million people in the country are active on at least one social media platform. 

“Even if the Taliban want to, they cannot silence us on [social] media,” says 22-year-old Muzghan, an economics student in Kabul, who spoke on the condition of anonymity. “We are not the silent generation of that time; we are the new generation that does not bow down.” 

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Though the Taliban has expressed a more progressive shift in its approach to girls’ education since they last held power, many are concerned the group’s fundamentalist religious ideology will likely force young women out of school. “Perhaps it is time for the Taliban to study and emulate the respect shown to women by the Prophet,” Dr. Douglas Johnston, founder of the International Center for Religion & Diplomacy, tells VICE News.

As the troop withdrawal approaches, Afghan girls in school are growing particularly anxious, as the thought of history repeating itself sets in. 

“What I am most afraid of is that I will not be allowed to study,” says 21-year-old Benazir, who studies engineering at Kabul Polytechnic University and spoke with VICE World News on the condition of anonymity. “I will not be allowed to go outside; I will not be allowed to laugh or live freely; I will not be able to choose my husband. I’m afraid I will be harassed or even stoned.”

Sana, a 22-year-old art student in Herat, worries that starting from September, the dreams of her generation will be crushed. 

“The Taliban is the beginning of weakness and mental incapacity for young girls with big dreams,” Sana, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, says. “With this bitter repetition of history, young people will [want to] leave the country. And if we cannot leave, it remains to be seen what they will do to us.”