How the Taliban Strip Away Women’s Freedoms

Shahrzad used to work in the Afghan justice ministry. Now she teaches girls in secret

How the Taliban Strip Away Women’s Freedoms
Illustration by Joanna Andreasson for New Lines

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After the Taliban seized control of Afghanistan in August 2021, the group launched a relentless assault on the rights and freedoms of women and girls, introducing restrictions on their movement, employment and the way they dress. Girls and women have since been banned from attending high school and university, as well as visiting public parks and bath houses.

The following is the diary of a young woman in Afghanistan’s capital, Kabul, as narrated to New Lines over a 24-hour period through a series of phone calls. Before the Taliban takeover, 27-year-old Shahrzad (whose real name has been withheld for her safety) worked in the Ministry of Justice as an administrator, while also studying for a master’s degree in law at a private university. At the time she spoke to New Lines, she had lived for over a year under Taliban rule. She remains alive, physically, albeit under profound mental and spiritual strain.

7 a.m.: It is a cold fall morning in Kabul. The wind is blowing and leaves are falling slowly from the trees. In the middle of the city is a beautiful, blue two-story building. It has a cozy yard and faces a large black mountain. Inside is Shahrzad’s home. The alarm on her phone rings and she wakes up in a hurry. She stumbles toward her closet to get dressed for work, but then remembers she no longer has an office to go to. She sits on her bed for a moment and looks outside, taking in the shape of the mountain. She imagines she is in prison, sealed off from life outside. Her mother calls her to come and have some breakfast. She makes her way to the kitchen and sits down to join her family at the dastarkhaan, the large mat they eat on. But there’s almost nothing on it. Instead of the usual spread of eggs, milk and butter, there is only some tea, dry bread and a bit of sugar. The face of her mother, once a school teacher, is long. Shahrzad’s sister, whose undergraduate studies at Kabul University were cut short, looks hopeless. Three of Shahrzad’s nieces are also there, bored and listless, having been out of school for over a year. Her three brothers, all former government employees, look heavy in the way they move. Her fourth brother, who was in the military, recently fled to the safety of a neighboring country after he got word the Taliban were seeking out members of the previous government’s security forces.

The family eats what they have.

10 a.m.: Shahrzad’s students will soon arrive at her house. About three months ago, she and her sister started teaching local girls who were unable to continue their education due to the Taliban ban. Every day, about 15 teenage girls, including Shahrzad’s nieces, come to learn subjects like history, geography, science, mathematics, literature, physics and English. Though Shahrzad has never trained as a teacher, she welcomes the opportunity to help her neighbors, to encourage them not to give up and show them how to become strong in Afghanistan’s patriarchal society.

One by one, the girls come into the yard before filing into the guest room, where there is a whiteboard, markers and an eraser, which Shahrzad hopes give the feel of a real classroom. The girls wear long black scarves that conceal their identity. As they sit in the corner of the room, they begin talking about recent events — about the arrests of the women protestors Zarifa Yaqubi, Humaira Yusof and Farhat Popolzai. Shahrzad explains to the girls how these women are their real heroes. She tells them how they put their lives in danger to try to give the next generation a better life. She talks to them about the protests in Iran, about Mahsa Amini. Shahrzad wants Afghan men to join Afghan women on the streets, just as Iranian men are doing. She talks to the students about what this means for peace and the future of their country.

Over two hours, until noon, the girls are taught history, geography and mathematics. They write diligently in their notebooks. Shahrzad admires how each of them has her own talent and abilities, how courage and bravery are alive in their eyes. When she remembers there is little future for them, her heart suddenly breaks all over again. The girls leave for the day. They will be back tomorrow.

Lunch break: During lunch, Shahrzad checks her Facebook and Twitter to see the latest Taliban restrictions. She reads that women and girls are now banned from parks and public baths. She then moves to the latest news from Iran, about the “Zan, Zendegi, Azadi” (“Woman, Life, Liberty”) protests. It feels like women everywhere are about to disappear from all aspects of life. She wonders how best to fight this situation, and how to survive. She feels heavy with hopelessness.

1:20 p.m.: Shahrzad gets ready to go to her tailoring class. Every day, after lunch, she sets out for this class, where around 30 women of all ages get together to learn how to sew and earn a little money. The class is about half an hour away by foot, and she needs to be accompanied by a “mahram” (male relative chaperone).

Trying to cheer herself up a bit, Shahrzad selects a beautiful red scarf with little white flowers. She slides into a long black abaya and throws the scarf over her head. She calls out to her nephew to accompany her, and the pair set off. Along the street, they see many jobless men, young and old, as well as children pushing carts, waiting for a task, some work to come their way. Some rest their carts against a wall so they can take in the warm sun on their faces. They talk about the poor economic situation, the rising cost of living, people kicked out of their homes by the Taliban. Shahrzad listens to them as she scurries along. She covers her face with her scarf and keeps her head down. Even though her nephew is with her, and she is fully covered, she can feel the men’s eyes on her, ogling her body. She wonders why the staring is worse than usual, and decides it’s because there are fewer women and girls on the streets. “Look!” Her nephew points to a group of women protestors. They are chanting, “Food, work, freedom! Education is our right! Open the girls’ schools!”

