As US troops prepare to leave Afghanistan, opening the door for a potential Taliban comeback, women across the war-torn country are nervous about losing their hard-won freedoms in the pursuit of peace.
The militants were in power for around five years until the US invasion of 2001. They ruled Afghanistan with an iron fist that turned women into virtual prisoners under a strict interpretation of sharia law.
The Taliban’s fall transformed women's lives, much more so in urban areas like Kabul than in conservative rural Afghanistan. But across the country, women remain wary of the insurgents, desperate to see an end to the violence, but fearful of paying a heavy price.
Working Women Concerned About Women’s Freedoms
Under the Taliban, women were barred from seeking education or work – rights that Afghan female professionals are fiercely protective of today.
In the western city of Herat, saleswoman Setara Akrimi, 32, a divorced mother of three, told AFP,
“I will be very happy if peace comes and the Taliban stop killing our people. But if the Taliban come back to power... with their old mentality, it is a matter of concern for me. If they tell me to sit at home, I will not be able to support my family.”
“There are thousands of women like me in Afghanistan, we are all worried.” Akrimi's anxieties are echoed by Kabul-based veterinarian Tahera Rezai, who believes “the arrival of the Taliban will affect women's right to work, freedom and independence.”
"There has been no change in their mentality," the 30-year-old told AFP.
Passionate about her career, Rezai said she was pessimistic about her prospects if the insurgents return to government, even in a truncated capacity.
"Looking at their history, I feel less hopeful... I believe the situation will get harder for working women like me," she said.
“Women Would Be Looked Upon as Second Sex”
In the run-up to the US deal, the militants made a vague commitment to respect women's rights in line with “Islamic values,” prompting warnings from activists that the pledge was mere lip service and open to broad interpretation.
The Taliban control large swathes of Afghanistan and while they now allow girls to attend primary school in some areas, occasional reports of floggings and even the public stoning of women persist, fuelling fears they will turn back the clock if they return to power.
Many ordinary Afghans are struggling to balance their desire for peace with their dread of the insurgents.
“Every family here is grieving because they have lost their children, sons, husbands, brothers in the war,” government official Torpekay Shinwari told AFP in eastern Nangarhar province, which witnessed fierce battles between the Taliban and the Islamic State group's Afghanistan affiliate.
The 46-year-old said she was praying for peace, but was increasingly concerned that “women would be looked upon as the second sex and suppressed” if the militants gain ground.
Some Strike a Note of Optimism
But in Kandahar, the birthplace of the Taliban, schoolgirl Parwana Hussaini struck a rare optimistic note.
"I am not worried. Who are the Taliban? They are our brothers," the 17-year-old told AFP.
"We are all Afghans and want peace."
Furthermore, she added, “The young generation has changed, and will not allow the Taliban to enforce their old ideology upon us." For those who bore the brunt of the insurgents' merciless rule, however, there is little doubt that a Taliban comeback will bring anything other than a repeat of "dark and painful memories".
Factory worker Uzra, from the mainly Shiite Hazara ethnic minority, sobbed as she recounted life as a young mother, alone at home with her children when the Sunni-fundamentalist Taliban arrived in her village.
"I still vividly remember the day... They massacred all the men, and then came to my house," the 40-year-old said, too frightened to give her full name.
The militants threatened to behead her then three-year-old daughter, she told AFP from her home in central Bamiyan province.
The family survived and fled to Pakistan, but her husband was disabled and traumatised by the brutal beatings he suffered.
"To this day, when the word 'Taliban' comes up, he starts crying," she said.
“Everybody wants peace, but not if the Taliban returns. I don't want this so-called peace.”