Since the Taliban returned to power in Afghanistan, the media, human rights organizations and a range of political actors have paid particular attention to the women of the country, who are now stranded without the rights they built up over the last 20 years.
And yet, despite the international attention and genuine efforts to help, no real measures have been put in place to ensure women's ongoing freedom and security. Politicians have been limited in what they can do. Some have made powerful speeches and written persuasive articles, but these words, however well-articulated, have achieved little. In fact, the world is learning more day by day about the very serious danger almost all Afghan women now face, without knowing what to do about it. Just being a woman is dangerous in what the Taliban have now, again, dubbed an Islamic Emirate.
For women who played a key role in Afghan society before the Taliban regained control – who were politically active or helped usher in democratic values and principles of equality to the country – the dangers are now immense. Those who served in the Afghan army are among those at gravest risk. The majority of them have gone into hiding, and many are desperate to leave the country.
On September 4, 2021, the Taliban assassinated a woman named Negar, a former guard at Ghour Central Prison in western Afghanistan, sparking panic among women who had served in the police and armed forces under the previous government.
"Three Taliban fighters entered the house and shot and killed my mother," Mohammad Hanif, Negar's son, told IranWire. He says his mother was murdered purely because she had worked for the Afghan police, and his account of the murder is horrendous even to hear. “They tied us up with ropes and then they killed my mother in front of our eyes. They blew her brain clear out of her skull."
The office of Taliban spokesperson Zabihollah Mujahid told IranWire an investigation into the murder was underway, but that so far, there was no further information available. The Taliban declined to comment more generally on the fate of women soldiers and police.
We also visited Shakila Forough, who had also been in the Afghan army. With the fall of Afghanistan to the Taliban, her career ended. Now a housewife, she worries the Taliban will track her down.
Shakila's father, who was in the army too, was killed in a Taliban ambush in southern Afghanistan's Helmand province in 2018. She joined up soon after. "They will never give women the right to work, let alone allow them to rejoin the army,” she says. “The Taliban have ruled Afghanistan for just a little over a month, but not a single woman has been invited to meet with them. I am forced to live in fear, trembling in secret, and worried about my life and that of my family."
Shakila blames the international community, especially the United States, for the current situation in Afghanistan. "One of the reasons for the collapse of the Afghan government was the hasty exit. The international community forgot about women and left Afghanistan. Now how are we supposed to live under the Taliban’s flag? The international community must rescue vulnerable women from Afghanistan.”
Zahra Gul Popal also donned the Afghan army uniform before the Taliban regained power, and was awarded the title of "Afghanistan's top female military member" by the Indian government, which played a role in training female soldiers. "I am now under serious threat from the Taliban," she told IranWire. "I served in the Afghan army for a long time and took part in many operations against the Taliban. My husband was also in the army and now we’re both unemployed. Who will take responsibility for the situation we find ourselves in, for our future, and the future of our two children?
“I never thought that one day, our government would fall, and the system in Afghanistan would collapse. Let me be clear: women who served in the army are under grave threat from the Taliban."
She says now her biggest dream is to leave Afghanistan. She has even considered paying smugglers to get herself and her family out of the country to save their lives, even though she is well aware of how dangerous that would be, and the violence she may encounter on the way. She knows such an escape attempt could fail, and that the closed borders may be unpassable. But they have to try.
The dangers for women in Afghanistan are stark, and terrifying. But despite this, many women are taking to the streets and demanding justice. This sets them apart from the women living under the Taliban in the 1990s. After two decades of progress, of greater awareness, of learning, building careers and playing an active role on both the national and international stages, these women are not prepared to let go or give up. They won’t accept what the Taliban is trying to do to them.
This article was written by a citizen journalist under a pseudonym.