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Hopes crushed by return of Taliban, Kabul women see no future in Afghanistan

Global News logo Global News 2021-10-28 Stewart Bell and Jeff Semple
© Stewart Bell/Global News

Video: Afghan women face bleak future under Taliban rule

Khalida looked out the window of her Kabul apartment tower at a city that no longer seemed to have a place for her since the Taliban returned with their gun-mounted pickups.

The 30-year-old once represented the promise of Afghanistan, an educated, professional breadwinner with degrees in computer science and law, and a job at a national company.

Starting as a receptionist, she climbed her way into management, while supporting a brother with health problems that prevent him from working, and parents who are refugees in Uzbekistan.

But she hasn’t been allowed to return to work since August, when the Taliban looted her company’s vehicles and told women to stay home while its fighters learned how to behave around women.

Read more: Inside the Kabul safe houses where Afghans wait to be evacuated to Canada

“I was supporting 11 people in my family,” Khalida said, after cooking lunch for visitors at the apartment she shares with her brother, his wife and an aunt. “And now I don’t know what to do.”

The economy has collapsed, bank withdrawals have been restricted, the country has been renamed the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan, and women are facing the loss of hard-earned freedoms.

“I don’t see any future for the women in Afghanistan,” said Khalida, one of many Afghans who told Global News they would leave, many to Canada, rather than live under the Taliban.

The return of the Taliban has shattered the lives of many Afghans, particularly women, who were all but enslaved by the militants when they held the country from 1996 to 2001.

Khalida is part of the generation of Afghans who grew up believing their country was on the path to modernity. Just 10 years old when the Taliban was ousted in 2001, she dared to want more.

Western military intervention was a response to 9/11. The Taliban had harboured Al Qaeda and its training camps. But the NATO mission’s end goal was to stabilize the country so Afghans could build a nation.

International development and education programs focused heavily on women, who returned to schools and universities, rejoined the paid workforce and became part of the government and civil institutions.

That could have been the legacy of a military operation that cost the lives of 158 Canadian troops. But after 20 years, the U.S. wanted out and a clumsy withdrawal precipitated the collapse of the government and allowed the Taliban to take over.

Two-and-a-half months into the Taliban’s second attempt at governing, there is little reason for optimism: women are excluded from cabinet, women’s sports are banned, the women’s ministry has been converted into the ministry of vice and virtue, and secondary school girls have been sent home.

Taliban officials were vague when asked about the place of women under their rule. In an interview at his Kabul office, Taliban spokesperson Zabiullah Mujahid said women would be allowed to return to work once it was safe for them.

Asked by Global News whether girls would be returning to secondary schools, he gave much the same answer. “The leaders are working on regulations to provide the proper environment for school girls,” he said.

Other Taliban members and officials were equally unclear in their responses to questions about women, referring to shariah and head coverings, or simply saying the government would decide.

The last time the Taliban came to Kabul, Khalida was a four-year-old. Her family fled to Peshawar, Pakistan, and remained there for eight years, until the Taliban was gone.

She began working for a Kabul company (she asked Global News not to identify the firm or her last name) in 2010, while furthering her education, and fighting her way into management.

Read more: At an Islamabad hotel, Afghans who worked for Canada’s military await a new life

Over the years, her immediate family left. One brother, a former U.S. Army interpreter, moved to the U.S. in 2014. Another brother went to Calgary, along with her grandparents.

Earlier this year, her parents and two sisters crossed into Tajikistan, hoping to get to Canada. Khalida stayed behind. She had to keep working. Her family depended on her income.


Video: Fears for future of women in Taliban-controlled Afghanistan (Global News)

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She was at the office when the city fell in August. Focused on her work, she didn’t know until her father called to tell her the militants were taking the city. She grabbed her laptop and went out into streets filled with people on the run.

That evening, she saw the Taliban from her apartment window, in their vehicles, flying their white flags. A night watchman at her office phoned and said the Taliban were taking the company’s vehicles and papers.

“I was very scared,” she said.

She never went back to the office, and she is no longer collecting a salary. She saw the Taliban on television, telling women to stay home because its fighters didn’t know how to conduct themselves around women.

