Afghanistan Analysts Network – English

Rights and Freedoms

How Can a Bird Fly On Only One Wing? Afghan women speak about life under the Islamic Emirate

Roxanna Shapour Rama Mirzada 29 min

Fifteen months after the Taleban returned to power, Afghan women have seen their country and their lives dramatically alter, as jobs evaporated, restrictions were announced and families sank into poverty. To better understand how these changes affect the day-to-day lives of women and which changes are at the forefront of their minds, AAN conducted a series of interviews across the country. In this first of a three-part series by Roxanna Shapour and Rama Mirzada, women speak about the impact of Emirate policy that seeks to marginalise women and erase them from public life – the consequences for household economies, their dreams of education and personal and professional growth and the power dynamics within the family. Many have described how their independence has been undermined, along with their sense of self-worth and self-confidence, and how they are now struggling to maintain a sense of personhood.

Afghan women cross a road as Taliban fighters ride in a convoy to celebrate their victory day near the US embassy in Kabul on 15 August 2022. Photo: Wakil Kohsar/AFP.

The findings from our interviews are presented in three instalments. In this first report, we hear from Afghan women as they recount the many changes that have hit them. In the second instalment we focus on the restrictions imposed on women’s movement and attire how they try to navigate the shrinking space that is afforded to them. In the third and final report, we find out what changes they would like to see to the current situation and what actions would make these changes possible.

Research for this report was conducted in June and July 2022 – semi-structured phone interviews with 19 women between the ages of 20 to 42. They were from 15 provinces, Daikundi, Ghazni, Ghor, Helmand, Kandahar, Kunar, Mazar-e Sharif, Nangrahar, Nimruz, Nuristan, Paktika, Panjshir, Samangan, Takhar and Uruzgan, eight living in provincial capitals and seven in rural districts, with four other interviewees from Kabul city. Our interviewees came from diverse communities and ethnicities across Afghanistan – one Baluch, four Hazaras, one Nuristani, five Pashtuns, seven Tajiks and one Uzbek. All interviewees were either currently employed or had been working until the Taleban takeover. This was by design as we sought to find out how the changes and restrictions had affected the lives of women who had previously been active in public life. Two of the interviewees were university students and several had had plans to continue their education, but these plans were derailed by the economic problems they encountered after the fall of the Republic. Four of the interviewees were protestors. See the footnote for the full questionnaire. [1]The interviews were conducted through open-ended questions in a free-flowing conversation that roughly followed the outline of the following questionnaire. Our intention was to allow interviewees to … Continue reading

The interviews have been edited for clarity and flow. The names used aren’t their real names.

Afghan Women Speak

We asked our interviewees what had changed in their daily lives since the Taleban came to power and which of the changes had affected them most. Their responses help deepen our understanding of how women in Afghanistan have experienced the sudden changes in their lives and which of the restrictions imposed by the Taleban since they came to power have had the most significant effect on their daily lives. In these interviews, they make clear that the new rules aren’t mere restrictions on their movements or sartorial choices, but rather the appropriation of their independence and dignity, the crushing of their sense of self-worth and the shuttering of future options for themselves, their sisters or daughters and for all women in Afghanistan. They repeatedly talked about being relegated to the home, becoming dependent for ‘pocket money’ on their husbands and the increasing use of what they consider to be debasing terms with which women are addressed, such ajeza and siyasar (‘helpless’ and ‘blackhead’) that they said had become less commonly used in the period before the fall of the Republic.[2]Siyasar (Dari), tor sára (Pashto) made up of siya/tor, which means black and sar/sari which means head, in other words ‘black-headed’. These terms are used across Afghanistan to address an … Continue reading

Without exception, all the women we interviewed, including those who initially said that not much had changed or that the changes had been positive, went on to speak in detail about the economic difficulties they were having in their households as well as the financial hardship experienced by their extended families and communities. Almost all the women mentioned the closure of girls’ high schools as a prominent concern, even if they had not personally been touched by it. Depression, anxiety and the loss of hope were also discussed at length by many of our interviewees. It was striking how many of the women expressed their concerns holistically, encompassing the struggles of all Afghan women and grieving the lack of options and the loss of hope not just for themselves, but also for their peers.

Below we provide an overview of the women we spoke to and what they told us about the most significant changes in their lives.

Kamela is a 29-year-old married Pashtun who lives with her husband’s family in Kunar province. She has not been formally fired from her government job, but is no longer wanted at work and although she continues to receive a government salary, it is at a reduced rate. Her husband works for a state-owned enterprise but, when we spoke to her, he had not been paid for five months and her father-in-law had not received his pension since the Taleban takeover. She supports her household of 12 with her salary and is anxious about being fired by the Emirate. She spent a good deal of time talking about the problems of other women and families, something we noticed many of the women we interviewed did.

