Afghan women are already fading from public view as fear of the Taliban and uncertainty prevail

This week, she started taking a taxi to avoid reprisals from the Taliban, who once banned women from driving. It didn’t help. On the second day of the Taliban takeover, a Taliban gunman dragged the doctor, who didn’t want to use her full name, out of the taxi and whipped her for filming the chaos surrounding the evacuations at the Kabul airport through her window.

“I cried the whole way home,” she said.

Since seizing control of Afghanistan, the Taliban have sought to portray themselves as more moderate than when they were last in power in the 1990s, when their hard-line interpretation of Sunni Islam and their treatment of women helped make them a pariah state.

While the Taliban have publicly pledged to respect women’s rights within the limits of Islam, the group hasn’t elaborated on their own reading of it, or made specific promises. Interpretations of Islamic law vary widely, and the possible range of restrictions are causing many inside and outside Afghanistan to fear the worst for women’s freedoms.

Dr. Zuhal was six years old when the Taliban took over Kabul the first time in 1996, the same age as her daughter is now.

“I have so many dreams for her,” she said, “My life and my achievements are tearing in two pieces in front of my eyes. I never want this to happen to my daughter.”

Already, women are retreating from the public sphere.

Fawzia Koofi, an outspoken women’s rights defender and former parliamentarian who is in Afghanistan, said she was unable to give interviews under the current circumstances. Fatima Gailani, one of the few women that negotiated with the Taliban as part of the Afghan government, declined to comment.

In Kabul, many young women have never even worn a burqa, and some often appeared in public without headscarves. The wealthiest neighborhoods have come to resemble the West, with young Afghan men and women mixing freely in cafes modeled on Starbucks.

That is the lifestyle Fatimah Hossaini, a 28-year-old photographer, was accustomed to. Until a few days ago, she used to roam the streets of Kabul to shoot photos of Afghan women and meet up with friends in cafes and restaurants. She is now afraid of appearing in public.

“What about everything we fought for in the past two decades? Today I’m afraid to show my photos. I am hiding myself,” Ms. Hossaini said. “I had my liberty; I had my freedom. We went to the gym, to restaurants. Sometimes I would not cover my hair in public. Everything has changed in a week.”

In Saudi Arabia and Iran, which impose their own versions of Islamic law, limitations include dress codes for women and gender segregation in some public places. Life for women under Taliban rule in the 1990s was much more restrictive, when women were mostly confined to their homes, banned from education and forced to wear all-covering burqas in public.

Young women who were born after the 2001 invasion by the U.S. say their dreams have shattered overnight.

“A week ago, we were planning on how to study and work in the fall semester of university, but now everyone is scared to death. Our dreams are gone!” said a female student.

In his first press conference on Tuesday, Taliban spokesman Zabiullah Mujahid said the group, which calls itself the Islamic Emirate, would respect women’s rights.

“The Islamic Emirate is committed to the rights of women within the framework of Shariah,” or Islamic law, Mr. Mujahid said. “We would like to assure the international community that there’s not going to be any discrimination against women, but of course within the framework that we have. Our women are Muslim.”

Many Afghan women remain unpersuaded by the Taliban’s pledge to respect their rights.

“Although they say women will be allowed to go to work and get an education, I cannot trust them because their words are ambiguous and because they caused a lot of terror,” says a 31-year-old civil servant based in Kabul who doesn’t own a burqa. “I haven’t even gone to a shop. I don’t want to see them.”

The behavior of the Taliban toward women so far paints a mixed picture.

The Taliban’s rhetoric on women has softened, with the group, for instance, saying that women have a right to an education. Girls’ schools in some areas are open. Taliban leaders in Doha, Qatar, have sent their daughters abroad to university.

But in some areas of Afghanistan that fell last week, the Taliban quickly imposed restrictions on women, banning them from leaving the house without a male relative and forcing them to wear burqas. Some commanders demanded families hand over unmarried women to marry their fighters.

In Kabul, images of women outside beauty parlors have been painted over or ripped off.

In Kabul on Tuesday, a senior Taliban official was interviewed by a female broadcaster on Tolo News, Afghanistan’s leading news channel. But the next day, a female anchor employed by the state-run television network in Kabul appealed to the international community after she was denied her entry to her office building, while her male colleagues were allowed through.

“I wanted to go to work and didn’t lose my courage. Unfortunately, they did not allow me,” said the journalist, Shabnam Dawran, in a video message. “If the international community hears my voice, please help us since our lives are being threatened.”

Laurel Miller, a former American diplomat who met with the Taliban during the Obama and Trump administrations, said it was too early to interpret the mixed signals as the group has yet to form a government and establish the rule of law. It was possible that some actions were undertaken by local factions, without direction from the top, she said.

“They unquestionably want legitimacy and money. They need access to financial resources. The question is, what will they do in exchange,” she said, adding that even the most progressive Taliban government imaginable was unlikely to satisfy Western standards.

Following the 2001 invasion, U.S. and allied forces invested heavily to promote gender equality. Girls’ schools reopened, women enrolled in universities and joined the workplace. While rural areas remained overwhelmingly conservative—with women rarely seen outside without the blue burqa—there has been a visible change in bigger cities, especially in Kabul.

Some were caught off guard by the Taliban takeover. A young female researcher didn’t expect Kabul to fall so quickly when she went to the office on Sunday wearing a short skirt. As the Taliban closed in on the city she found herself trapped in the office, she said, too scared to venture outdoors in clothes she knew Taliban fighters would consider immodest.

She considered wrapping herself in a curtain before she was escorted home in a car by a friend.

Heather Barr, an Afghanistan specialist and associate director at Human Rights Watch, said there was no reason to believe the Taliban had moderated. “The generation of women who grew up in the past 20 years grew up hearing stories about the Taliban, thinking that was a horrible dark period their mothers and grandmas went through and thank god they would never experience,” she said. “The unthinkable is repeating itself after 20 years.”

This story has been published from a wire agency feed without modifications to the text


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