Aina was 8 years old when she watched television for the very first time. She was enthralled by the shows, the singers, and above all, the beautiful women who were suddenly allowed to be on screen. It was 2001, the year the Taliban regime fell.
She said the neighbors had to come gather around their television, a moment that left her in awe. “It connected us to another world. And we experienced and explored a different world, people across the world,” the 26-year-old told VICE World News. “I was a child, everything was new.”
Her voice becomes more excited as she remembers yet another memory.
“Famous singers appeared and some of the singers held concerts in big cities. Even in our city of Ghazni, for the first time. I was with my siblings and my family and my uncles. Everyone was so happy that people were freed from the Taliban regime. And it was a kind of joy I will never forget. Everyone was dancing and clapping.”
She pauses. “I was so small. I remember that... It was so amazing, I won’t forget it.”
But as quickly as the memory came to her, it fades, interrupted by yet another one from an earlier time, of when she was just 5. This one is an incident deeply etched in her memory, of when the Taliban were still in power.
Aina had boarded a bus with her mother and a group of women, to go shopping for a wedding ceremony. The Taliban saw them unaccompanied by a man, and that some of the women were wearing heels.
“They beat them, including my mom,” she said. “They beat them and lashed them on their legs below the knee.”
“I will never forget that,” she said quietly this time. “I am in fear of that again.”
Aina is one of many young women in Afghanistan who have memories of Taliban rule as a child, and who have experienced immense changes in their lifetime over the past 20 years since the U.S.-backed government overthrew the Taliban.
As a child, she said she remembers going to primary school – the Taliban allowed girls to get an education only until they were 10 years old – but after the U.S. invasion, she went on to high school and eventually university. While studying, she had a part-time job and even learned martial arts. After graduation, she went straight to work, lived on her own, and rented a place in Kabul.
They were privileges her own parents would have never imagined their daughter would have, dreams and luxuries they could only imagine, swift progress over the two decades the Afghan government was in power.
Yet just as quickly, it seemed to have been snatched away.
“I did not expect things to change so, so quickly. We panicked. We were shocked. It’s unbelievable,” she said on Tuesday, just two days after the collapse of the Afghan government with the Taliban’s arrival in the nation’s capital.
“I cannot stop my tears. I cried. I keep crying,” Aina said.
“I don’t cry only for myself but I cry for everybody, for all Afghan women, for all girls that they won’t be allowed to go outside as they could before. For the freedom we had before.”
The Taliban came into power in 1996, when Aina was just three years old. During the Islamic fundamentalist group’s five-year regime, girls were banned from school or limited to a few years of education, and could not work. Even when allowed to attend school, these girls still faced dangers such as sexual harassment and acid attacks.
The Taliban prohibited beauty salons and cosmetics, women’s participation in sports, and only allowed women out in public when they were accompanied by men. They also had to be covered from head to toe in a burqa, and sometimes punished for so much as an exposed ankle or nail polish on their fingertips. Television, music and films were also prohibited.
All that changed in 2001.
In the past two decades, Afghan women have had access to higher education. Despite enduring and often fatal attacks on schools by militant groups, Afghan girls today harbour career ambitions—like becoming architects and economists—that were seemingly out of reach for women 20 years ago. In May, Herat University announced that more than 50% of its students are women.
In 2004, after the end of the Taliban regime, female athletes represented Afghanistan at the Olympics for the first time. Since then, Afghan women have been able to compete in sports teams such as handball, volleyball, and train for sports like taekwondo and powerlifting. This year, female sprinter Kamia Yousufi was the only woman out of the five athletes Afghanistan sent to the Games. She was also a flag bearer at the Opening Ceremony.
Afghan women are also no longer required to wear burqas for public appearances, and are allowed to travel freely alone. On social media, young Afghan influencers can be seen sporting fashionable haircuts, bold makeup looks, and a mix of traditional outfits and Western-influenced streetwear. They sing pop music, go dancing, and enjoy parties and trendy cafes in the streets of Kabul.
But that was last week.
After the Taliban gained territory and seized power with lightning speed in the lead-up to the total withdrawal of U.S. troops after 20 years of war, all that has changed. Since Sunday, women have been hiding at home, unsure of what they can and can’t do, as they wait to see if this new Taliban regime will mirror that of the 90s. Aina’s workplace has been closed since Monday, and like other women, she is afraid to walk out alone, even as the Taliban appears to have a more moderate position, claiming women can continue to live their lives normally.
“They should not be scared. Their right to education and work is there,” he said. “We have a commitment to that.”