Economic problems have increased and most women have problems with their mental health. In the past, women could study and pay for [the school fees] themselves but now, due to financial problems, they can’t progress. I have economic problems, so I can’t send my children to school – that’s why they stay home now. After the Taleban came to power, I and other women couldn’t go out to work. Although I receive my salary, I can’t go to the office. My salary has been cut by 2,000 Afs (USD 23.50); it’s now 11,000 Afs (USD 130) a month.[3]In this report, we calculate the exchange rate as USD 1 = 77 Afs before 15 August 2021 and as USD 1 = 95 Afs after 15 August 2021.

The most important effect [of the regime change] is that girls can’t go to school. If they don’t go, then they will have so many problems in the future. And there are so many restrictions here around the hijab. We must wear either a chadori [burqa] or an abaya. In the past, women could visit [government] offices to solve their problems and women worked in offices that helped women. Now all those offices are closed, for instance, the women’s affairs department and many other offices working for women’s rights. Now there’s no office for women to submit their complaints and help them solve their problems. There’s no one to question people when they violate women’s rights in Kunar.

The fallout from the economic collapse has been sweeping not only for girls’ education but also for boys who have had to drop out of school to support their families. This was the case for 39-year-old married Tajik former civil servant Ghuncha whose three sons left school to go to Iran in search of jobs to support the family. She lives with her disabled husband and two of her other seven children in Ghor province in western Afghanistan. The family had relied on her government income, but she lost her job after the fall of the Republic and the family is now financially dependent on the money her sons send home from Iran. Her anxieties about the future of her sons is a concern she expressed repeatedly during the interview.

First, I should say ‘Ahhh’ and then speak. There are so many changes in my life. Our economic situation has declined and we all are affected mentally. We’re surrounded by the worst problems I have ever experienced in my life. Two of my sons were in grades 10 and 12 and the oldest was studying for the Kankor (university entrance exam). When the Taliban took power, the boys lost interest in studying and went to Iran. My daughter is studying medicine in Kabul. She can [afford to] eat only once a day, but I can’t support her. In the past, when I had a job, I used to take care of my children and solve their problems, but now I can’t because I have nothing. My other daughter is married and works as a midwife. She can help her sister a little, that’s why she can eat at least once a day.

It’s the same at home – we don’t have enough food. We weren’t rich in the past. My salary wasn’t high and I couldn’t save, but we lived on my income and I could pay for all our expenses. We were relaxed because we knew I’d get paid at the end of the month, but suddenly everything changed. My sons are now working as labourers in Iran. Sometimes when I talk to them on video calls, only God knows how bad I feel. We use the 4,000 Afs (USD 47) my sons send us every month to buy rice, flour and oil.

Unemployment, restrictions on women’s movements, needing to have a mahram [a male chaperone], school closures and especially unemployment, have all affected us badly. We wanted our children to become something in the future, but now we have many problems and no options. The high cost of things is also important. On the one hand, there’s no work and on the other hand, the prices are very high. It’s difficult for us to afford things. Because of this, I was forced to send my two sons to another country. If I had the money, I would send them to study. I would prepare food and buy clothes for them and for myself.

35-year-old married Hazara NGO worker Manija lives with her husband, 7-year-old son and 12-year-old daughter in Mazar-e Sharif city in the north of Afghanistan. She also has a married older son. Manija, the family’s sole breadwinner, talked extensively about the difficulties of having to have a mahram to work, which she said was a financial hardship because the NGO she works for does not provide any financial assistance. What she grieved for most, however, was the loss of her personhood and the fact that even the simple pleasures of life now seemed unattainable.

Women were investors, judges and officers in all sectors and we were really proud of that. Now, they address us as ‘ajeza’ and ‘siyasar’ once again, but that’s not what we are. We have names and identities as women. Most importantly, we are human and want to be respected and called ‘women’. We call them Mr and Gentleman, or Uncle, with respect. But they just call us ‘ajeza’ and ‘siyasar’.

We don’t have freedom now. We can’t even go to the Rawza Sharif [the shrine in Mazar-e Sharif] together with our husbands and families because women can only visit on Mondays. In recent years, women understood their rights and their children’s rights, but unfortunately, Afghanistan has returned to the time before 20 years ago, in all points, but most of all with regard to education and freedom. By freedom, we don’t mean doing immoral things, but we can’t even go for a picnic with our family members and our husbands on a Friday to give our children some enjoyment and joy.

Sima is a 28-year-old married Uzbek former teacher from a remote district of Samangan province in northern Afghanistan. She and her three young children are now entirely reliant on her husband’s income and they’re having trouble making ends meet. She said it was becoming increasingly unaffordable to visit her parents, who live about several hours away from her village in another province. She was concerned about their financial situation and that of her siblings who rely on remittances sent by a younger brother who left his university studies after the Taleban takeover and went to Turkey looking for work. Her other siblings, a brother and a sister, have both lost their government jobs.

