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'We fear what is coming': Women in Kabul speak out as Taliban takes back control

Women in Afghanistan tell The Journal “everyone is living in fear” since the Taliban regained control of the country.

Taliban fighters stand guard at a checkpoint near the US Embassy that was previously manned by American troops, in Kabul, on Tuesday.
Taliban fighters stand guard at a checkpoint near the US Embassy that was previously manned by American troops, in Kabul, on Tuesday.
Image: STR/AP Photo/PA Images

A WOMEN’S RIGHTS activist living in Kabul has said “everyone is living in fear” since the Taliban regained control of the Afghan capital in recent days.

Speaking to The Journal from Kabul on Tuesday, Mahbouba Seraj of the Afghan Women’s Network said women and girls in particular are afraid to leave their homes.

“Most women and girls in Kabul are now staying at home, they don’t go out. The men go to the shop if needed but, apart from that, most are staying at home. Everyone is living in fear, but trying to stay alert and aware. There is so much uncertainty right now. We don’t know what is coming.

“I am still in Kabul and we are all staying at home, watching and waiting. I am trying to just stay present, to keep in touch with international contacts and watch the news. It’s all we can do right now,” Seraj said.

Thousands of people have arrived at Kabul airport in recent days in a desperate bid to get a flight out of the country. Footage of people clinging to a US Air Force plane as it prepared to take off from the airport on Monday has been widely shared on social media.

Dramatic footage shows hundreds of men running alongside the plane as it rolls down the runway, with some clinging to the side of it. Other videos appear to show people falling from the aircraft as it gains altitude.

Senior US military officials said seven people died amid the chaos at the airport.

A separate photo from inside a US military aircraft showed more than 600 Afghans sitting on the floor of the plane, part of a dramatic airlift hours after Kabul fell to the Taliban.

Speaking about the dramatic scenes at the airport, Seraj said: “We are advising people not to flee to the airport. What we saw [on Monday] was the result of a lot of misinformation, people hearing that this plane or that plane was taking people out. We don’t believe this is true and we don’t think the airport is the safest place right now.”

The Taliban has promised a new era of peace in Afghanistan, with amnesty for those they have been battling for two decades. However, many people are sceptical and fear what the reality of life under the new regime will be like.

Under the hardline version of Sharia law that the Taliban imposed the last time they were in power, Afghani women and girls were mostly denied education or employment.

Full face coverings became mandatory in public and women could not leave home without a male companion.

Public floggings and executions, including stoning for adultery, were carried out in city squares and stadiums. Music and television were also banned.

‘No one trusts the Taliban’

When asked about the promises made by the Taliban in recent days, Seraj told The Journal: “All we can do now is wait. We know what the Taliban are, we know their past, but I do not believe these men are stupid. They don’t want to rule an Afghanistan that is empty, void of its citizens.

“Everyone should show the Taliban the footage of the people fleeing at the airport, show them that this is an entire country running from them. They cannot want to rule a country that is empty, surely. But we simply do not know what they have in store for us. All we can do now is wait.”

Also, speaking to The Journal, Marjila Badakhsh, a freelance journalist based in Kabul, said most of friends believe the situation will get worse.

“They do not have any hope for a good life under the Taliban’s rules. I was speaking to my friends and everyone is thinking about emigrating – to Canada, the US and and other countries. In some WhatsApp groups with other journalists every message is about emigration. They want to save their lives, no one really trusts the Taliban.”

afghanistan Hundreds of people gather near the international airport in Kabul this week Source: STR/AP Photo/PA Images

Badakhsh said the Taliban will likely “undermine the achievements of Afghan women”, including journalists, who may lose their jobs.

“Do not believe the ‘beautiful words’ of the Taliban at the moment. In the past, targeted killings of journalists [by the Taliban] were not pursued by the Afghan government or even the International Criminal Court.

“Yama Siavash was a former Tolo TV reporter who was assassinated, but the murderers have not yet been prosecuted,” Badakhsh stated.

Siawash was killed on 7 November 2020, in a car bomb attack in the Makrorayan-e-Char area of Kabul. He was known for exposing government corruption and had reported receiving threats from officials. In mid-2020 he became a media advisor to the Central Bank.

Amid public pressure, a number of people were arrested in relation to the killing but no one has been charged.

Siawash was one of at least nine journalists killed in Afghanistan last year.

Badakhsh told us that such killings have “destroyed the spirit among journalists”, many of whom now see no other option but to flee abroad.

“No one wants to leave their country, but these difficult conditions have made everyone try to find a safe place. They may only get their most basic human rights in a European or North American country. They are hopeless,” she said.

Women’s rights

A Taliban spokesman last night gave a qualified promise that women’s rights will be respected.

In his first news conference, Zabihullah Mujahid, who had been a shadowy figure for years, promised the Taliban would honour women’s rights, but within the norms of Islamic law.

“The Islamic Emirate is committed to the rights of women within the framework of Sharia,” he said.

“Our sisters … have the same rights, they will be able to benefit from their rights. They can have activities in different sectors and different areas on the basis of our rules and regulations, educational, health and other areas.

