With Afghanistan’s fall to the Taliban, women face losing 20 years of hard-gained freedoms — to be replaced with anxiety, fear and death.
Taliban rulers claim they will allow Afghan women to continue to work and study. “We have got frameworks, of course,” Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid said last week. “Women are going to be very active in society but within the framework of Islam.”
Yet Afghan women see their future very differently. Some got out, but millions across all academic and professional backgrounds are questioning their existence under Taliban leadership.
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I have communicated with dozens of women in my former home country who say they cannot live under sharia law. They describe their current experience in fearful, scary and uncertain terms.
Fakhria*, a self-employed 23-year-old from Mazar-i-Sharif, says women have become less visible and the city “has a completely masculine face”.
“It is a ghost town and women have more fear and anxiety even with full Islamic cover,” Fakhria said. “The Taliban told women at a news conference to have an Islamic outfit. According to their sharia, it means to wear a radical Islamist outfit including covering our hands and face. This compulsion is not acceptable to us. In addition, we will not be allowed to walk alone down the street without a male partner. We cannot bear such things.”
Lida*, a government employee from Ghazni, says it is “impossible to live under sharia law”, but there is no choice for women who remain in Afghanistan.
“They misuse Islamic law to force women to wear Burqa,” Lida said. “They want to imprison the thoughts of women in a dark and ignorant frame. I am totally against it. Women are human and they will never sacrifice their freedom of choice under this radical regime.”
Other women have expressed similar fears.
In Kapisa, the most densely populated province outside Kabul, an 18-year-old student tells me she desperately feared for her future. She says women are no longer allowed to go to school in her area. Before the Taliban, women had all kinds of freedom, but now those freedoms are gone.
“The existence of women today within the city is invisible,” she said. “Islam never said to hit and imprison women … Life under the Taliban government is hell.”
A university student in Kabul tells me the Taliban’s PR spin on education and employment “is a lie” and the role of women “will be reversed back to 1996”. Another woman, a 26-year-old university graduate, says “it is better to die” than accept life under the Taliban’s “radical” sharia law.
Despite their educational, professional and geographical differences, the one thing that bonds these women is distrust of the Taliban’s rebranding as a government that tolerates women.
“They are telling lies and never believable,” said Yusra*, a school lecturer from Badakhshan. “As time passes, you will be shocked by their true faces.” Another says that whatever the Taliban say at press conferences, it is clear women “are the second sex and slaves of men”.
Hasiba Atakpal, a reporter from TOLOnews tweeted that she was hopeful after Mujahid’s press conference but when the Taliban took her camera, hit her colleague and fired shots into the air, it became clear “there is a gap between action and words”.
As Afghan women are forced deeper into a dangerous, exhausting and irreversible struggle, some are even losing their faith.
“My parents and I are Muslim, but we cannot fix today’s issues with radical Islam,” said the university student from Kabul. “If this is the order of things, I am considering myself a non-Muslim.”
Yet many women are determined to resist. Crystal Bayat, a protest leader who organised a rally on Afghanistan’s Independence Day, told The New York Times that for the past 19 years she has been studying but now all her dreams have died.
“Twenty years of changes will be lost under the Taliban’s hand,” she said. “I haven’t seen Taliban in my whole life … If they shoot me, ’til the time they shoot, I will strive and I will seek my goals. I will not let them deprive [me of] my fundamental rights.”
* Names are pseudonyms, for safety reasons.
Sakina Amani is an Afghan journalist who moved from Kabul to Melbourne in 2020. Find her on Twitter @SakinaAmani.