Everything has changed. I was an independent woman and now I stay home. Women are deprived of all their rights and freedoms. The schools are closed for [older] girls and they can’t study anymore. It is a big loss for women because they will remain illiterate. I was teaching courses, but the Taleban forbade me to teach. I could earn 8,000-10,000 Afs (around USD 103-130 at the time). It has been taken from me. My income was a big help. I could spend the money on my children and use my own money to pay for my travel costs, but now I’m dependent on my husband. He gives me spending money. This regime is really different than the previous one. In the past, no one disturbed anyone’s work. Other women have also been forced to stop doing what they were doing. For instance, the Swedish Committee was running schools for women here, but now women are forbidden to go to those schools. I think when women are left behind in education, they’re left behind in everything else.

The Taleban could have at least allowed us to work. My household is affected financially because I have no job now. I have babies and the prices have reached their peak. The most important effect is on our freedom. The Taleban should let the [older] girls go to school and let women work freely. It’s the worst situation when a woman who works and earns her own money is suddenly forced to stay home all the time – that affects our mental health. Once again, we have become the siyasars of the house. In the past, we felt as strong as men. When I participated in a conference, I was proud of myself. I felt like I was someone.

Some of our interviewees have taken to the streets to demand their rights and advocate for change. All of those who did were civil servants during the Republic; none of them had a background in activism.

32-year-old single Pashtun, Khawga is a former civil servant from Kabul who held a well-paid government position earning a top-tier professional salary which she used to support herself and her family. After the Taleban takeover, her salary was reduced from 175,000 Afs (USD 2,333) to 15,000 Afs (USD 176) until, finally, she was fired from her job as a direct result of her activism. She i anxious about her own security and that of her family members, who are under scrutiny and have been threatened because of her activities as a protestor.

There’s no doubt that my life has changed; everyone’s life has changed since the Taleban takeover. People are the victims of this regime change. Terrible things have happened. We’re no longer allowed to work and we can’t move freely. We don’t even have the right to wear whatever we want. We don’t have the right to protest. Women in Afghanistan are no longer participating in social and political life. There’s abuse and humiliation. The courts and the attorney general are no longer handling gender-related cases and violations against women are increasing every day. Coercive marriages have been increasing. Some women have resorted to prostitution because the economy has collapsed. Sadly, many women who worked in the former government are now begging on the streets of Kabul.

All Afghans are affected, but Afghan women, in particular, are victims of gender discrimination. The situation of women is disastrous and dangerous. Women lost their jobs. I was one of them. After I started protesting, they came to my place of work and I lost my job.

All protestors are in the same situation as me. We are all afraid for our security. We can’t go to hospital, can’t stay in the same location [for too long] and are followed by the Taleban. We have lost our jobs and have many financial problems.

This is our country, our homeland, where we can make plans for our future. A citizen should be able to work step-by-step to achieve their goals. For example, we should be able to study and plan to become government officials and demand our rights because this land is our homeland. I don’t think this is possible for us to do this in other countries. But unfortunately, [gender] discrimination, poverty, insecurity and mysterious killings are forcing women to leave the country.

Afghan women hold placards during a protest in front of Kabul University on 18 October 2022 after the authorities expelled several female students from the dormitories allegedly for breaking rules. Photo: AFP.

Khalida is a 38-year-old Tajik married former government employee living in Kabul with five children. She lost her job when the Emirate closed the state organisation she was working for and, with it, she lost her 37,000 Afs (USD 480) monthly salary. Her husband is working in Iran and sends money to support the family. She said the biggest change in her life was that she had ” become a protestor in Afghanistan.” She went on to explain the difficulties she faces and why she finally decided to protest.

My oldest daughter is a high school graduate, but she couldn’t go to university. My older son was in his first year at university, but now he doesn’t go anymore. My second daughter was in grade 10. She can’t go to school – that’s why my son who’s in grade 9 and my youngest daughter in grade 5 don’t go to school anymore, either. They say if their sister can’t go to school, they don’t want to go either.

My husband had a small shop, but he had to close it. My salary was good and I could support my family very well, but I lost my job. My husband went to Iran. He’s working, but everything’s so expensive there. He sends us 10,000-15,000 Afs (USD 117-175) every four to six weeks, which isn’t enough for us to pay the rent and water and electricity bills. Sometimes we have no water and electricity for a week because we can’t pay the bill. Life is so hard now; my son worked in a photocopier shop, but now he’s not working. Now, there’s a lot of hardship and darkness. We’re alive and still breathing only because of the aid that was distributed.