On Tuesday morning, the Taliban appeared to back this claim, when a senior Taliban representative, Abdul Haq Hammad, agreed to be interviewed on the country’s largest news channel, by female journalist Behestha Arghand – an unthinkable scene from two decades ago.
But it’s still too soon to tell. In other areas, reports of women being sent home from work suggest that women’s rights remain in peril. Universities and schools remain closed as the Taliban awaits an official transfer of power, from a government that has fled.
For women like Aina, the uncertainty is unnerving, and a return to previous life, unbearable.
“I am in fear to go back to darkness, to the days where women didn’t have access to education, to work,” she said, adding that being forced to stay home, even these last two days, has been “disgusting.”
“I cannot imagine how I will survive or how I will deal with them. It’s too difficult for me,” she said. “It’s not clear what their rules are about women.”
While they wait, many women have already begun to make changes to protect themselves.
Social media accounts of young Afghan women who loved to share their new clothes, their travels, and selfies, have quietly been deactivated, and photos have been erased. One influencer who was known for her modern fashion style and her art, and has over 50,000 followers on Instagram, has removed her profile photo and cleaned up her feed, before deactivating her account for good.
“I really need to leave the country and I am under threat. If the Taliban find out about me, I will be at serious risk. We are all in very serious danger,” she told VICE World News.
“Currently, my family and I live under a complete state of panic and fear and totally hidden from the outside world and community,” she said. “I’ve received many threats and if the Taliban catch me, they can easily find out about my work and I will be in immediate danger.”
Another influencer, one of Aina’s friends, had 300,000 followers on Instagram. She also deactivated her account out of fear, unsure what the Taliban’s rules on social media would be.
Other young women, themselves digital natives, continue to use social media to express their fears and heartbreak of losing their progress.
Taha, who does not remember anything from Taliban rule having only been two years old when the regime fell, resorted to Twitter to express her desire to finish her university degree and her fear of having to be forced to wear a burqa.
“I heard a lot from my mom about the Taiban. I was shocked,” she told VICE World News. “The first thing I thought about was my university. Can I go again? Can I finish my university?”
“It’s like a dream. I’m in denial,” she added
On Instagram, a competitive athlete in her 20s posted photos of herself when she first started playing sports in 2013, then of herself competing abroad in 2018, before adding a sad emoji to a simple caption: “today.”
“I have worked hard for my future. For what I have now. I gave everything I had in the tank,” she wrote, captioning a separate photo. “But the Taliban wants to destroy it in one minute. They want to take me back to 20 years ago.”
In another post, she writes, “Goodbye my beautiful flag,” alongside a photo of her representing the country. “I can’t raise it anymore.”
Across Kabul and other provinces in the country, the white flag of the Taliban has replaced the green, black and red one that flew over government buildings. The swift takeover of the Taliban proves that 20 years after their fall, they are stronger than they have ever been.
But so are Afghan women.
In a nationwide survey conducted by the Asia Foundation from September 2020 to February 2021 involving over 12,000 respondents, over 80 percent said that it is very important to protect women’s rights in a peace deal.
It’s a sentiment many like Aina share, a sense of defiance despite the fear, that is sprouting in some spaces and in hushed conversations.
“I won’t be able to breathe if they don’t allow me to go outside. I can’t be a detainee anymore,” Aina said.
Aina, who does not wear a hijab during her day to day, says she cannot bring herself to change how she dresses, and that another friend she spoke to said she too, would refuse to cover up.
“If they make it compulsory, if they do, they won’t be in power anymore because women will stand against them. They cannot put us in their homes because one part of society will be paralysed if they don’t allow us to work. This community needs [us]. It’s too difficult.”
Taha too insisted she is not ready to let the life she knows go. “I’m 22 years old. I want free speech, free education and freedom to go wherever I want.”
This smidgeon of rebellion, it appears, is giving way to something powerful: hope.
“I feel like I’m in a tunnel. Not really dark, but I can’t see any bright light either. I don’t know how long the tunnel is,” Taha said. “But let’s not lose hope.”
Aina is as adamant. “I don’t want to change myself. I don’t want to do whatever they want me to do,” she said, adding she is still hopeful the international community will help Afghan women.
“Many things have changed. We are not the women of the 90s. They did not have access to technology, to social media, the internet. But now we’ve seen all these things,” she said. “We’ve explored all these things and we won’t allow it.”
Names of the women have been changed to protect their identity.
With reports from Pallavi Pundir and Koh Ewe. Follow Natashya on Twitter.