‘I was a policewoman. Now I beg in the street’: life for Afghan women one year after the Taliban took power

·8-min read
<span>Photograph: EPA</span>
Photograph: EPA

One year ago, the Taliban swept through Afghanistan, taking control of the country amid the chaos of the US and UK troop withdrawal.

Now women’s lives across the country have been fundamentally changed, their rights curtailed and freedoms restricted. Campaigners have called the Taliban’s orders to deny women education, remove them from their jobs and force them back under the veil a “gender apartheid”.

Over the past month, Rukhshana Media has talked to women across the country about their experiences of living under Taliban rule.

Hijab order

Samana, Kabul
I was walking home alone when I turned down a deserted alley and found two Taliban with guns over their shoulders. They shouted I was a prostitute because I was unveiled, and demanded to know why I wasn’t wearing the hijab. They pointed their guns in my face, and one of them had his finger on the trigger. I lowered my head and said: “It won’t happen again.” When I got home, I sat and cried for an hour. I said to myself: this is a warning for what is coming next. Since then, I have fallen into a deep depression. I can’t bear to look at all my colourful clothes in my closet as they remind me of everything I have lost.

Zahra, west Kabul
After the hijab order was announced, I was caught by Taliban fighters. They asked why I was not wearing the hijab, and although I have no intention of following their orders, I apologised and thought they would let me go. But they visited my home and told my family the next time I was caught in public uncovered I would be arrested. Since then, my father has rarely allowed me or my sisters to leave the house, and says we can’t go to university. Even my brothers now know what I wear and where I go at all times.

An Afghan woman walks through the old market as a Taliban fighter stands guard, in downtown Kabul 3 May 2022.
An Afghan woman walks through the old market as a Taliban fighter stands guard, in downtown Kabul 3 May 2022. Photograph: Ebrahim Noroozi/AP

Travel restrictions

Zarlasht, Kabul
In June, I was travelling with my brother and we were stopped at a checkpoint by Taliban fighters. Firstly, they questioned us separately to understand if we were related to each other, then they asked for our national ID cards. When my brother said we didn’t carry our ID cards with us, they got angry and one of them hit him with a rifle and was about to fire. We were made to sit there for two hours, and then we had to call our families to bring ID cards so we could return home. Since then, I do not dare to leave the house.

University students

Sabira, Bamyan province
Even though it is not mandatory we are being forced to wear the black hijab to be allowed to enter university. Once we’re inside, women are under constant surveillance. There are hijab notices on the doors and walls. I never imagined that one day, in Bamyan, all female students would be forced to live like this. I can’t believe what life is turning into here.

Islamic State attacks

Abassi, west Kabul
My friend and I were chatting on the bus on the way to work in the Hazara Shia neighbourhood of west Kabul when suddenly the world around us exploded. We found ourselves in the middle of carnage. Since the Taliban took control, security has deteriorated and our bus had been bombed by IS militants. We later found out that many people were killed. I was wounded in my leg and chest, and my friend in her right leg. When the bomb went off, everything changed for me. After the Taliban took over, things were hard but I continued my work and was determined to live bravely. Now, after the attack, I live in constant fear. The pain of my injuries has been excruciating. I’ve gone through five surgeries and can’t go to the bathroom or dress myself without help. But the psychological wounds are also deep. I have to pass the place where the bomb exploded to get to my doctor appointments, and every time I feel the vehicle shaking, the heat of the explosion and the sound of people screaming. It keeps repeating and repeating in front of my eyes when I try to sleep.

‘I do not dare to leave the house.’
‘I do not dare to leave the house.’
Photograph: Zohra Bensemra/Reuters

Widows

Sakina, Kandahar
Life has not been easy for a long time. I lost my husband in an airstrike five years ago, and before the Taliban took power I worked and sold street food to support my children. Now I am not allowed to work. The Taliban has given me and other widows a card to claim a sack of wheat, three litres of cooking oil and 1,000 Afghani [£9] every three months, but this is not enough to keep our family going. I live with three other widowed women and their children, but our rent is 40,000 Afghani a month and we can’t pay it. If we can’t work, I’m worried we will starve.

Maryam, former policewoman, location protected
Until the Taliban took power, I worked as a police officer. My husband had died but I could support my two daughters on my police salary, I could give them everything they needed. Now I have lost my job, and the Taliban have been hunting down women who worked in the security services. I am still terrified they will find me. For the past seven months, I have been reduced to begging on the streets to feed my girls. I sit all day on the street under a burqa so that nobody recognises me and informs on me. I don’t recognise who I have become. One day, two boys threw some coins at me, and one said I was a prostitute. I went home with only enough to buy two loaves of bread for my children, and cried all night.

Girls studying in a secret school at an undisclosed location in Afghanistan, 24 July 2022.
Girls studying in a secret school at an undisclosed location in Afghanistan, 24 July 2022. Photograph: Lillian Suwanrumpha/AFP/Getty Images

Education

Mah Liqa, 14, location protected
When I was told I wasn’t allowed to go to school, I was depressed and had no motivation to work and study at home. But I kept telling myself I had to keep going for a better future and for my dreams. I need to find ways to keep learning despite the ban on girls going to school. So now every day I study English at home so I can apply for a scholarship, and maybe some day study computer science abroad. I am still trying to achieve something for myself.

Samira, 18, location protected
I should be in grade 12 but I’m not allowed to go to school. After the Taliban took power, I decided to turn challenge into opportunity, so now I buy raw materials like beads and fabric from the market and sell them on to women who make traditional clothing in their homes. I’ve made some money, and now I want to use this to start a factory of my own if the situation improves. I’m proud I can now help to support my family.

Related: ‘For as long as we can’: reporting as an Afghan woman as the Taliban advance

Cultural life

Khatera, artist, Herat
I have invested more than half my life working as an artist, making traditional wood engravings and designs. I was the only female engraver in my region and have created over 1,000 artworks. Since the Taliban came to power, making art is a dangerous job. Being a woman and an artist is even more dangerous. The Taliban said I can continue with my engravings, but I know it is impossible. I am self-censoring because I don’t feel safe. I used to engrave faces and figures but now I mainly print verses of the holy Qur’an on wood. I have to find another way to survive and to forget art. I used to spend every day in my studio but now I just go back every one or two months to dust off my engravings and tools. I’ve auctioned off most of my equipment, and my friends are advising me to leave Afghanistan. My Iranian customers tell me to move to Iran, where my work will be valued. But I tell them: I will stay in Afghanistan, some day things might change.

Book stall set up by a group of Afghan women in Kabul to promote reading culture, 25 May 2022.
Book stall set up by a group of Afghan women in Kabul to promote reading culture, 25 May 2022. Photograph: EPA

Book club

Bahra, Herat
In the darkest moments and when there is no hope, we tried to follow a path that can never be closed, and it is the path of books. I come from a family of poets and writers, and I have a master’s degree. Two months into the Taliban rule in Herat, myself and four friends decided to form a book club. The first book we chose was a Persian translation of The Clown, a 1963 novel by the German writer Heinrich Böll. We hold our meetings in secret, but soon others heard about what we were doing. Now we have over 40 members from all walks of life, and hold discussions on Telegram. Some of us try to meet every two weeks to discuss and critique world literature. We choose books that are available to us in Afghanistan but also say something wider about the world, many about the hardships women have had to ensure through history – what they did to make those days bearable. We also read books written by people who lived through the second world war, as we can all identify with those survivors. It is a struggle to keep the spirit of the women of Herat alive. These book club meetings have become our haven.

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