In the past, we were hopeful for our future because our sons and daughters were studying at schools and universities. We were hopeful that they would succeed and have the lives they wanted for themselves. Now we only think about what will happen tomorrow and how long the schools will stay closed. Now I struggle and fight every day to demand justice and equality for Afghan girls and women. That’s the biggest change, that it made me stand up to the Taleban face-to-face to fight for Afghan women. After the Taleban takeover, women lost their rights. They can’t work and their everyday lives were taken from them.

I was a simple person. I was working two jobs to pay for my children’s school fees, one in the private sector and one with the government. But now I can’t work, so I can’t provide them with anything. Schools are closed and whenever my daughters see their books and school bags, they get sad; even when they chat with their friends, they start crying. This is why I protest, to demand the rights of my daughters and all the girls in this homeland. I protest because I don’t want the efforts of the past 20 years, the hardship and studies, to go to waste.

As the oldest child in her family, 25-year-old unmarried Hazara Kowkab supported her family with the 30,000 Afs (USD 353) she earned working for a government ministry in Kabul. She lost her job after the Taleban came to power and is struggling to make ends meet. She is particularly worried about the future of her five sisters and one brother. She told us she can no longer pay for her siblings’ English and computer courses and has had to discontinue her own post-graduate studies. Kowkab, a Hazara, decided to join the women’s protest movement to let the Taleban and the world know that Afghan women would not give in to the Emirate’s restrictions.

My life was good and I had a clear plan. I was working, studying for my master’s degree and at the same time, I was supporting my family. Suddenly we lost everything and we now live an uncertain life.

The other change is that I can’t be like a girl of the 21st century. In the past, I could decide where to go, what to wear and plan for my own future. Now, life is uncertain and we don’t know what will happen tomorrow. We are mentally ill. There’s no hope, no purpose and no passion for working and studying anymore.

42-year-old married Tajik Kobra lost her government job in Badakhshan province when the Taleban came to power. She moved to Kabul with two of her seven children; the rest remained in Badakhshan with her husband. She told us that some of her children have developed severe anxiety and one of her daughters had even attempted to kill herself. Her marriage is breaking down under the strain of the economic problems the family is facing. The only positive thing in her life, she told us, was that she had recently been accepted into a master’s programme at Kabul University.

I was the only wage earner in my family. I have seven children and was living in my own house. I could provide for my children, but I lost my job after the Taleban came to power. Now I haven’t been able to pay rent for the past nine months. I borrow money from friends to pay our expenses and I lie to my parents that I have a job so they don’t get upset….  There’s no work. I tried selling manto (dumplings), but it didn’t work out. I applied for many jobs, but unfortunately, I couldn’t get one. My husband has almost left me – he is Badakhshan and I’m in Kabul.

All my children are affected mentally, I go door to door to my neighbours to borrow money to buy medicine for my children. I could take them to the doctor but couldn’t afford the medicines. They’re ill because our situation is extremely tough and always the people are coming and asking for their money back from us.

One of my daughters tried to throw herself off the balcony three times, but I managed to stop her. She says she doesn’t want to live a life of shame. I took her to the doctor, but I couldn’t afford her medicine. One of my sons now suffers from stomach aches and faints easily. My youngest son is six years old; he is afraid of the Taleban and hides when he sees them. My husband already had psychological problems, but the situation has made things worse. Now he walks around and talks to himself all night.

We have lost everything, our comfort, our children, our homes, our husbands and all our social life. My father tells me to be strong and wait for things to get better.

Sometimes I cry to relax. When I see the situation of other women, I understand them very well. When I see women who have problems, I try my best to help them. Every single one of my neighbours has many problems. One of my neighbour’s sons went to Turkey illegally and was arrested there. He was in prison for 40 days and his mother was always crying. Another neighbour’s husband had a stroke and died. Another one’s husband was threatened by the Taleban because he used to work for the government and had to escape. She was pregnant and lives with her brother now. Sometimes when she comes to check her house, she cries and screams loudly. Others lost their jobs and one has cancer. My neighbour who is from Panjshir was threatened by the Taleban, so they escaped and sent their young daughters to Iran.

30-year-old Donya is a married Hazara social worker. She lives in Daikundi, with her husband and son. Her young family relies on her salary of 15,000 Afs (USD 195) since her husband lost his job. She also helps her mother-in-law and sister’s families. She pays for childcare when she’s at work; the NGO she works for does not provide or help with the cost of childcare. Still, she says, she doesn’t want to raise the issue for fear of losing her job. She told us many organisations are reluctant to hire women with young children because they think the children might interfere with their work.

