Afghan Woman Tells Us What It Was Like Leaving Her House for the First Time

“No one was out, everyone was nervous, and all discussions were about the future and the Taliban.”
August 19, 2021, 1:19pm
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Taliban fighters patrol in the Wazir Akbar Khan neighborhood in the city of Kabul, Afghanistan, Wednesday, Aug. 18, 2021. Photo: AP/Rahmat Gul

Three days after the Taliban first arrived in Kabul and overthrew the Afghan government, Hadiah left her house for the first time.

Like most women, she had stayed at home since Sunday, afraid and uncertain of what the arrival of the fundamentalist group meant for her freedoms. She spent the last few days crying and in tears, but on Wednesday had no choice and finally stepped out. She had run out of food at home. 

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And so she asked her flat mate, also a woman in her 20s, to accompany her. 

Hadiah said the city she knows and loves felt empty and foreign. The usually bustling street of Karta-e-Seh – a favorite among Afghan youth – was shuttered and quiet, and had no signs of activity in its characteristic cafes and trendy shops.

“It’s never ever felt like this before,” she said. “The city was calm and you could feel it was a male-dominated community.”

The men were deeply concerned about seeing Hadiah and her friend out in the city alone.

“Somebody told us, ‘be careful they might beat you, why did you go out alone?’,” she said. “People looked at us, amazed. They said, ‘You came out. You came out.’”

Most strikingly, during the hour she was out with her friend, they did not see any other women. “No one was out, everyone was nervous, and all discussions were about the future and the Taliban.”

Hadiah said she was “scared” to step out at first, but admitted she was also curious about what it would be like outside.

The Taliban they passed by looked at them, she said, but had said or done nothing.

Stepping out unaccompanied by a man used to be a punishable offense under Taliban rule, when they were in power from 1996 to 2001. Women were also required to be covered from head to toe, and were not allowed work nor have an education beyond primary school. Living without men, like Hadiah does now, was unthinkable. 

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It was a life Hadiah is not accustomed to, having grown up in the 2000s, when the Taliban had been overthrown by the U.S.-backed government.

Hadiah is a college graduate and a working woman, and does not usually cover up when she goes outside. But to be extra safe, Hadiah and her friend wore long dresses on Wednesday and covered their heads, after being cooped up at home for three days.

Despite being covered up, she said the few men out on the streets stared at them.

“It’s like they were freed from the zoo. They looked at us and they were amazed to see something new,” she said. “I put lipstick on and everyone was looking at us.”

The capital city of Kabul is on edge as Afghans await what Taliban rule will be like 20 years since they were last in power. The Taliban had swifty recaptured the country in recent weeks, leading to the collapse of the Afghan government on Sunday, as the U.S. prepared to withdraw their troops after two decades of war. 

While the group appears to have a less extremist stance, vowing that women can continue to work and girls can attend school, many doubt that the Taliban will put this in practice. In recent days, reports of violence, including the Taliban beating women and children at the airport, have emerged. Schools and workplaces remain closed. Anxious shop owners have removed pictures of women from their stores.

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Most women are not yet willing to risk going out. 

One woman told VICE World News that she has moved to an undisclosed location and “completely limited our movements,” having received threats from the Taliban before for her artwork.

A medical worker VICE World News spoke with said she has yet to leave her house since she tried to flee the country on Sunday, because her family won’t let her. She said she’d like to go out soon, and “continue to live my life.”

While Hadiah was brave enough to go out however, she admitted she is constantly nervous about what the Taliban’s interpretation of Sharia law would be. Particularly, as a single woman, she worries about being forced into marriage.

“I am scared they will do forced marriages. If the Taliban don’t do forced marriage through their fighters, maybe the families of girls will,” she said. “For instance, my family will say, ‘Okay, you should marry this guy because you’re single and it’s going to be a problem for us.’ And imagining this situation is horrible for me.”

Just them being in power, she said, will change society completely. 

“My family will force me because of the Taliban regime because they want to protect me. They’ll request me to marry a person that I don’t love or someone I don’t want to be with,” she said. “I can’t imagine it. I’m sure these things will happen if this regime gets full power. This thing is going to apply to every girl and Afghan woman.”

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Hadiah’s fears are common among young Afghan women who have grown up with music, movies and make-up – all of which were banned during the 90s under the Taliban. 

Desperate to not experience the Taliban’s reign of terror they’ve heard from their parents, many Afghan youth have been driven to try and escape the country, leading to heartbreaking stories of tragedy and deaths.  

For now, Hadiah, like many of her peers, will have to wait and see how closely the Taliban will honor their word. Until then, Hadiah refuses to be held back.

“We should come out. We cannot stay in our home all the time,” she said. “We cannot be detained.” 

Hadiah’s name has been changed for her protection.

With reports from Anthony Esguerra. Follow Natashya on Twitter.