“They are going to be working with us, shoulder to shoulder with us, and the international community – if they have concerns – we would like to assure them that there is not going to be any discrimination against women, but of course within the frameworks that we have.”

Mujahid also said it will be compulsory for women to wear a hijab but not a full burqa.

In some remarkable acts of defiance, groups of women have protested in Kabul. In one instance, a truck full of Taliban fighters approached the women and tried to shoo them away, but they stayed put until ordinary civilians persuaded them to leave.

Interaction with individual Taliban fighters on the streets has been mixed, however.

“Some have been friendly and give no trouble at all,” said a man trying to get to his office past a Taliban checkpoint.

“But others are tough… they push you around and shout at you for no reason.”

‘As if the last 20 years never happened’

The impact of the swift takeover by the Taliban is already clear. Gone are the Western-style clothes favoured by many people in Kabul and elsewhere, with men on the streets now wearing traditional shalwar kameez.

Very few women are seen on the streets, AFP reporters on the ground have said. “The fear is there,” a shopkeeper said on Tuesday, asking not to be named.

For some people, it’s as if the last 20 years never happened.

Already there are signs that people are changing the way they live to accommodate the return of the new hardline Islamist regime — if not by direct order, then at least for self-preservation.

During their first stint in power — from 1996 until 2001 when they were ousted by the US-led invasion in the wake of the September 11th attacks — the Taliban ruled with a strict interpretation of the Koran and sharia law.

A ban on mixed schools meant most girls could not get an education, and women were barred from working in scenarios where they may have contact with men. It is unclear as to whether or not such measures will be reintroduced, but many people are terrified of what is to come.

“People are scared of the unknown,” another shopkeeper said.

“The Taliban are patrolling the city in small convoys. They don’t harass people but of course the people are scared.”

A sign of the new times was seen on the TV stations that proliferated during the Taliban’s absence.

State TV is showing mostly pre-recorded Islamic programmes or announcements from Maulvi Ishaq Nizami — a man introduced as the head of Voice of Sharia, the Taliban’s media outlet.

Tolo TV, the private channel which thrived over the past two decades on a mix of Western style game shows, soap operas and talent contests, has stopped most routine programming and is now showing repeats of a Turkish drama about the Ottoman empire.

The channel has, however, continued to broadcast news segments with female presenters.

The Taliban yesterday announced a “general amnesty” for all government officials, and urged them to return to work.

“You should start your routine life with full confidence,” the announcement said — and some appeared to take the advice to heart, with white-capped traffic police re-appearing on the streets for the first time in days, although it was not as busy as usual.

International response

US President Joe Biden has defended the US pullout of Afghanistan amid mounting criticism from the international community.

“I stand squarely behind my decision. After 20 years, I’ve learned the hard way that there was never a good time to withdraw US forces,” he said in a televised address from the White House on Monday.

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“The mission in Afghanistan was never supposed to be nation-building,” he added.

Biden acknowledged that the Afghan government collapsed more quickly than he expected even as he defended his decision to withdraw troops.

“I always promised the American people that I will be straight with you. The truth is, this did unfold more quickly than we had anticipated,” Biden said.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel yesterday called for coordinated, “controlled” EU action to take in the most vulnerable people from Afghanistan.

Merkel told reporters in Berlin that people fleeing Afghanistan should be helped first and foremost in neighbouring countries in coordination with the UN refugee agency, the UNHCR.

“Then we can think about, as a second step, whether especially affected people can be brought to Europe in a controlled way,” she said after talks with Estonian Prime Minister Kaja Kallas.

She acknowledged deep, longstanding divisions within the EU on the subject of asylum, calling a “weakness” of the 27-member bloc “which we have to work on in earnest”.

The UNHCR has said 80% of those fleeing Afghanistan are women and children.

A number of human rights organisations have called on the Irish government to increase the number of resettlement places for Afghan refugees and to expedite international protection applications amid the crisis.

The Irish Refugee Council, Amnesty International and the Movement of Asylum Seekers in Ireland (Masi) among others have called for Ireland to commit to resettling a minimum of 1,000 Afghan refugees and to participate in a wider EU relocation scheme.

It comes after it was confirmed Ireland will provide up to 150 additional humanitarian visas for Afghans under the Irish Refugee Protection Programme (IRPP). This is in addition to 45 visas already approved in recent days for Afghans in similar circumstances.

People who will receive these visas have been identified and work is underway to get them out of Afghanistan, the government has said.

Minister for Foreign Affairs Simon Coveney has also announced €1 million in humanitarian funding to support the people of Afghanistan.

“Ireland will continue to engage, including at the UN Security Council, to support peace in Afghanistan and to protect and promote the human rights of all Afghans, especially for women and girls,” he said.

“Ireland has also called for full and safe humanitarian access to allow life-saving support to reach all Afghans, including to respond to the urgent needs of families forced to flee their homes.”

Contains reporting from © AFP 2021  

About the author:

Órla Ryan and Laura Byrne

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