Everything has changed in my life. Before, I had a high government position and received a good salary, but now I work as a simple employee at an NGO. My husband was also working; now he is at home. There are many changes. People are complaining about poverty and hunger. It’s so difficult to find food and the prices are very high. I’m affected mentally by these changes. We’re trying to find a way to get out [of Afghanistan] because life is getting harder each day. The Taleban announced new orders, for instance, they said that women must not go out without the [strictly prescribed] hijab[4]Officially, women should wear a burqa/chadori or an abaya with face veil when outside the home. See earlier AAN report on this: “We need to breathe too”: Women across Afghanistan navigate the … Continue reading and must have a mahram. If the men in a family have to go everywhere with the women, then who should work and support the family? It is a big problem. … It is almost a year since my husband lost his job. I pay for all our expenses [from my salary], which isn’t enough, and help my mother-in-law and my sister’s families. I have a baby, so I also pay someone to take care of him when I go to work. Generally, organisations don’t hire women with small babies because they think the baby will disturb their work. When they find out that a female applicant has a baby they don’t interview or shortlist her.

In the past, often several people were working [in a household], but now in many families, no one has a job. When there’s no work, poverty increases. In the past, we used to eat good food during the week, but now we try to manage it in such a way that we’re not dependent on others. The worst impact is that they [the Taleban] don’t accept women in the government at all and might not even consider women to be human. Women are half of society and they’re disregarded. How can a bird fly on only one wing?

Nilab is a 24-year-old single Baluch school principal who lives in Nimruz province with her family. Her district is a farming community that has been hit hard by three years of devastating drought which she blames, mostly but not entirely, for her community’s economic decline. She told us how she uses her 12,000 Afs (USD 141) salary to help members of her family and others in her community she considers less fortunate than herself.

The life of women here has changed, from day to night. Older women had an experience of what it was like under the previous Taleban government. It’s more difficult for younger women and girls. Our freedom has been taken from us. Women can work only in the education sector and life has become difficult because incomes have decreased. In my life, there were so many problems, for instance, in the first few months after the Islamic Emirate took power, I didn’t get my salary and my father’s pension wasn’t paid. My mother doesn’t work and my sister was in grade 11. Food is very expensive. Life is harder now and we have all been affected psychologically.

Poverty has had the most impact on our lives. In the past, we earned good money from our land, [we grew] melons, watermelons, wheat. This year, because of the drought, people in my area couldn’t grow even one melon. There’s no water in the wells. If there’s water, it’s brackish. I think the biggest problem here is the economy; there’s no [drinking] water and people buy it at 50 Afs (USD 0.58) for a one-gallon bottle. People can’t afford food. If they buy one thing, then they don’t have money to buy something else. When they get sick, they don’t have money for their treatment. If the government hospital has the medicine, they can take it from there; otherwise, they have no choice but to just pray for their health.

After the Islamic Emirate came to power, my father got sick and we sent him to Iran for treatment. There the doctors said that he has stomach cancer. Now my mother is also sick. My salary isn’t enough to pay for both their medicines and the household expenses. It’s a difficult situation for a young woman to be in. My two brothers are married and live separately from us. Both have lost their jobs. When I get my salary, I give them some money. When someone who works gets paid, everyone waits for her to give them some money. There are martyrs’ families who live in my neighbourhood. They have small children, so sometimes I help them, although it’s just a small amount. My salary, when I get it, is distributed among all of us. My salary is 12,000 Afs (USD 141). Because I’m not a teacher, I couldn’t get the 100 dollars teachers received from an [aid] organisation.[5]This is probably a reference to a one-off payment made by UNICEF to teachers earlier in 2022 (see here).

Poverty is also pushing some women to resort to coping mechanisms that are difficult to recover from, such as selling household goods. This is what 28-year-old Najia, a married Pashtun NGO director, had to do to pay for baby formula for her newborn son. She is originally from Laghman. When we interviewed her, she was living with her husband and two children, a son and a daughter, in Jalalabad, Nangrahar province in a household of 18 family members. Since then, she has left Afghanistan.

The first thing that changed in our lives was our economic situation. Also, women don’t have the same rights as before. I don’t have the same freedom. I can’t travel as I did. I used to travel to Kunar [for work] with my babies, without a mahram. Now I can’t travel [like that]. I must have a mahram, so I have to take my father, brother or husband with me. Since the new government took power, we’ve been in an extremely tough economic situation. We didn’t have money to buy formula for my baby and I had to sell my home appliances to buy it. The women I support in Kunar [through her NGO] have economic problems too. They can’t go shopping and their children can’t go to school. The economic situation is so bad that some [families] were forced to sell their young daughters. I saw this with my own eyes. It’s because people have lost their jobs, the cost of food is going up and people have no money. So, to save other household members, people were forced to sell their daughters to buy food.

We didn’t get paid in the first six months after the Taleban takeover. Most of the staff had gone abroad in the evacuations and there was no one to process the payments.

My family has so many economic problems due to unemployment. My salary is 40,000 Afs (USD 470), but I’m not paid regularly. In the past, we were paid on the same day each month, but now we sometimes have to wait up to three months to get paid.

Some interviewees started by saying that not much had changed in their day to day lives. Others, especially those who had lived in areas where the conflict had been fierce, said that things had improved, but even those women described the closure of girls’ schools and economic hardship as problems they now had to deal with.

