From female journalists wiping computer files to beauticians removing posters from salons, many Afghan women are taking no chances with the country’s new Taliban leaders despite promises they can keep working.
Three days after the Islamic movement’s shock seizure of Kabul, there were few women on the streets.
Some women were deleting social media accounts, while others were closing businesses and donning burqas to avoid being identified when outdoors.
“I feel like a prisoner. I daren’t step outside my home,” said one award-winning journalist whose name has been withheld for her safety.
“I don’t know what the Taliban will do to me if they identify me as a female journalist who’s done hundreds of reports exposing their actions against the Afghan people.”
The journalist said she had deleted her social media, removed computer files, destroyed photos and hidden her award.
“The Taliban have said women can go to work wearing the Islamic hijab, but… who knows if they will allow girls and women to study and work? There are no guarantees considering their past record,” she added.
“If I’m forced to stay home, not allowed to work or raise my voice, I will consider myself dead even if they don’t physically kill me.”
Under Taliban rule between 1996 and 2001, girls were barred from school while women could not work and had to cover their faces and be accompanied by a male relative outside their homes.
But in their first press conference since taking Kabul, the Taliban said women would be allowed to work and study “within the framework of Islam”.
However, women contacted by Thomson Reuters Foundation were sceptical, saying the Taliban had also made conciliatory overtures ahead of imposing their harsh regime in the 1990s when they enforced a strict interpretation of Islamic law, that included public flogging and stonings.
In Kabul, business owners have removed pictures of women from beauty salons and tailors’ shops fearing reprisals.
One hairdresser at a major salon said no one had dared return to work.
“At least 24 families were being supported by this single place, and by women and girls. I guess it’s become a tale of the past now. None of the women are ready to go back and work there because of the fear of the Taliban,” she said.
The US (& all who support #pressfreedom) should step up to protect Afghan journalists. A shout-out to the brave journalists, esp. #AfghanWomen journalists at @TOLOnews. https://t.co/tAaZFiq9iU @CPJAsia @CPJ_Eurasia @pressfreedom https://t.co/FUfRQFyDxc
— 🚶🏻Curtis S. Chin (@CurtisSChin) August 17, 2021
But some women have ventured out in Kabul – images of female reporters in the city have been shared widely on social media, with people lauding them for their bravery.
A small group of women also marched in Kabul on Tuesday, holding signs demanding an end to the “fear in our and other women’s hearts”.
“We are here to fight for Afghan women’s rights,” demonstrator Soodawar Kabiri told TV news channels.
“We ask the other women who are at home to come and take part … because this is a start. I hope we will continue, God willing, with more and more women.”
“We don’t want the voice Afghan women have gained in the last 20 years to be silenced.”
Women who are the sole breadwinners for their families were particularly worried about how they would survive if banned from working.
One female dentist in the northern city of Mazar-e-Sharif, resumed work on Tuesday following the Taliban’s announcement that health professionals could return to their jobs, but said she was no longer treating men for fear the Taliban would disapprove.
“For the past (few) days I was really worried that … I would lose my job and not be able to feed my children,” said the mother-of-four.
Tuesday was the first time she had been outside since Mazar-e-Sharif fell to the Taliban on Saturday.
“The city seems changed. We see fewer women on the streets and the clothes they wear are different,” she said.
“Most women wear loose dresses and all have burqas. Previously women would go out in jeans and coats, but I saw no sign of that today.”
She said only women teachers and doctors had been allowed to return to work, with female government employees told to wait at home until the Taliban decide about their roles.
Afghan women in Kabul: “We want our rights, we want social security, the ban on work, the right to education and the right to political participation. No force can ignore and stifle women. All our achievements over the years should not be compromised and our basic rights!” https://t.co/UG5ssdNC3w
— missnzl (@missnzl) August 18, 2021
A geography teacher at a boys’ school in Kabul said she did not know if she still had a job as the Taliban had announced that women could no longer teach boys beyond primary level.
“I don’t know whether they will transfer me to a girls’ school or terminate my job altogether,” said the mother-of-four who is the family’s only wage-earner.
“I have no other income and my sons are not old enough to get a job. I don’t know what the future will hold for me. I’m really worried.”
She said she wanted her older daughters to leave Afghanistan, but this was impossible as they did not have passports and most consulates were closed.
“My oldest daughter has just completed her degree in biology. She wanted to become a teacher. But with the arrival of the Taliban, for now, all her plans have gone down the drain,” Hakima added.
Wazhma Frogh, a prominent women’s rights activist who runs the Women and Peace Studies Organization in Kabul, said the Taliban had shown restraint so far, but this might be due to the international focus on Afghanistan.
Frogh is in exile because of repeated death threats from the Taliban.
However, she said society had changed in the last 20 years and believed the Taliban could not completely turn back the clock.
“Families do not want their girls to be illiterate any more,” she said. “Girls who have grown up in the past 20 years, they are much more courageous, they are coming out and they are standing up for themselves.
“The men in the streets today were saying we cannot have another apartheid on women.”
Women have made significant strides since 2001, with growing numbers working in previously male bastions including politics, the media, the judiciary and IT.
Despite fears of a possible backlash against women by the Taliban, Frogh said it would no longer be possible for them to “flog women away from the streets”.
“There are 18 million women … you cannot just make them vanish or disappear behind doors. They cannot kill all 18 million.”
Featured image: People carry the national flag at a protest held during the Afghan Independence Day in Kabul, Afghanistan August 19, 2021. Photo: Reuters/Stringer
(Thomson Reuters Foundation)