Her company may never re-open, at least not in the same way. The owner was linked to the previous government, making it vulnerable, and the Taliban considers her industry religiously forbidden.

She heard Canada had offered to resettle 20,000 Afghans, a number later raised to 40,000, and she applied. “I think for the ladies, there is no hope in Afghanistan,” she said.

Many in Kabul have given up. Disheartened and seemingly still in shock that it happened, and so quickly, they can’t imagine living in a Taliban nation. And they are afraid for their children.

Muska Azizi said she didn’t intend to find out what the Taliban had in store this time around. She had seen enough. She and her husband, who works for a Canadian NGO, have applied for resettlement in Canada.

Azizi, who kept her name when she married, was working as an engineer at a government ministry and studying for her master’s degree in business at night when the Taliban came to town. She hasn’t returned to work since.

“We don’t know about our future,” she said.

She said it was hard for professional women to accept the Taliban and their rigid codes that restrict women’s clothing, education and careers.

A mother of two, she was concerned about her girl and what it will mean if she grows up under the confinements imposed by the Taliban. “We’re thinking about our daughter’s future,” she said.

Nasiba Hashimi was also desperate to leave Taliban Afghanistan. In the courtyard of a compound secured with razor wire, she held a small photo in her hands. It showed her eye swollen and bruised.

Hashimi came to Kabul from Aybak, in northern Afghanistan. At age 17, she married a man who turned out to be violent and believed women belonged at home, she said in an interview.

He would lock her in the home when he left to pray. He forbid her from furthering her studies. And he beat her and threatened to take her children if she left him, she added.

Eighteen months ago, her husband came home at around 11 p.m., having visited his parents, and attacked her, she said. She said she didn’t know why, but that he dragged her to her room.

Telling her he would make sure nobody else ever married her, he beat her, punching her face, choking her and smothering her with a pillow until the neighbours heard her children crying.

She reported him to the police and left him, but her husband and his family later phoned her and said they would kill her if she remarried, and that they knew people in the Taliban, she said.

She remarried a human-rights activist and they moved to Kabul when the north fell to the Taliban. They are staying at a safe house while they wait to be accepted as refugees to Canada.

“I want to leave Afghanistan as soon as possible,” she said.

She said she couldn’t sleep. Her husband was at risk under the Taliban because of his work promoting women’s rights. And she worried about her daughters, ages five and six. She didn’t want them growing up under the Taliban.

“Every moment here, we are at risk,” she said.

At the Cam private school in Kabul, the next generation of Afghan girls seemed mercifully carefree. They paid no attention to the white flag the Taliban ordered the school to erect in the playground.

They sang “If you’re happy and you know it” at recess while their principal explained that enrollment was cut in half when the Taliban forbid education for girls above Grade 6.

“I feel really bad for them,” said the principal. Like the rest of the staff, she was not receiving a salary because the students’ families were not being paid and couldn’t afford school fees.

In her office, where a Taliban flag rests on her desk, she said she tells the girls that everything will return to normal and that they will be able to continue their studies. Whether that will happen remains to be seen.

Ali Khanzada, who founded the school nine years ago, told Global News he had fled Afghanistan after receiving threats from the Taliban, who tore down the school banners and expressed their disapproval over his plan to partner with a Canadian university.

He said he received a letter from the Taliban accusing him of encouraging Western thought and turning students into infidels. He is now trying to flee to Canada.

Across the border in the Pakistani capital Islamabad, an 18-year-old Afghan girl on her way to Canada with her parents and little brother said it was humiliating to live under the Taliban.

You had to do whatever they said, just because they had guns, said Maheia Bita, the daughter of an exiled women’s rights activist. “They don’t accept anybody else’s logic.”

Maheia was one of the lucky ones. She was able to escape. Soon, she will be in Canada, but she wasn’t sure what to feel about that. She was worried about being alone and missing her friends.

One of them recently got engaged, she said, although she is younger than Maheia. Another arranged a fake engagement, after hearing that girls were being married off to Taliban fighters.

She couldn’t say what would have happened had she stayed in Kabul.

“Maybe I would just be married off,” she said.

Stewart.Bell@globalnews.ca

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