42-year-old married Pashtun midwife Khadija lives in the Taleban’s historic stronghold, Kandahar, with her ailing husband, two daughters and two sons. She supports her family, including her husband’s medical expenses, with her monthly salary of 25,000 Afs (USD 294), which she earns working two jobs. She was, on one hand, quite upbeat about the current situation, citing improved security and helpful local Taleban, but also kept returning to the high cost of living and all the small ways that inflation affected her life.

There are very few changes in my life [since the change in government]. Security is better than before. But everything is so expensive now. The women who are in contact with me have no work. In the past, women were prioritised for jobs; now, men are getting the jobs. [Otherwise] everything is normal. No one asks us where we go or what we do. When we have a problem, we get help from the Taleban and they help us. Kandahar has hot weather and there are electricity blackouts here. Sometimes we don’t have electricity for two or three days. People have to buy ice; each family buys 100 Afs (USD 1.17) worth of ice daily.

In my own life, there’s no change yet. But of course, the changes have affected us; for instance, my economic situation is getting tougher because I need to provide everything for my children and look after their education. My husband has a mental health problem and is unemployed. He must take his medicine, so I must buy it for him. I must also provide food for my children. When we eat breakfast, we think about our dinner. This is a problem for all the people of Afghanistan, not only mine. The high prices have affected me a lot.

In my neighbourhood, husbands used to work, but now they don’t, so their wives work at people’s houses to earn money. The young boys sell things on the streets or in the bazaars. In the past, rich people were helping the needy, but now all people are in the same situation.

The end of the conflict has brought improvements, particularly to security, for 20-year-old unmarried Pashtun midwife Usha who lives in Uruzgan province with her parents, eight sisters and a younger brother. Usha is the only family member who has completed post-secondary studies (a two-year midwifery course). Usha is engaged to be married, but for the time being, the requirement to have a mahram has presented her with a logistics nightmare in a household with ten women and only two men. Nevertheless, even this young woman, the most optimistic of our interviewees turns to economic problems, unemployment and the closure of girls’ high schools as source of anxiety not only for her own family but also for others.

Until now, there’s no change in my life. I still go to work the same as I did before. Altogether, there’s no change in our life, but the school closures mean my sisters can’t continue their education. In the city, there’s no change. When my mother and I went shopping for Eid, the bazaar was very crowded, men and women were mixed and we could hardly find our way out. It didn’t used to be this crowded. In the past, when the Taleban controlled the roads, neither men nor women could leave their districts because they were afraid of [the fighting between the Taleban and [the former government’s] security forces. Now the Emirate controls the government, so there’s no issue and no fear about coming to the city. I used to wear a chadori before and I wear one still now, but a few women are wearing black abayas now. The only thing that is upsetting and painful for me is the closure of girls’ schools.

I wish there was a private school we could send my sisters to. We would pay even if the fees were very high. We’re nine sisters and have only one brother. My father says: “What can I do with all these daughters if they grow up illiterate? He says if they could go to school, they could make something [of themselves] in the future. I’m the only one [with a higher education]. I’ve have done two years of midwifery. A few days ago, there was fake news on Facebook that the schools would be opened. My father, mother and sisters were amazed, even though they suspected the news was fake. My father gave my little sister 200 Afs (USD 2.35). When my family gets so happy with fake news, imagine how happy they will be when schools finally reopen. My sisters are depressed. They take offence even when we say nice things to them. They don’t do their chores very well and constantly argue with each other.

In the past, we couldn’t travel. There were explosions and magnetic bombs, Taleban checkpoints and government checkpoints and there was always fighting, but now we’re so happy because there’s no fighting anymore. Now I can go anywhere and feel safe. In the past, when my father went to Kabul or Kandahar, we were all worried that he might get caught up in the fighting or an explosion. Now there’s freedom. We’re very happy because the Taleban don’t say anything to the women who are going to work.

Except for the school closures, we have no other problems. Our life is even better than it was. We feel free because there used to be two groups and each one had different rules, so it was difficult for us to decide what to do. Now there’s only one government and even if it is ordering us to observe the hijab, at least we know what we should do. We have some problems like unemployment and expensive food items, but it’s not only my family; many other families can’t afford even a sack of flour.

Pakiza is a 24-year-old unmarried Tajik who lives with her family in a remote district of Paktika province in southeastern Afghanistan where she works for an NGO managing an education project. Not much has changed in her own life since the Taleban takeover, but as a teacher, she is very concerned about the closure of girls’ high schools.

There’s no change for working women in my area. The Taleban didn’t oppose women working in Western organisations here. There’s no change in our clothing; we can wear the same clothes as in the past. There has been no change in my life, I worked for the government [as a schoolteacher] before and now I work for an NGO. There’s no change in my clothing. I meet the Taleban who work here and they help and cooperate with me. The only problem is that girls don’t go to school.

