'The Taliban took years of my life': the Afghan women living in the shadow of war

Many women who lived under the Taliban’s misogynist rule are haunted by memories, especially as peace still feels elusive

Homeira Qaderi was ironing her headscarf for school when her father came to tell her she would no longer need it, because the Taliban had captured her hometown. For the next five years the group’s harsh rules meant she barely left the house.

A generation of women have grown up in Afghanistan since the Taliban were toppled from power in 2001. But many of those who have guided the country through profound change, running schools, or as journalists or politicians, are haunted by memories of their brutal, misogynist rule.

“I cannot forget those years,” said Qaderi, 34, now a writer and activist who was recently appointed editor of the Afghan newspaper Rah-e-Madanyat. Her first venture into journalism, when the insurgents still controlled Herat, had brought a threat of a public lashing.

As the US casts around for an exit from its longest war, and Afghanistan inches towards some form of peace deal, Afghan women are caught between hope that peace may finally be in sight, and fear that their rights will be the price exacted for an end to fighting.

They have a great deal to fear if the Afghanistan slips back into the full-blown civil war that ravaged the country in the 1990s, but if security means a return to the same rules brought in by the Taliban that decade, it will be a bitter peace for them.

“I think trying to reach a peace deal with Taliban is a good move,” said Fawzia Koofi, a member of parliament and one of just two women at recent talks in Moscow between the insurgents and dozens of Afghan powerbrokers.

“The concern that we have about this process is that the Afghan people are not a part of this process, especially women who paid the highest price under the Taliban government. Women don’t know what will happen to their lives in future, and to the freedoms they won after the Taliban.”

In March 2002 in Kabul, an Afghan girl learns the Dari alphabet during a lesson in an ourdoor classroom. Girls who the Taliban banned from education were attending classes for the first time in six years.
In March 2002 in Kabul, an Afghan girl learns the Dari alphabet during a lesson in an outdoor classroom. Girls who the Taliban banned from education were attending classes for the first time in six years. Photograph: Natalie Behring-Chisholm/Getty Images

When the insurgents seized Kabul in 1996, they barred women from schools and most work, forced them to wear the all-enveloping burqa when they left home, and even policed their shoes and makeup.

“The Taliban took four years of my life, when I was very young,” said Adela Kabiri, a professor at Herat University. “It should have had time to study and enjoy my life but they didn’t allow me to even leave our home. I will never get those years back.”

The strict rules were enforced by harsh punishments for even minor transgressions. For two relatives of the activist Susan Behboudzada, forgetting to wear burqas when they went out shopping had devastating consequences.

“The Taliban lashed them so much that one them died 20 days later and the other one has been living with mental problems for the last 19 years,” she said. Behboudzada ran a secret school for girls but often they were “too afraid to come to class”.

She is hopeful that the group have changed. “I believe today’s Taliban are different from those who were in power 20 years ago,” she said, pointing to the decision to sit down for serious peace talks. “They think differently, so they accepted talks”.

In Moscow the Taliban did appear to offer some answer to women’s concerns, promising that Islam guaranteed women’s rights to education and work. But they also attacked women’s rights activists for spreading “immorality” and “indecency”.

These mixed messages have fuelled worries that the insurgents might make empty pledges on women’s rights to smooth the departure of western troops, and revert to past practices when the threat of US enforcement fades.

In February 2002, a man looks at Afghan women waiting to apply for jobs at Kabul’s Ministry of Women, which initiated a drive to encourage professional women to re-enter the workforce after the demise of the Taliban.
In February 2002, a man looks at Afghan women waiting to apply for jobs at Kabul’s Ministry of Women, which initiated a drive to encourage professional women to re-enter the workforce after the demise of the Taliban. Photograph: Natalie Behring/Getty Images

Campaigners pointed out the jarring gap between public pledges of rights and the reality of daily life in parts of Afghanistan the insurgents already control.

These are mostly remote, rural districts, with a conservative population, because although the Taliban threaten more than half the country they have not been able to consolidate control over key population centres.

“There were many reports of beating and public trial of women by the Taliban in recent years,” said Sodaba Ehrari, 29, editor-in-chief of Afghanistan Women News Agency (AWNA).