The protestors are heading toward the city center. But Shahrzad then sees a group of armed Taliban members, with long hair and messy clothing, moving in the women’s direction. They begin to beat the women with their rifle butts, snatching the phones out of their hands and smashing them on the ground. Some journalists are also on the scene, filming with their cameras. The Taliban arrest them. One fires his gun into the air to disperse the crowd. Shahrzad and her nephew try to get around them but don’t make it. They are mistaken for protestors. One Talib turns to Shahrzad in anger and says in Pashto, “Why are you wearing this colorful scarf, you shameless woman?” She feels scared. Her throat is squeezed tight. He begins to whip her with a thick cord. The pain is intense. Soon Shahrzad feels tears fall from her eyes. Fearing arrest, her nephew tries to stay calm and close to his aunt, even though anger is boiling up in him.

2 p.m.: Shaken and in tears, Shahrzad arrives at the tailoring course, miraculously, on time. As she sits down in the chair, her classmates ask her what happened. As she tells them, the women become flustered and begin to sigh.

“How did we become so unfortunate?” one asks.

“How did educated women, working women, women who are bosses, how come we must let these wild men from the mountains rule us?”

“It is a shame, a shame!” whispers another woman to Shahrzad. “What will happen to us next? It is unacceptable.”

One of the women shares her own experience from a few days earlier, when a Taliban member had threatened to whip her for wearing jeans.

4 p.m.: Shahrzad finishes her tailoring and leaves the building to phone her nephew. She stands outside, alone, nervously checking to see if any Taliban are nearby. She is still in shock from the day’s earlier events. Her nephew arrives to fetch her.

4:30 p.m.: When they get back home, Shahrzad’s mother is hurriedly running about. She doesn’t notice how upset her daughter is. She asks Shahrzad to put on some beautiful clothes and do her makeup. A young man is interested in marrying Shahrzad, and his family has come to see her.

“But who are they? How do they know about me?” asks Shahrzad. Her mother replies that now is not the time for such questions.

“Just do what I say,” she says.

About five men, with long hair and beards — the suitor’s father, brothers and uncles — are sitting in one room. The female relatives are in another.

Once ready, Shahrzad enters the women’s room, where the suitor’s mother, sister and two aunts have gathered. She hands them cups of tea without saying a word. Even though there are only women in the room, she notices three of them are wearing abayas, with their faces also covered.

6:30 p.m.: The suitor’s family is leaving Shahrzad’s home. She watches the men from her window. A terrible thought springs to her mind: What if they’re Taliban? She has heard of Taliban members forcefully marrying young women against their will. But she was confident her family would never agree to such a thing. She is not ready to marry yet. She still has beautiful dreams for her future. Her family are the sort of people who believe in women’s rights, she thinks. Her brothers would only agree to her marriage if the suitor was from a good family and they knew he was a kind man.

But, as Shahrzad’s family gathers in the living room to discuss the visit, she realizes the decision has already been made for her. Five women between the ages of 15 and 27 live under their roof, says her mother, and the family needs to find a way for someone to look after them all. If they don’t get married, people in the neighborhood will begin to talk, her brothers tell Shahrzad. “It’s better if you are married with honor and dignity,” one of them says.

Shahrzad is in shock. How could her family agree for her to marry a man she has never even met or spoken to? She leaves the room, in floods of tears, crying for the dark destiny she now faces. In her bedroom, she strokes the raised and red part of her skin where the Taliban beat her and cries some more, hating herself for getting whipped and wishing she had been born a boy. Her mind wanders to the women protestors who were arrested by the Taliban, and the horrors and torture to which they were doubtless being subjected that night in jail.

8 p.m.: It is dinner time. Shahrzad and her family sit down, as they do each night, around the dining mat. They begin a simple meal of soup. The electricity cuts out. In the dark, they hear children crying and the voice of a woman screaming. They all look at each other as if to say, “What happened?” Shahrzad’s eldest brother stands up and goes out into the yard to investigate. He can see a group of armed men at their neighbors’ house. The woman is imploring them not to take the men from her home. “They are innocent! They don’t belong to any party!” she cries. But this does not dissuade the Taliban, who pull the men away and throw them into their cars. Shahrzad’s neighbors are Panjshiri, and she knows this is why they are taken (Panjshiris are a minority group within the Tajik ethnicity who are regularly oppressed by the Taliban). After the Taliban zoom off in their car, a silence descends on the neighborhood.

Shahrzad prepares to go to bed. She is a ball of worry and stress. Her future is so unclear. If she marries this man, how will she achieve anything? What about her dreams? She knows the only thing that can help her thoughts run away is reading, and so she opens a book and begins. But it is not long before she falls into a deep sleep. Her book falls out of her hands. She has a vivid dream: She is in heaven, and she is a mother to thousands of children, all girls. They are free, and happy, with smiles on their faces. They are school students. They all wear white headscarves. Shahrzad brings them to the gates of their school, where angels slowly open the doors. But suddenly the sky darkens, and Shahrzad’s daughters begin to scream. There are men with long beards and fierce faces. They have come to kill all her daughters. A pool of blood soon forms.

“No, no, no!” Shahrzad’s screams wake her up from the nightmare. She looks at her phone. It is 7 a.m.

Khojasta Sameyee is a recipient of the International Media Women’s Foundation Reclaiming Futures reporting grant.

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