Hajera gave birth to her daughter, Sarah, in Kabul two weeks after the Taliban took over Afghanistan last summer. Hajera is 35 and worked as a government economist. She and her husband already had two sons and were happy to be welcoming a daughter. But they soon lost their jobs, and the Taliban erased the rights women had gained over the previous two decades.
An Afghan women’s-rights activist had connected me with Hajera, who was too afraid to share her last name. “We had a job,” she told me. “We had money. We had a home. We had a country. We had a family.” Now, she said, “we have nothing.”
Afghanistan is, once again, the worst place in the world to be a woman.
I asked her: What did she hope would happen now? “Hich omid nist,” she said. There is no hope.
I was born in 1999, two years before the September 11 attacks and the subsequent invasion of my country. For Afghan women, the overthrow of the Taliban marked the beginning of a luckier time. Schools were opened to girls. Women were no longer imprisoned at home—they were allowed to work, and would no longer be beaten if they chose not to wear the burqa.
Freedom came too late for my mother and her generation. They had prayed and protested for these rights. But many were married off as children. My mother was married at 16. Our mothers and grandmothers refer to these times as the “unblessed years.”
Now that the time of unblessing has returned, it has become clear that as we grew up, my generation was witnessing not the beginning of a new future, but an anomalous moment in our country’s sad history. We had been enthusiastic, energetic, happy, and hopeful. On August 15, 2021, Afghanistan returned to zero. Or even less than zero, because the path to freedom feels even longer and more dangerous now, and Afghan women are so very tired.
I am a refugee in the United States now, but I have been talking with my family and friends, with former teachers and colleagues, to understand what they have been going through and what they want the rest of the world to know.
Faryal is a 14-year-old girl in Kabul. As with many of the women I spoke with for this story, I’m using only her first name to protect her privacy. She should be in ninth grade this year at Hussain Khail High School, where she loved her classes, even though the students had no chairs or tables and studied in hot, overcrowded tents. She used to wake up every morning and leave for school with her 12-year-old brother, but now she watches from the window as he boards the bus. She stays home all day, doing nothing, looking at her old books.
Soon after returning to power last year, the Taliban banned secondary school for girls. The Ministry of Education indicated that these schools would reopen once the Taliban settled on a dress code for female students and teachers “in accordance with Islamic law and Afghan culture and traditions.” But everyone knows it was a lie.
Faryal told me she misses her friends and the playground, where they would braid one another’s hair. She asked me with a crying voice questions I couldn’t answer. Why have they only closed our schools, not the boys’ schools? Are the Taliban at war with women?
Not everyone is waiting for the Taliban to open the schools. Some people are running secret schools for girls out of their homes. One person told me that she knew of at least two such schools in Kabul and three or four elsewhere in the country, but there may be many more.
Recently, I spoke with a teacher at one of these secret schools. Ayesha Farhat Safi, 22, teaches roughly 80 teenage girls in the basement of her family’s house in Kabul. She doesn’t make any money doing it, and she could be arrested or beaten. She told me, “A lot of students are reaching out to us, but we don’t have enough space to have them all participate, and it hurts me.”
NPR and other news organizations have reported on female students’ attempts to get around the ban. Some schools that teach young girls legally are secretly instructing teenagers as well. When Taliban inspectors visit the schools, the older girls scatter and hide.
None of these secret schools is close enough to where Faryal lives for her to attend. But she knows of them, and dreams about going to one someday. She told me she doesn’t care if the Taliban catch her.
I spoke with a 26-year-old woman who, until the government fell, had worked for the Ministry of Education, analyzing national enrollment data. She loved her job and the difference she was making in the country. Now she has no job, and many of the schools she watched open have been closed. She told me she feels small and weak, an “observer of the miseries of women.”
Her former colleagues at the ministry have told her that many teachers who taught in girls’ schools have been reassigned to teach boys. Others have left the country. She has had many opportunities to leave, but she doesn’t want to go. She teaches English classes for girls and women, as well as classes in computer coding and other technical skills. Some are streamed online, but others are in person. She told me that her girls gather in a secret location where they pretend to be studying the Quran and Sharia. She believes that the only way we can help Afghan women is to empower them through education. She told me, “I want to stay until it becomes impossible for me to stay.”
Saira Saba, 42, is a former teacher too. She helped organize a protest in August in front of the Ministry of Education, in Kabul, and held a sign reading Bread, Work, Freedom. News reports said about 40 women participated in the protest, though Saba told me there were even more: mothers and daughters, women who’d never learned to read and women who’d worked as professors at universities.
Saba participated despite knowing that the Taliban were arresting and beating female protesters. She said, “We want a country where we have our rights. We want a country where we will be able to work. We want a country where we know who our president is and who our leaders are. And where we have the right to choose our own leaders.”
Of course, it’s not only women who are suffering in Afghanistan. The Taliban are also targeting religious and ethnic minority groups. The economy is paralyzed; the health-care system has broken down; people are starving.
Recently my mother told me that she was walking back from the bakery with three loaves of bread when she decided to share the food with some beggars she passed by. But there were far more hungry people than there were loaves of bread. She says there are more beggars now than she can ever remember seeing in Kabul, and more kids on the streets than in schools.
We lost our freedom of speech the same day we lost our country. There is no constitution, and Taliban commanders set up their own courts to judge individuals on whatever charges they want, whenever they want. Terrorists are finding a haven in Afghanistan, and deadly bombings of civilians in mosques and markets have increased.
But the fear and oppression are worse for Afghan women, because they can’t fight back; they’ve been systematically removed from society, imprisoned in their homes once again. My conversations with the friends I grew up with get shorter and less cheerful each time we speak. They have stopped planning for their futures—they can see that there is no future. Some of them have accepted the first marriage proposal that came their way, no matter who it came from, because they think their only escape from their current circumstances is to find a husband.
My sister’s closet is filled with colorful clothing. But when she goes out she can only wear black; she says it’s like the whole nation is in mourning, and the people in the streets look like zombies. She used to wear lipstick and eyeliner; she no longer bothers, because she knows no one will look her in the eyes. She says that, covering her face wherever she goes, she has forgotten what she even looks like.
It would be nice to think that, in the privacy of their own homes, women have remained free; that they could turn their back on an oppressive government that doesn’t see them as fully human, and continue, at least in their own personal relationships, to be who they’ve always been. But that’s not the case. By removing women from the public sphere, the government has also reestablished the patriarchy within the home, where men are once again judge and jury.
I want to believe that there’s something to be done—that foreign governments or institutions or refugees like myself could somehow help the women back home. The United Nations has restricted the travel of some Taliban leaders. The United States has imposed sanctions on Afghanistan to pressure the Taliban to create a democratic government in which women and other minorities have equal rights. It has also frozen $7 billion of Afghan money in U.S. banks, and announced that it will use about half of that for a fund to support the Afghan economy, in ways that will help the people without enriching the government.
But human-rights activists are calling for more penalties. The UN could ban all Taliban leaders from traveling; Twitter could cut off access (as Facebook has done already) to the official Taliban accounts as well as those operated by anyone lobbying on the Taliban’s behalf. Additional humanitarian aid could be provided on the condition that women are allowed to work, go to secondary school, and participate in politics. Governments and nonprofit groups could help women’s-rights activists by providing financial support and political backing. They could also set up and fund online education and more secret in-person schools.
Afghanistan is not far from becoming the country we were in the Taliban’s first regime. But some things are different now. Few in rural communities have access to the internet, but those who do can organize and resist in new ways. In secret, behind closed doors, Afghanistan is still breathing.
Hajera told me there was no hope. I want to believe that there is a little.