Samira was ironing her clothes for work one evening a fortnight ago when a colleague called to ask if she had seen the announcement on .
The ‘s economic ministry had released a statement published on the site banning female employees from working for non-governmental organisations (NGOs).
Since the Taliban seized power in in August 2021, Samira’s life had already changed beyond recognition.
Gone were her workouts in her local Kabul gym, her treasured picnics and restaurant dinners.She stopped wearing jeans and wore a black hijab, her face covered with a veil, her office segregated into female and male workers.
Life in the shadow of the Taliban: A woman walks past an armed guard in Kabul, Afghanistan, last month.The woman pictured did not participate in this article
Yet for all the warning signs Samira, 29, dared hope she might at least keep the NGO job she had enjoyed for five years, that both supported her family and formed the bedrock of her identity. But after last month’s announcement her boss told her not to come in the next day — and she hasn’t been allowed to return since.
‘I was shocked and cried,’ says Samira, whose father died when she was a child and whose £500 monthly salary supported her mother and two younger sisters, with whom she lives.
‘Now, we are banned from everything.I was the only supporter of the family. I don’t know what to do. I have depression. I feel suffocated. I use pills to sleep. I am scared.’
When the Taliban returned to rule, 20 years after being removed by U.S. forces, its leaders insisted its reincarnated administration would afford women better rights than they received during its earlier draconian leadership.
In fact, it has done anything but, with advances women had made in the subsequent two decades curtailed and women and girls’ rights, according to Amnesty International, ‘decimated’.
An all-male 53-member strong Cabinet replaced the previous administration, of which 89 out of 352 members of parliament had been female.
Virtually every municipal city job held by women in the capital Kabul was to be re-filled by men, the new mayor announced.The country’s 100,000-plus female civil servants were banned from working for their ‘safety’ and female teachers lost their jobs.
Secondary school girls were instructed not to return to classrooms, and women of all generations, many of whom had known nothing other than Western clothes, were told they had to wear a hijab and face covering.
Taliban fighters check the site of an explosion, near the Interior Ministry, in Kabul, Afghanistan (stock image)
Last October, female university students were banned from studying subjects such as engineering — allegedly, a Taliban spokesman said, because they were not interested.The following month, having already been told they couldn’t use the spaces at the same time as men, women were prohibited from entering parks, swimming pools and gyms altogether.
On December 20, women were stopped from going to university completely.Those who dared try were greeted by guards wielding guns at campus gates. Days later, the ban on women working for NGOs came into place.
Female-headed households can only receive food and financial assistance from female employees at NGOs, so by banning women aid workers the Taliban is cutting off women from vital supplies.
Yesterday, former Afghan MP Fawzia Koofi said that a lot of women working for NGOs ‘were the only breadwinners’ in their family, and that, ‘although their salaries are being paid, obviously this is not going to last very long, so they are really struggling, not only with economic crisis but also with mental health’.
Denied their education and livelihoods, prohibited from going to the shops without a male escort and unable to enjoy something as simple as a jog outdoors, Afghan women are now effectively prisoners in their own homes — their captors armed and dangerous.
Activist Tamana Paryani was arrested by gun-toting Taliban who burst into her home last January after she protested against the decree that all women must wear a headscarf.She later claimed she was tortured with ‘cables, pipes and whips’. A Taliban spokesman denied her allegations. The United Nations expressed concern after the Taliban arrested and detained activists during a press conference to launch a women’s rights organisation in Kabul last March.
Anas Haqqani, center right, gets a tour of the military vehicles seized by Taliban fighters in the wake of the American forces completing their withdrawal from the country in 2021 (stock image)
The newly implemented Ministry for the Propagation of Virtue and Prevention of Vice seems to be showing no mercy in its interpretation of Islamic law, with three women among 12 people flogged in front of thousands of onlookers at a football stadium in Afghanistan recently for ‘moral crimes’ including adultery.
So it is no exaggeration to say speaking out against their horrifying situation clearly carries grave risk, but Samira — whose name we have changed, along with the names of other brave women still in Afghanistan we have spoken to — is determined to do so.
‘My mother’s not happy I’m doing an interview.She’s worried about my life,’ says Samira. ‘I am afraid but accept the risk. We have to raise our voices. This is the only way we can fight. Even if they kill me, I don’t care.’
She talks on Zoom from her home via an interpreter, her pretty face unobscured by her headscarf, a denim jacket on top of her black gown, smartphone by her side.
In a country where 97 per cent of the population now lives in poverty — a statistic exacerbated by the ban on female workers — Samira’s job as a community engagement officer involved improving the prospects of rural Afghan women, and she is aware of her relative privilege.
‘I was the one to support other women,’ she says.’Now I’m in the same situation as the women I was supporting.’
After the new regime took over, she recalls, ‘we had hope the Taliban might have changed’ — but it soon became clear this wasn’t the case. Even before women were banned from public spaces, she dared not go to a funfair or park because she didn’t have a mandatory male guardian, and ‘I felt that if I went somewhere to have fun, the Taliban would torture me’.
Taliban inspect the scene after an operation against hideouts of alleged ISIS militants in Kabul, Afghanistan (stock image)
When she lost her job last month — days after her sisters were banned from university — her family was devastated.’We never expected this day would come again. Everyone was silent and my mother cried.’
Her most pressing concern is running out of funds to afford treatment for her mother, who is desperately ill. ‘I take her to hospital for medication. What will I do if I don’t have the money?’
She feels a responsibility to raise the morale of her devastated sisters — ‘I’ve been telling them to read books, to exercise indoors with yoga,’ she says — but believes her endeavours are in vain: ‘We had opportunities.Those hopes are gone now.’