The closure of the girls’ school has affected me personally because the girls call me all the time to ask if their school is reopening.

I talked to the Taleban administrative director about whether they would create problems for the teachers who work under my supervision. He said that if the teachers wear hijab and have a mahram when they travel, the Taleban wouldn’t bother them. I think the most important effect [of the change of government] is that the people’s economic situation isn’t good and the girls’ schools are closed.

26-year-old Nabila, a married Nuristani midwife, is generally happy with her life, but again, unhappy about the closure of girls’ high school. Nabila had big dreams for the future. She wanted to continue her education and serve the people of her province as an MP but now she feels those dreams are unattainable.

The changes in my life weren’t that bad. The only thing that makes me sad is that girls can’t go to school. In Nuristan, security is very good and both men and women have had no problems, not in the past and not now. There are no restrictions on my work. But I don’t only think about myself. I can work, but other women, who have studied other fields are unemployed. Except for the health sector, there are no jobs for women in other fields. When women are educated, they can find solutions to their own problems and even treat themselves. They don’t need a man and can buy whatever they need. Educated mothers raise an educated generation, but illiterate mothers raise an illiterate generation.

After the Taleban takeover, I was in Kabul for three months. I had to attend practical classes at the hospital. I was afraid because I had never seen Taleban before. In the previous government, we could work at the hospital at night as well, but after the Taleban came, we couldn’t. My friends and I feared the Taleban might punish us if they saw us wearing jeans with the hijab. We also saw on TV that the Taleban beat women. During the previous government, we were fearful of insecurity. After the Taliban came, our fear increased, at least in Kabul. Though we changed how we dressed and started wearing long clothes, the Taleban still wanted us to wear a chadori. It was very difficult to change ourselves so suddenly.

I wanted to get my master’s and come back to Nuristan and become a representative of Nuristan in the parliament. Now I think all my dreams have been taken from me. I don’t have the right to do what I want. I could do this under the previous government and change women’s lives here, but my opportunity to achieve this ambition has been taken from me; I don’t think I will have the chance to do this in my life. The one thing I don’t like is that my life was changed by force and that someone else tells us how to live, according to their wishes.

Parvana is a 26-year-old unmarried Tajik schoolteacher from Panjshir province. Most of the men in her area have left for fear of Taleban reprisals, leaving the women to tend the fields and provide for the other family members who remain there. She lives with her elderly parents and an older cousin who has moved in with the family with her grandson. She supports her extended family of 15 with her teacher’s salary. She also grows potatoes, wheat and corn on the family’s land. She was initially reluctant to be interviewed, wondering what good might come from it, but in the end, agreed to talk to us.

For years, people like you said they would convey our messages to the world, but we have never seen any results. These [interviews] are useless for us. Organisations always take the information and never help the women and girls. They all work for their own interests and women’s rights are violated now, just like they were for the past 20 years.

There have been many changes in my life since the Taleban takeover and not only in mine. There have been big changes in everyone’s life in Afghanistan, particularly in Panjshir. All the men and boys older than 17 have left Panjshir. If they had stayed, the Taleban would have punished them and investigated them for no reason. Women work in the fields and look after the livestock, work that was done by boys and our male family members in the past. Only my elderly parents and I have stayed behind in Panjshir; my brothers are all in Kabul. After Eid ul-Fitr [30 April], insecurity worsened and, three times, all of us escaped to Kabul. We stayed with our relatives there. There’s no help for the people who stay here and none for those who have fled to Kabul. People are jobless and have no income.

Ghazal is a 25-year-old single Hazara university student in Kabul, where she lives in a dormitory near the university. She used to support herself by teaching courses at a private institution, but the work dried up after the school’s director left Afghanistan. Now she is concerned her expenses will become an extra burden on her family and worries she might have to halt her studies. Back home in the Jaghori district of Ghazni province in Afghanistan’s central highlands, her father supports her mother and two brothers on his small income.

The Taleban takeover changed my university life. The day when the Taleban took over Kabul, I was at the university. All shops were closed and all the girls were crying. I had started a new job [at a ministry] two weeks before and was also planning to travel to Bamyan and Mazar for my practical assignments. I was also teaching on courses, but it stopped because the director [of the school] left Afghanistan. The Taleban stopped us working and studying, they told us not to go out without a mahram. My cousin and I weren’t allowed to go to our uncle’s house in Kabul because we had no mahram.

