By Brennan Leffler and Mike Armstrong Global News
Published October 9, 2021
7 min read
These are the voices of women the Taliban doesn’t want the world to hear.
“My life has become just to eat, sleep and repeat,” says 20-year-old Aisha. “The world has left us in disaster under the Taliban regime.”
Aisha is not her real name. As an athlete and a young woman planning to go to university, Afghanistan’s new rulers consider her an enemy, so Global News is protecting her identity. But the danger stopped neither her nor several other Afghan women from speaking to Global News about the harsh conditions imposed by the Taliban in the weeks after the withdrawal of U.S. troops.
“My heart feels heavy because I can’t explain it to you,” Aisha says. “I can’t imagine how we’re going to live like this, with this government.”
After a long, costly war that was supposed to leave Afghans with a safer country where millions could pursue their dreams, the Taliban, classified as a terrorist group by Canada, is back in power. The western coalition, including Canada, spent more than $3 trillion on the war effort over the last 20 years, but much of that money went to contractors, sub-contractors, or into the pockets of corrupt politicians.
The outlook looks especially bleak for women.
In August, during the final days of the U.S. occupation, the Taliban rolled into Kabul, took control, and set up a new government. Almost immediately, they began cracking down on women’s hard-won freedoms. They are no longer allowed to go to school past Grade 6 or work at most jobs, and must cover themselves in public. They also have to be accompanied by a male relative.
“I am very disappointed because we worked very hard. We had so many goals. We are facing a situation that has everyone in shock,” Aisha says.
Aisha says she aspires to follow in the footsteps of trailblazers like Friba Rezayee, who in 2004 became one of Afghanistan’s first two women to go to the Olympics when she competed in judo in Greece.
That’s the dream. For Rezayee, what’s happening to Afghan women now, including her own family, is the nightmare.
“The first thing my niece asked me was ‘Aunt Friba, is the Taliban going to kill us when they catch us? Are they going to kill me because I went to school?’ Those are the conversations I’m having with my family and with my contacts. What do you say, what do you do?”
Rezayee got out of Afghanistan and immigrated to Canada in 2011. She now lives in Vancouver, where she founded Women Leaders of Tomorrow, which advocates for Afghan women in education and sports.
When the Taliban took power, they promised things would be different this time. Rezayee knew it was a lie.
“A group that was trained for decades and decades to terrorize, to rule, to control people in the most brutal way,” she says. “Why would they change?”
“They are exactly with the same mindset,” says Shukria Barakzai, a prominent 49-year-old feminist, journalist and politician.
She should know. Barakzai lived through the first Taliban regime from 1996 to 2001, when the group turned Afghanistan into what many have described as an open-air prison. Women were banned from public life, including education and work, and any violation of those harsh conditions was met with severe, often horrific punishments, like public stoning.
“There’s no big difference between the Taliban at that time and this time,” she says.
Barakzai was Afghanistan’s Ambassador to Norway when the Taliban came back to Kabul on Aug. 15. Using her diplomatic contacts, she was lucky enough to get high-level help from two U.K. MPs, just barely escaping Taliban fighters who were searching for her. Amid the chaos at the airport where thousands of desperate people were trying to flee the country, she managed to get on an evacuation flight, and is now in London, England.
But watching the terror unfolding in the country she spent so many years fighting for, is almost as bad as being there.
“I don’t know why people are asking, ‘Oh we should give them time, we should give them time.’ It’s more than a month. We should give them time until they destroy everything and kill everyone?”
It is especially painful to watch the Taliban crush the seeds of a new society that were planted during the last 20 years, a period Barakzai calls “the blossoming.” While the U.S.-led military coalition waged war against Al-Qaeda and the Taliban, a new government in Kabul allowed new freedoms for Afghans, especially women and girls.
Ten times more children were in school this year than in 2001.
Twenty years ago, fewer than one per cent of elementary school students were girls. This year they were 40 per cent.
Women became police, judges, and politicians. The constitution mandated at least 27 per cent of 249 seats in Parliament should be filled by women. In the last Parliament, before the Taliban took over, there were 69 female MPs.
But those gains came at a heavy cost. It’s estimated that nearly 250,000 people were killed during the war, 70,000 of them civilians. Members of the U.S.-led coalition poured more than USD$3 trillion into Afghanistan. Much of that money went to contractors, and the positive impact on women was mostly limited to cities.
And even for those women who reaped the benefits, it remained dangerous to be a woman in public life. Barakzai herself survived a targeted car bombing in 2014, when she was a member of Parliament.
But for women like Leeda, that constant risk of becoming a casualty of the war was still better than being a prisoner in her own home.
“Even in the past 20 years, we didn’t have a dream life, even at that time,” she told Global News. “But still, we survived, and still we were happy.”
Global News is protecting the identity of Leeda, who is in hiding in Kabul. She is a target for the Taliban because she was a photographer who worked with foreign media. The Taliban promised an amnesty for what it calls “foreign collaborators,” but already, protesters, journalists, and Afghan police have gone missing or turned up dead. Alleged criminals have been summarily executed, their bodies hung in public as a warning against defying the Taliban.
In the days after the takeover, men and women protested in the streets for their rights. They were met with beatings and gunshots. The protests have largely stopped now, and the Taliban has banned any public demonstrations that don’t have prior approval.
“I heard so many horrible things about it, like they’re torturing them, they take them away. I have even heard many people are just lost and they don’t know, their family don’t know, where they are, if they’re alive, if they’re not,” Leeda says.
As they took power, the Taliban said they would forgive everyone, Leeda says. “But now we’re seeing how they forgave. Because that is only a word. How someone can trust them? Whatever they are saying, it is all fake.”
The Taliban is once again ruling by fear, but there is a glimmer of hope that this time will be different. Silencing millions of women who have tasted freedom will be much harder now, Rezayee says.
“In the last two decades, Afghan women had so many achievements, so many gains, which we hold very, very precious to us. We are not going to let go of them easily.”
The country now has a generation that has grown up with freedom of movement, the right to work, and crucially, education. One of the things they have learned is how to use technology. Videos and photos of Taliban brutality have already leaked out on social media.
“This is a new Afghanistan,” Barakzai says of the Afghan people. “They want peace. They want dignity. They want to be counted as human.”
The Taliban’s oppressive reign of the late 1990s went largely unacknowledged, until the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Just as their brutality will be harder to keep hidden this time, it will also be harder to ignore. Leeda is pleading with the world not to turn away as it did the last time the Taliban was in power.
“They have to reach out to people like me and Afghan people, we do not deserve to have such a kind of life. The only job that I have is sitting at home and crying for all the things that I lost. Not only me, but all Afghan women. All Afghan people.”
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