International

‘I prefer to die than to go with’ Taliban: Afghan women face uncertain future

Tamana Bahar was a toddler when the Taliban first ruled Afghanistan. She never felt the militant group’s cruelty, never hid her face. She grew up in a capital that enjoyed the freedoms facilitated by American occupation. But the fear she did not know as a child — the terror her mother knew too well — is threatening the woman she has become.

As Taliban forces approached Kabul on Sunday, Bahar’s mother stayed home from her job at an Afghan ministry, but Bahar insisted on going to work at a government news agency. When her mother cautioned her to wear a burqa and loose clothes in case the extremists seized power, Bahar shrugged off the warning.

“I just laughed and told her, ‘Mother, nothing will happen,’ ” she recalled by phone. “She was right.”

After the Taliban swept through the capital, Bahar rushed home to find armed men filling her street, firing guns and tearing down pictures of women. On Tuesday, Bahar said they ruled the neighborhood and she feared they would soon start searching houses and seizing women for forced marriages or stoning them for minor offenses.

“I prefer to die than to go with them,” she said, but “all the government is in their hands, so how can I escape?”

Afghan women faced an uncertain future this week as U.S. forces withdrew and the Taliban consolidated control after its stunning advance across the nation. Nearly 250,000 Afghans fled their homes in recent months ahead of a Taliban takeover, 80% of them women and children, according to the United Nations’ refugee agency. Women who had traveled to Kabul in recent weeks in search of protection found little in the capital and many returned to Kandahar, Jalalabad and Mazar-i-Sharif. Some women fled with families to the airport; many more hid at home.

Taliban officials who appeared Tuesday on state television and at a briefing in Kabul said women’s rights would be respected within the boundaries of sharia, or Islamic law. The fundamentalist group ruled the country for five years until the 2001 U.S.-led invasion, denying girls an education and women the right to work, as well as refusing to let them travel outside their homes without a male relative. There have been no confirmed reports of the Taliban imposing such restrictions in areas it recently seized, but militants were reported to have taken over houses and set fire to at least one school.

A few women in Kabul gathered to protest Tuesday, and an Al Jazeera correspondent tweeted video with the caption, “Taliban: We want our rights, we want social security, the right to work, education and political participation.”

Many remain concerned about women’s rights under the Taliban, including Nobel Peace Prize laureate Malala Yousafzai, who was shot in the head by Taliban gunmen in 2012 while demonstrating for women’s rights in Pakistan.

“We watch in complete shock as Taliban takes control of Afghanistan. I am deeply worried about women, minorities and human rights advocates,” Yousafzai wrote on Twitter, adding, “Global, regional and local powers must call for an immediate ceasefire, provide urgent humanitarian aid and protect refugees and civilians.”

Several U.S. groups are assisting Afghan women trying to leave the country, including the New York-based nonprofit International Refugee Assistance Project. They plan to hold a briefing Wednesday with an Afghan women’s rights advocate whom they helped file a petition for protection with the U.S. State Department after she was left out of the evacuation effort despite having worked on U.S. projects.

Some women still in Afghanistan on Tuesday said they did not trust the Taliban given the militants’ track record of human rights violations.

“They are just saying that to the world so the world believes … that they are changing,” Bahar said of the Taliban spokesman’s comments, recalling how the group made death threats against her until she quit her job at a magazine in 2017.

She said that when she tried to go outside Monday, armed Taliban fighters told her to stay inside even though she was wearing a burqa.

“They are not the kind of people where you can reason with them. You can’t say anything to them or they will kill you,” she said. “There is no person, no country, to defend us.”