The lack of freedom to even choose their clothing is among the many ways the lives of women in Afghanistan have been changed under the Taliban's rule. Even as women fear that the Taliban is "trying to erase them from society," with their "daily life becoming worse than what people imagine it to be," they have limited options.
Less than 20 women demonstrated against the Taliban on two consecutive days this month – 9 May and 10 May – in capital city Kabul. They were yelled at, detained, questioned, and warned that their male family members would be arrested if they protested again.
On 7 May, the Taliban issued a decree that mandated "adult and noble Muslim women to observe the religious hijab" and cover their faces in public.
Then, again, citing several sources in Herat province, an Afghan news agency on 15 May reported that a Taliban official from the Ministry for Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice had told restaurant owners that gender segregation rule applies “even if they are husband and wife," adding to the misery of being a woman in the crisis-hit country.
On 18 May, female students from Kabul University were banned from the campus for wearing colourful hijabs. And, on 19 May, female Afghan journalists were ordered to cover their faces on air. Earlier in March, the Taliban ordered airline companies to stop women from boarding flights if they were unaccompanied by a male relative.
The Quint talked to at least three women from different walks of life who gave us a glimpse into their much-deteriorated circumstances under the Taliban.
'Taliban Pressured Me to Lie That My Brother Was My Boyfriend': Former Teacher
Humira, a 24-year-old former teacher, was on 12 May driving around Darsht-E-Barchi, a densely populated region barely 17 km from central Kabul with her younger brother when the Taliban stopped their car for questioning.
Women in Afghanistan are forbidden from traveling long distances without a male relative (mahram), and are questioned for being unaccompanied by their male family members at many checkpoints.
“I only stepped out to run some errands with my brother. I have stepped out on my own many times, but in recent days, the situation here is getting worse. The Talib stopped our car, checked the vehicle, and asked my brother to prove that I’m his sister. I kept telling him that he was my brother, and he can come with us to our house and check with my family. But he wasn’t even looking at me. He kept repeating it multiple times that my brother was my boyfriend – and we were committing a sin. He wanted me to lie so he could feel powerful. It was humiliating. I feared he would hit my brother."Humira to The Quint
Humira quit teaching soon after the Taliban took over Afghanistan on 15 August 2021. She’s currently unemployed and financially dependent on her father and brother.
Humira and her brother waited for two hours in the car. Her brother had his phone and the Talib took it right after stopping their car.
She said they didn't offer to call their parents on the phone but requested him to "come home and check with the family" if he was her brother.
Humira told The Quint that calling their family on the phone had the potential of complicating the situation as the Talib could still have refused to believe the family while also dragging in their father for questioning.
She therefore preferred using the come-home-and-check trick. This way there was a high chance the Talib would not follow them.
An angry Humira went on to say:
“It doesn’t make any sense. The Taliban 'fighters' just want to exercise power over us women and that’s why they stop us, threaten us. He asked us for the names of our parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents. If you were a Hazara in Afghanistan, you’ll know being stopped at these checkpoints can end up badly. I am so tired of this life. I really don’t care about dressing up head-to-toe anymore. Only if I can go out and buy vegetables without fearing for my life.”
'I Want to Finish My Degree, Move to Pakistan': College Student
Like Humira, many women in Afghanistan are faced with a new reality every day. Narges, a 19-year-old student at Kandahar University, told The Quint:
“I failed in two subjects for the first time in these past two years. We were already segregated in our classrooms from our male classmates. Now, they have divided days of the week, so we don’t even cross paths with our male classmates. Some professors either come to the class an hour late or don’t show up at all. Additionally, there are male Taliban fighters who roam around with guns in their hands and point at us for no reason. These small incidents are to make sure we stop coming to university.”
Narges added that she’s discouraged from continuing her education and doesn’t see a future in the country.
“What’s the point of education anymore for us women here? I used to wear a headcover with a long dress but for education, after the dress code decree, I have even started covering my face. I want to finish my degree and at least get out to Pakistan. We can’t stay here any longer and the world has essentially abandoned us,” shared a teary-eyed Narges.
But the bigger question is: How will things change? How can they even fight back? Talking about the handful of protesters in Kabul on 9-10 May, Narges said:
“These women have the kind of bravery I don’t. I really want to be alive, and they do give me hope, but I can’t imagine having that kind of courage. My parents aren’t educated and have struggled a lot under the previous Taliban rule. I don’t want to make it worse for them. My protest is to graduate, move out and get out of this prison and take my family along. At least I have that option. Look at these women begging for a piece of bread outside the stores. What about them?”
'Compulsory Burqa is a Dark Wall': Activist
Batol Gholami, a 23-year-old women’s rights activist from Afghanistan's Baghlan province, lost one of her cousins to the bomb blast that hit a Hazara-Shiite mosque on 21 April in Mazar-i-Sharif. Another cousin was gravely injured.
“The doctors in Mazar said my cousin's bones were turning blue, and we have to transfer him to Iran. I shuddered when I was told the blast ripped open his arm. I’m at a loss for words,” she told The Quint.
Batol went on to explain that the lack of male relatives in the house was complicating the lives of women. Her sisters-in-law (cousins' wives) are struggling to feed their children because they don't have the permission to step outside unaccompanied.
"I have lost so many male family members in the past five years. I know this isn’t over. I fear we will lose more," she adds.
Earlier, on 9 January, one of her relatives – a 28-year-old father of two – was gunned down outside their family home in Baghlan.
“My sisters-in-law can’t work. How will the women and children in my family and many others in Afghanistan survive like this,” asked a heartbroken Batol.
Even after losing some of her relatives under the Taliban rule, she continues to voice her support for women’s rights, and has set up an education platform, AYLA, for the girls of Afghanistan. Through this initiative, Batol provides online classes to teenage girls who are banned from classrooms.
Speaking about the mandatory burqa decree, she added:
“Compulsory burqa is a dark wall. After the Taliban took over, we cannot see any evidence that they acted on their promises. The world left millions of women in Afghanistan alone, and no one from the ground can do anything except obey the Taliban.”
Expressing her disappointment in the international community, Batol said, “I am disappointed by the world more than the Taliban because we thought they would raise their voices against this dictatorship and the extremist regime. But no, they didn't. In my own country, I have no freedom of choice, freedom of voice, no freedom of education, or work. The word 'life' is losing its meaning.”
(The author is an independent journalist based out of Paris. An alumna of University College Dublin, she writes about international conflict and war.)