The Taliban have seized control of Afghanistan. What does that mean for women and girls?
A female journalist receives a call warning that they “will come soon.” A woman lawmaker sits and waits for her killers. A little girl wonders how much longer her school gates will remain open.
For Afghanistan’s women and girls, this is the terrifying uncertainty they now find themselves in.
As Taliban leaders tell international media they “don’t want women to be victimized,” a more sinister reality is unfolding on the ground.
Girls are being forced into marriage, female bank workers marched from their jobs, and activists’ homes raided in a clear message that the freedoms of the last 20 years are coming to an end.
“Do we take them for their word and say: ‘Oh it’s going to be fine, this is Taliban 2.0, they’ve evolved.’ Or do we take them for their actions?” said Sanam Naraghi Anderlini, founder and CEO of the International Civil Society Action Network (ICAN) and director of the Centre for Women, Peace and Security at the London School of Economics.
Anderlini, who spearheads ICAN’s Women’s Alliance for Security Leadership (WASL), said a huge concern was what will happen to the Taliban’s apparently moderate tone once most of the international community has left Afghanistan.
“Once the diplomats leave, the journalists leave, the international NGOs leave, they are going to basically lock the doors… God knows what we’ll see then,” she said.
Will girls go to school?
Taliban spokesman Suhail Shaheen said Monday that under their rule, girls would be allowed to study. “Schools will be open and the girls and the women, they will be going to schools, as teachers, as students,” he said.
But stories from locals on the ground paint a different picture. And there’s a deep mistrust of the militants who caused such misery during their time in power — from 1996 to 2001 — when girls and young women were forbidden to attend school.
Girls still attending regular classes “are worried about the closing of the school gates,” Homeira Qadeiri, a women’s rights activist and writer in Kabul, told CNN by phone.
Education has become much more widespread in the past two decades and some experts have cast doubt over whether the Taliban would impose a national ban on girls’ education, as they did in the 1990s.
A big question mark hangs over restrictions to girls’ education after puberty, said Torunn Wimpelmann, political ethnographer focusing on gender politics and legal reform in Afghanistan, at the Chr. Michelsen Institute in Norway.
She said there might be a scenario where the Taliban announce: “‘We’re going to shut down all the universities until we can get female lecturers.'” The result would be “a kind of de facto exclusion of women from higher education,” Wimpelmann explained.
“The repercussions of closing down female education at higher levels, or segregating it, is still very serious,” she added.
Another way the Taliban might restrict girls’ access to education is by fining families for letting their daughters out, said Anderlini. “It’s another way that they might sort of impose their version [of schooling] without necessarily being violent,” she added.
Will women be allowed to work?
The last time the Taliban ruled, women were banned from working. After the Islamist militants were driven from power in 2001, women were free to go to university and work. As of early 2021, 27% of the seats in the nation’s Parliament were held by women.
But as the Taliban and the US-backed Afghan government held peace talks over the past year, working women have been killed in a wave of attacks — including the high-profile murder of three female journalists in March.
In early July, insurgents walked into the offices of Azizi Bank in the southern city of Kandahar and ordered nine women working there to leave, Reuters reported. The female bank tellers were told that male relatives would take their place.
Now, with the Taliban taking control of the country, many women with careers worry they will be punished or even killed in retribution.
They include Afghanistan’s first female mayor, Zarifa Ghafari. “I’m sitting here waiting for them to come,” the 27-year-old mayor of Maidan Shahr told Britain’s inews last week.
“There is no one to help me or my family. I’m just sitting with them and my husband. And they will come for people like me and kill me. I can’t leave my family. And anyway, where would I go?” she said.
At a national level, the Taliban have said women can work as long as they do so within an Islamic framework — but how that will play out in the provinces is another question, said Wimpelmann.
“It’s likely that they will have all these kind of frameworks — that men and women shouldn’t be alone together, or they shouldn’t be in the same room,” she said, adding that this “excludes women from a lot of positions.”
Will female journalists appear on TV?
