A worker at a beauty salon paints over a large photo of a woman on the wall in Kabul on Aug. 15, 2021, following news that the Taliban swept into the Afghan capital. Photo: Kyodo via AP Images
KABUL, Afghanistan – A day after widespread panic in Kabul, the streets of Afghanistan’s capital were eerily quiet and empty as people wondered nervously what the return of Taliban rule meant for them.
Many residents, especially women, chose to stay home, while workplaces, shops, and universities remained closed on Monday, the morning after government officials fled and the Taliban took over the capital and the presidential palace.
While the Taliban has given assurances that women will be able to maintain their right to work and go to school, many doubted the statements.
“I had a comfortable and good life. I continued my work, duties, and sports as usual. I used to go out without any fear and followed my daily plans,” 22-year-old Zainab Hussaini told VICE World News. Now, she doesn’t know if she will be able to continue her master’s in politics or continue her gym workouts, which she called “the only joy of my life.”
But that’s the least of her concerns.
“I am more afraid of rape and harshness for women, living under captivity and coercion, and that all our efforts in the last twenty years will be wasted,” she said. “Living under Taliban rule was a bitter experience in the past. Nothing is unlikely with the Taliban.”
Afghan journalist Masooma Bahar echoed Hussaini’s concerns.
Bahar said she is afraid and worried that life as she knows it is about to change, and that they will return to the “very dark time” of the previous Taliban regime, which was ousted some 20 years ago.
“I’m worried about them restricting women’s activities, and freedom of speech,” Bahar, 27, told VICE World News. “I’m worried about the women… who worked so hard and made progress, who have made achievements for the country and themselves.”
A fear of death is particularly pervasive among independent women who have defied the Taliban’s expectations, especially as armed fighters roamed the streets.
Nilofar Bayat, a national athlete and women’s advocate, said she was worried about what the Taliban “would do with me.”
“Now the Taliban are in front of my home,” she told VICE World News. “I can’t go out and I know I’m not safe here. The Taliban will kill me. They don’t like women like me.”
“I can’t go out and I know I’m not safe here. The Taliban will kill me. They don’t like women like me.”
The Taliban were in power in Afghanistan from 1996, until they were overthrown in 2001 by a U.S.-backed government. The Islamic fundamentalist group prohibited girls from going to school and women from working or playing sports; banned music, movies and television; and were accused of various human rights abuses, particularly as their brand of justice strictly followed their interpretation of Sharia law including punishments like stoning and amputations.
In an interview with the BBC, Taliban spokesperson Suhail Shaheen attempted to reassure women that they have nothing to fear and that “they can live their life normally.”
“They should not be scared. Their right to education and work is there,” he said on Sunday. “We have a commitment to that.” He also said the Taliban would not exact revenge on anyone.
But while the city awaits what’s next for them and the Taliban seeks an official transfer of power in the next few days, Kabul residents already felt some changes.
With no way out of the country, women hid at home, as the passport department remained closed and the Kabul airport descended into chaos. Workers took down photos of women from the walls of their shops and beauty salons. On television, usual shows were replaced with religious programming despite Shaheen vowing that freedom of expression and speech would be respected. Some local news programs were still airing as of publication time.
Over the past few weeks – as the U.S. finalised the withdrawal of their troops after 20 years of war – the Taliban have gained territory at an aggressive pace, taking control of key cities, and ultimately resulting in a speedy takeover of the country.
It was difficult for women to not feel frustrated over the perceived betrayal by the U.S., a sentiment shared by many Afghans trapped in uncertainty and fear.
“While American troops were here in Afghanistan, all people, especially Kabul residents and women, lived normally,” Bahar said. “When the Americans left, all irregularity and insecurity happened again.”
Hussaini said she wants people outside to know about how bad the situation is for women, and asked that the international community and the United Nations not look away from what’s happening in Afghanistan.
“Other countries should not sacrifice people because of their policies,” she said. “They should not limit the achievements of women.”
Hussain Sadat reported from Kabul, Afghanistan. Natashya Gutierrez contributed from Australia. Follow Hussain and Natashya on Twitter.