Every time she ventures out to buy groceries or take her mother to hospital without a man to accompany her, she knows she is putting herself in danger. She has been stopped twice already by groups of at least eight Taliban inspectors.
‘They’re always armed.
The person who stopped me [once] had a scary face. I was so scared. I thought, ‘He’s going to kill me now.’ They ask me, ‘Where is your escort?’ I say, ‘This is a country at war. Many families have lost their men. If they’re not here, what should we do?’ But they didn’t listen. I had to come home.
I was angry and cried but had no choice.’ Happy for women in other countries who take their freedom for granted, Samira, whose friendships are now largely conducted online or on the phone, asks, nonetheless, ‘Why don’t I have their rights? Why is this happening to Afghan women?’
Few familiar with its modus operandi are surprised the assurances the Taliban made to work ‘shoulder to shoulder’ with women in 2021 turned out to be a lie.
Taliban fighters guard outside the airport in Kabul on August 31, 2021, after the US has pulled all its troops out of the country (stock image)
‘It is gender apartheid,’ says Crystal Bayat, 26, an Afghan women’s activist who says none of the foreign aid the Taliban has received since taking over is being spent on those who need it: ‘It’s devastating to see how people are suffering.Any girls who stand up for women’s rights will be silenced by the Taliban. They’re arresting and torturing them.’
Crystal, who runs a foundation supporting women’s rights, fled Kabul for the U.S. in August 2021 after protests she led against the Taliban, wrapped in the national flag, made international news.’The Taliban leaders started tweeting against me, saying, ‘She is against our religion and culture, so according to sharia law her deeds allow us to kill her,’ ‘ she recalls. ‘I was so scared.’
She now teaches women who are still in Afghanistan digital marketing online, in the hope that they will go on to work for international companies, and last August founded a library for women in Kabul as a symbol of resistance.But that too was forced to close last month.
‘The Taliban have clearly stated they don’t believe in women’s rights or freedoms. They’re scared of educated women because they cannot keep them inside the home. They cannot convert them with their stupid ideology,’ says Crystal.’If we don’t take action quickly the future is going to be very dangerous.’
The few women who are still able to work in Afghanistan are increasingly restricted. Zahra, 22, who lives with her parents and six siblings, has been told by her employer that she can only do her human resources job online from the family’s Kabul home: ‘In reality, I can’t do it as well.I feel so sad.’
Speaking in English on Zoom, her confident demeanour belying her young age, she is determined not to be portrayed as a victim. ‘I’m not scared to defend my rights as a human being,’ she says. ‘The Taliban don’t accept that women’s rights are the same as human rights.Some days I cry for that.’
A Taliban fighter is seen at the Taliban flag-raising ceremony in Kabul, Afghanistan, March 31, 2022 (stock image)
Before she was told to stay at home, the Taliban burst into her office to search staff laptops — ‘they couldn’t find anything’ — and stopped her on her way to work.’I felt so afraid because maybe they’d attack me. They have such bad behaviour with women. They want women to just stay at home.’
Amina, 26, a doctor and married mother of one who lost her job working for an NGO last month, continues to work at a Kabul hospital — the Taliban want women to be treated only by female doctors, so banning them from studying medicine seems particularly obtuse.
Losing her NGO job ‘was a very painful feeling’, says Amina: ‘Before the Taliban, I didn’t feel discrimination or disrespect.I couldn’t imagine facing a situation like this. The situation is torture. I am worried what to do next — how to find a job to make up for the shortcoming. I spend days depressed, thinking about my child’s future, about the girls who’ve lost their education and what will happen to them.’
Now that women — who represented 33 per cent of university students — are banned from getting degrees, prospects look ever bleaker for future generations, although the demands of higher education had been made almost impossible for them since the Taliban took over, as Hadiya, 22, a former second-year journalism student at Kabul University, recalls.
Female students were separated from male, she says, and taught only by women, even though there were only four female lecturers in her department.All but black clothing was strictly forbidden.
‘On an exam day one of my friends came in wearing a colourful tent (hijab) and wasn’t able to pass the exam,’ says Hadiya, who lives with her father, a retired teacher, and mother.
‘We weren’t allowed to use smartphones on campus.We couldn’t ask male teachers questions. This was very upsetting, but we thought with the new rules, classes would continue. It was our life’s hope.’
One Wednesday morning last month Hadiya arrived at campus to sit an exam, only to find entrance for women had been prohibited.
The Taliban’s higher education minister claimed the ban on women attending university had been prompted by female students who ‘failed to comply’ with segregated classes and dress codes, and who ‘were studying agriculture and engineering in defiance of Afghan honour and Islam’.
Hadiya recalls: ‘The Taliban were at the gates beating girls trying to get in. It wasn’t just me crying — it was all my classmates.We were shocked, screaming, begging the Taliban to let us in, but they didn’t. We lost all our hopes in one day.’
She fell into depression: ‘I completely lost my mind.’ Her parents, ‘also sad and depressed’, are trying to rally her spirits: ‘They are trying to convince me that I will be back at university.But I know this is not going to happen.’
Largely confined to her home, Hadiya hasn’t so much as been to her local park for five months.
‘We are human. We need to exercise, to walk,’ she says.She harbours no greater ambition than a desire to learn. ‘I see other women travel from one country to another — even into space — but in Afghanistan, it is our small wish that the universities and schools be opened so that we can study.’
Not that she holds out any hope this will happen while the Taliban is in charge: ‘We are kept like prisoners now.’