“So if we imagine Taliban as a part of any government here, I am not even sure if they consider us full members of the community. I am really concerned that restrictions on women in the 1990s would be brought back.”

There are few women who oppose attempting to reach a peace deal. But there are few who aren’t concerned that women won’t have a seat at the table. Without representation at talks, without women being able to follow negotiations in detail, they fear it will be much easier for men to trade way hard-won rights.

No one expects to see women in the Taliban delegation, and so campaigners are focusing their efforts on pressuring the international community and prominent members of the Afghan elite.

Ahead of the talks in Moscow, the Afghan Women’s Network called on the men organising the talks to “bring women to the table”; women shared photos and messages on social media with the hashtag #AfghanWomenWillNotGoBack.

“Today, the male Afghan political actors and their international counterparts are talking about negotiating peace in the country. We, women of Afghanistan, are very concerned about this process,” the campaign network said.

And for all Afghanistan’s many problems, which include high maternal mortality, endemic violence against women and low literacy, there is still a lot of progress to celebrate and protect.

Over the past decade, millions of girls have been educated, female doctors and teachers work across the country, women have started businesses and supported their families and 25% of the country’s politicians are women. Very few of them oppose peace talks; they just want to be part of them.

“Like most Afghans, I am optimistic too, waiting and checking news to hear something about peace. It’s time to rebuild our country,” said Laila Omar, a civil servant. “Women cannot breathe properly under the shadow of war.”


Emma Graham-Harrison and Akhtar Mohammad Makoii in Herat

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
Afghan women at university must study in female-only classrooms, Taliban say
Islamic dress code will be compulsory as new regime enforces gender segregation in Afghanistan

Hannah Ellis-Petersen South Asia correspondent

12, Sep, 2021 @1:26 PM

Article image
‘Sometimes I have to pick up a gun’: the female Afghan governor resisting the Taliban
Salima Mazari, one of only three female district governors in Afghanistan, tells of her motivation to fight the militants

Zainab Pirzad of Rukhshana Media

11, Aug, 2021 @1:00 PM

Article image
#DoNotTouchMyClothes: Afghan women’s social media protest against Taliban
Women around the world are sharing pictures of themselves in traditional colourful clothes in a campaign against the new strict dress code for female students

Stefanie Glinski in Kabul

15, Sep, 2021 @5:28 AM

Article image
Afghan women to be banned from playing sport, Taliban say
National cricket team included in prohibition, as interim government containing no women starts work

Peter Beaumont

08, Sep, 2021 @10:32 AM

Article image
Armed Afghan women take to streets in show of defiance against Taliban
Women in north and central regions of country stage demonstrations as militants make sweeping gains nationwide

Emma Graham-Harrison in Kabul

07, Jul, 2021 @2:53 PM

Article image
‘Nowhere to go’: divorced Afghan women in peril as the Taliban close in
As horror stories emerge from areas that have fallen to the Islamist militants, women living alone fear they have no route of escape

Lida Ahmadi of Rukhshana Media

13, Aug, 2021 @11:00 AM

Article image
‘We have never given up’: how Afghan women are demanding their education under the Taliban
Since recapturing Afghanistan, the Taliban have largely if inconsistently closed down girls’ schooling – but have found a new generation ready to fight for the right to study

Emma Graham-Harrison in Qalat and Jordan Bryon in Kabul

10, Feb, 2022 @11:00 AM

Article image
‘Tomorrow they will kill me’: Afghan female police officers live in fear of Taliban reprisals
With at least four women, including a pregnant mother, targeted and killed by Taliban fighters, female ex-officers feel abandoned by the world

Zahra Joya for Rukhshana Media and Zahra Nader

10, Sep, 2021 @7:00 AM

Article image
Uncertainty hovers over Helmand’s schools as Taliban ban older girls
At Malalay school, Lashkar Gah, female staff struggle into work despite anxiety over their jobs and half their pupils missing

Emma Graham-Harrison in Lashkar Gah

30, Sep, 2021 @12:00 PM

Article image
Taliban refuse to extend truce with Afghan forces
Militants posed for selfies with soldiers and handed out red roses during Eid ceasefire

Memphis Barker in Islamabad and Sami Yousafzai

17, Jun, 2018 @4:05 PM