Female journalists will still be able to practice their profession as long as they adhere to rules such as wearing the niqab and not engaging with men outside of their family, one Taliban fighter told CNN on Monday.
Barring women reporters from speaking to, or even being in the same room as, men would severely restrict their ability to do their jobs effectively. For now, some female journalists are continuing their work.
Two female reporters from Afghan news organization TOLO were back out working on the streets of Kabul on Tuesday morning, according to a tweet from the media group’s director, Saad Mohseni.
“We resumed our broadcast with female anchors today,” said another tweet from TOLO’s head of news, Miraqa Popal, who shared a photo of a woman anchor on air.
But several female journalists told a CNN source that they had received threatening calls from the Taliban, with the calls increasing over recent days.
In a chilling indication of what life could soon be like for women reporters in Afghanistan, one prominent female journalist in Kabul said she had received a call telling her they “will come soon.”
What clothing will women have to wear?
In recent years Afghan women “have been able to just go out wearing a headscarf and hair showing,” particularly in the cities, said Anderlini.
It’s a stark contrast to when the Taliban were last in power.
Back then, women faced barbaric penalties for violating so-called modesty rules: Flogged for “showing an inch or two of skin under her full-body burqa, beaten for attempting to study, stoned to death if she was found guilty of adultery,” Amnesty International noted.
In summary, the human rights NGO said, “Women were essentially invisible in public life, imprisoned in their home.”
On Thursday, CNN spoke to one woman, in her mid-20s and well educated, who has been sheltering in Kabul with her family ever since a rocket hit their home in the northern city of Kunduz. CNN is not using her name, for her own security.
“Kunduz is not a place to be at this moment. Nobody should be there,” she said.
“I am connected with many of my former colleagues that are still stuck in Kunduz. Women are not leaving their homes; everyone is staying put at home,” she added.
“Those who had jobs are scared to go outside. Everyone is afraid of the likelihood that the Taliban will stop them outside or put their lives in some form of danger.”
It’s still not clear just how extreme restrictions around coverings will be under the new Taliban leadership.
The Taliban have said “women can do this and that if they’re covered in the hijab,” said Anderlini. “Now what do they mean by the hijab? Do they mean the burqa? Do they mean a sort of heavy covering like a chador? Or is there some freedom?”
Amid the blistering Taliban takeover, there has been rush to buy burqas. One shopkeeper in Kabul told CNN that his customers — largely men — are frightened and are buying burqas for their wives, daughters and other women in their lives because they feel that from now on, it may be the only way for them to stay safe on the streets.
Will women have freedom of movement?
Previously women living under Taliban rule were banned from traveling without a male chaperone. And there have already been reports of militants again barring women from leaving their house without a mahram — a male family member.
Even if the Taliban don’t end up imposing such a policy on a national level, “there’s a lot of other ways that women’s movement can be restricted,” said Wimpelmann.
She noted that even since the Taliban fell from power in 2001, the Afghan state had prosecuted women for what it called ‘moral crimes’ — often amounting to little more than travel without a male chaperone.
“So it’s very possible that these kind of prosecutions will now increase massively,” Wimpelmann added.
And that could have a huge impact on women’s ability to escape abuse.
“You can imagine scenarios where women are arrested for being alone with a male in a taxi, or in a restaurant, or in a private home, or traveling from one town to another on their own,” she explained.
Will women and girls be forced into marriages?
There are already reports of militants “taking little girls away from their families, or demanding that they hand over their daughters,” said Anderlini. She added that these were “prepubescent or adolescent girls, for basically forced marriage or rape.”
She explained that these incidents happened during the Taliban’s recent takeovers of Badakshan and Kandahar, as reported by international media and her organization’s local partners.
It’s unclear where the orders, if any, are coming from. It could be that these incidents are happening by “ragtag” elements of the Taliban that “aren’t necessarily connected to the leadership,” said Anderlini.
She said the leadership could even be “giving different messages” to its fighters, while giving an official line to international journalists of “Oh no no, we’re going to respect women’s rights.'”
Meanwhile, on the ground, “something else is happening,” said Anderlini.