Despite the Taliban making vague promises to be more tolerant than they were when they last ruled, little has changed, especially for women. Since the militant group completed their lightning-fast takeover of Afghanistan in August, they have banned girls from secondary school and universities; restricted women from most workplaces; and, most recently, opened fire at female protesters who dared to speak out against them in Kabul.
Following the US invasion in 2001, conditions for Afghan women changed as many were able to build careers in a variety of fields. But with the Taliban in control once again, women are rarely seen in public life, if at all. Women journalists have disappeared from local TV, while politicians and other government officials have been sent home and replaced by Taliban members.
In a video published on social media, the Taliban’s Acting Minister of Higher Education described those who had graduated over the last two decades as being “out of use”, effectively cancelling the college degrees of hundreds of thousands of people. After protests by Afghan women took place in Kabul in the days and weeks after the takeover, the Taliban responded by banning any demonstrations that do not receive prior approval. Now women protesters rarely, if ever, dare to take to the streets.
“The Taliban’s treatment of women is like cutting the wing of a bird who always wants to fly,” Rahela Jafari, who led recent protests against the Taliban and has now fled the country, told VICE World News via WhatsApp. “In the past, women had a goal and motivation, but all of that died.”
Asked if she had any reason at all to be optimistic about the future of women in Afghanistan, Jafari said: “We are facing a government which doesn’t recognise women as part of the society. We are not optimistic but we will continue our campaign.”
“Before the collapse, I was helping the poor, providing shelter to poor women through my NGO, now I cannot even help myself,” Taranom Sayeedi, who was once a social activist and now fled Afghanistan, told VICE World News via WhatsApp. It took me years to get to this position. I wanted to be involved in my country’s politics, become a member of parliament. But now all my dreams are dead and not achievable.”
Western governments have tied any formal recognition of the Taliban to them making a commitment to observe human rights. The Taliban have offered some small concessions to a few women working certain essential jobs. In some situations, women have actually been asked to return to work in response to severe staffing shortages, such as for doctors, teachers and nurses. In recent weeks, they have asked women who worked at hospitals and other medical centres, as well as Afghanistan’s Central Passport Department, to return to work. The Taliban have also paid the salaries of some Afghan government women employees while still asking them to stay home.
For women entrepreneurs, however, the story is very different. Keyarang Saadat, who fled the country after protesting against the Taliban last month, had launched a fashion store in the capital Kabul. Like many others, she is not optimistic about the future for business owners in Afghanistan.
“I wanted to show my culture to the world,” Saadat, who employed nearly 80 women, told VICE World News. “I wanted to be a trade woman in the region, but now that’s just impossible. All of my employees were independent like me, but I don’t know what they will do now, how will they feed themselves or their families.”
After a deadly and chaotic evacuation at Kabul airport last August, Western governments are focused on evacuating their Afghan affiliates through Pakistan and Qatar, which have maintained ties to the Taliban.
Meanwhile, the collapsing economy remains a vital threat to Afghans. Hundreds of people are trying to migrate to neighbouring Iran to find jobs. The small roads leading to the Afghan presidential palace in Kabul are strewn with home furnishings of people trying to sell their things to get cash to help themselves get out of the country.
“Everyone is trying to get out of Afghanistan, they are selling whatever they have to survive,” Saadat, 28, said. “If anyone chooses to stay in Afghanistan their new generation will be illiterate and continue to live in darkness.”
Dozens of female journalists were among those who fled the country. Those who still continue to work in Afghanistan do so while fearing for their lives.
A TV presenter, who preferred not to be named because of the threats she faces, told VICE World News that people rarely criticise the Taliban publicly now, and TV stations are trying not to produce programs with women anchors.
Like so many others, she is desperately trying to leave the country and has contacted various international journalist organisations for help.
“I really don’t know what’s going to happen next,” she told VICE World News via WhatsApp, adding that a group of Taliban fighters had recently knocked on the door of her house in Kabul. “I’ll leave as soon as I get any opportunity.”
The Taliban have banned women teachers from teaching in boy’s primary schools, causing a shortage of teachers. They have been asked to stay home until an unknown date.
“We had a motivation to work or to continue our studies, but now that the Taliban don’t allow women to play a role in politics or government, there is no reason for us to continue,” a Kabul University student told VICE World News.
Private universities have also fired some of its staff while dozens of its female students, who were paying their fees from their wages, have been forced to abandon their studies. “Our life after the Taliban return has just turned to hell,” said a private university lecturer from Kabul. “It’s hard for women to even breathe under Taliban rule.”
“We just count days and nights here now,” said an 18-year-old student from Kabul. “There is no hope.”
Naseer Rahin is a freelance journalist based in Europe. Follow him on Twitter here.