'Strong beyond the world's imagination'

The lives of all Afghans were turned upside down by the Taliban takeover on 15 August 2021. But for women and girls the situation has been particularly devastating, as their rights and freedoms have been stripped away by progressively restrictive decrees, creating a system of ‘gender apartheid’ and placing many under virtual house arrest.

The authorities’ de facto enforcement of a strict interpretation of sharia law regulates where women can go and how they should dress. Many women and girls are unable to go out in public without a male blood-relative as escort. Girls cannot be educated past elementary school. Women can no longer work in most professions, with only a few exceptions in gendered sectors such as midwifery. This has left women-headed households desperate and impoverished. Yet, many women are still daring to protest, resist and speak up.

To elevate their voices, UN Women Afghanistan, the news platform Zan Times, web designers Limbo and several independent storytellers have got together to set up the After August website – a collection of stories from more than 50 women currently living in Afghanistan. What follows is a selection of excerpts from their stories.

Rahaina

Raihana*– an educator from Samangan

‘I continued my schooling until grade 12 [around 18 years old] and was then married. But my husband was killed by the Taliban in 2012. Before that, I had completed my university degree and created a non-profit organization dedicated to Afghan women’s education and vocational training and registered it with the Ministry of Economy.

‘Because of my activities, in 2016, my son was killed… But I did not surrender and I continue my advocacy. I organize some activities that are not risky and are possible to implement, given the current situation, such as tailoring courses for women.

‘I explain their rights to the women, and I tell them to be strong in the face of oppression. But I am also teaching girls, free-of-charge, from my home, offering secret classes from grades 7 to 12 [age 12-18 years old].

‘What I hope for most is the re-opening of schools…. If the situation continues like this, there will be no hope of a future for Afghan girls.’

Belqis

Belqis*– a mother from Ghor

‘I am Belqis, mother of three girls and six boys. I am the guardian of this family.

‘After the Taliban takeover of the country last year, I had to sell my six-year-old daughter for 100,000 afghani [$1,500] to pay off the expenses of the rest of the family. I have to provide for the family. We don’t have tea at home. No soap. It is a bad situation.

‘It is not just me suffering this situation, there are many women similar to me. There are hundreds of women who provide for their families and have no men around.

‘I sold my daughter out of poverty and desperation. I sold her so that the rest of the family wouldn’t starve to death. I am certain that my daughter won’t suffer starvation at her new home, and the money that I received can cover my family’s expenses for some time. I am really sad for my daughter. I always grieve for her. She had no idea what was happening to her.’

'I am really sad for my daughter. I always grieve for her. She had no idea what was happening to her.'

Habiba

Habiba*– a Tajik protester from northern Afghanistan

‘I founded a women’s community resistance group and protested during the first period of the Taliban [1996-2001].

‘After the ideals and dreams of an entire generation were destroyed [in 2021], we were all in a bad situation.

‘We agreed with friends, colleagues and girls who shared our pain, to go to the streets to protest and raise our voices for justice. And we did. None of us were sure if we would come home again. With the passing of each day and with the increasing cruelty and barbarity of the Taliban, the scope of the protests grew bigger and wider, in line with the terror and tyranny of the Taliban, with people shouting slogans like: “bread, work, education, freedom”.

‘When the roads were taken away from us, we took our protests to closed and underground places. This continues until now.’

'None of us were sure if we would come home again.'

Hira

Hira*– a former public servant from Kunar

‘I started working for the Government shortly after completing my bachelor’s degree.

‘When the Taliban regained control of Afghanistan, everything was reversed. On the first day of the fall of the government, my husband warned me that democracy was over and that I could no longer be proud of the Ministry of Women’s Affairs... He said: “Listen to what I say or I will divorce you”. I was physically beaten many times in front of my two young children.

‘I can’t believe that all the achievements for women’s rights were destroyed and burned before the eyes of the international community on 15 August, in half a day, and that today Afghan women are still burning.

‘The most important change in my life, and those of the millions of girls and women in my country after August, is that despair now reigns over our souls.’

Arefa

Arefa*– a teacher and midwife from Farah

‘After the fall of Kabul, I became unemployed because it was not possible to work with the restrictions imposed by the Taliban. But during these nearly two years, I directly and indirectly tried to fight for the rights of Afghan women and girls.

‘I have been subjected to physical violence and threats many times. I am currently living in hiding because of these threats, because I have criticized [Taliban] policies in the media and social networks...

‘I feel weak, both mentally and physically. I have nightmares. The Taliban have imposed so many restrictions on Afghan women and girls that today I even feel like I can’t breathe. I am under house arrest.

‘Afghan women are strong beyond the world’s imagination and continue their struggle.’

*These first-person accounts have been anonymized, with names and locations changed to protect their identity. The photographs of women have also been randomly matched to stories.

The views expressed in these stories belong to the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of UN Women and/or any affiliated agencies.

All photos credit to UN WOMEN/SAYED HABIB BIDELL.