Our teachers give us assignments for which we need to visit the ministries, but now girls can’t do the work because women aren’t allowed inside government offices. My girlfriends were in football and volleyball teams, but now they don’t play. I had a bicycle which I used to ride to go from the hostel to the university. My friends also had motorcycles and bicycles, but now we can’t use them. Our lecturers say we have no option but to bear this situation. They have fixed a curtain at the gate to separate male and female entrances. Our hostel is now very strict. We must wear the hijab even inside the hostel. We’re not allowed to take pictures and there are Taleban spies. Every day, Amr bil Maruf(virtue and vice patrols) stand at the hostel gate and tells us to wear long scarves and black clothes. If we don’t follow their rules, they will kick us out of the hostel. I think they’re imposing all these restrictions to get us to stop studying.

28-year-old Tajik married primary school principal, Tamana, lives with her husband’s family in Takhar province. She is the only member of the household with a job. Girls’ education was a top concern for all our interviewees, but for Tamana, the closures hit especially close to home. As an educator, she is most worried about the future of girls if they are denied a secondary education. Here again, the loss of independence and sense of self-worth shines through as she told us about the opportunities that are no longer available to her.

Not only my life, but the lives of all people in Afghanistan have changed. Seeing my younger sisters and other students who can’t go to school makes me feel hopeless. They’re waiting all the time for news about [secondary] schools reopening. And all my brothers are unemployed. It upsets me to see them in this situation. Prices have increased and things are very expensive. All this is painful, not only for me but for everyone. In the past, we used to go shopping without fear. I used to participate in seminars, attend ceremonies when they launched projects and speak at conferences, but now, even if I was invited, I wouldn’t be able to participate.

Since I see the pupils every day [at school], the closure of high schools has had the most impact. I have lost interest in doing my job. In the past, I used to read a lot, but now I get tired when I open a book. Banning girls’ schools has made me fearful of the future because everyone wants their children to get an education. We all wish that our younger sisters could get an education and become someone who serves their society. It’s not just me, everyone is afraid that the future will be dark.

Conclusion

The Republic’s collapse and the rise of the Emirate transformed the lives of Afghan women suddenly and for many, catastrophically. The women interviewed for this report have seen the curtain fall not only on their present livelihoods, opportunities and rights, but also their hopes for themselves, their daughters and sisters, families, communities and their country. For many, there was a sudden plummeting into destitution, and with it a loss of their financial independence and ability to help others or even support their children. Restrictions on work, education, and freedom of movement have then, like quicksand, blocked their capacity to try to find ways out of the crisis.

These women’s voices, taken together, provide insight into the emotional fallout of the events since the Taleban’s rise to power. Many are battling anxiety, depression and hopelessness, still trying to push on and find ways to endure and survive their current bleak circumstances. Even so, in the next instalment of this series, we will hear how women are coping with the increasing restrictions on their rights and attempts to remove them from public life, to find ways to assert their personhood and agency.

Edited by Martine van Bijlert and Kate Clark


References

References
1 The interviews were conducted through open-ended questions in a free-flowing conversation that roughly followed the outline of the following questionnaire. Our intention was to allow interviewees to speak about the one or many significant changes in their lives without being prompted. This approach allowed us to first get a sense how they ranked the significance of these changes before exploring the nuances of their experience in greater detail.

1. What has changed in your day-to-day life since the Taleban came to power?

2. Which of the changes has had the most impact, or do you think is the most important effect?

3. How are these changes affecting you personally and your family in general?

4. How are they affecting other women in your extended family and community?

5. What changes are there in the enforcement of the orders/restrictions regarding women since the Taleban came to power?

6. What do your male relatives think of the recent restrictions?

7. How do you feel about the changes?

8. In what ways would you like the current situation to be different?

9. How do you think this can happen?

2 Siyasar (Dari), tor sára (Pashto) made up of siya/tor, which means black and sar/sari which means head, in other words ‘black-headed’. These terms are used across Afghanistan to address an unknown woman in public. For instance, when you get on a bus, the conductor might say, “Brothers, please leave the front seats for the siyasars.” For many women siyasar is controversial when other women address them with it. Various educated women told us they found it demeaning. Similarly, ajeza, meaning helpless,equivalent to the English, ‘the weaker sex’, is one of the most derogatory, non-swear words used to refer to women. The use of these terms to refer to women was reported to have diminished in recent years and many women believe their resurgence to be an indication of their diminished status under Taleban rule and an affront to their independence and personhood (see AAN report What’s in a Woman’s Name? No name, no public persona’).
3 In this report, we calculate the exchange rate as USD 1 = 77 Afs before 15 August 2021 and as USD 1 = 95 Afs after 15 August 2021.
4 Officially, women should wear a burqa/chadori or an abaya with face veil when outside the home. See earlier AAN report on this: “We need to breathe too”: Women across Afghanistan navigate the Taleban’s hijab ruling
5 This is probably a reference to a one-off payment made by UNICEF to teachers earlier in 2022 (see here).

Tags:

Women rights women Taleban rights and freedoms Political landscape livelihoods girls education Economy

Authors:

Roxanna Shapour

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