Salma still remembers the sting of the Taliban whip.
She was in a market in 2001 when a soldier seized her and violently struck her for walking alone. She was just six.
The Taliban were ousted later that year and her agony became a distant memory. Over the next twenty years, she rose to a prominent position in the government’s Ministry for Women’s Affairs, helped hundreds of women advance their rights and published dozens of articles to help foster the economy.
“I made a difference in my community,” says Salma. “I was a defender of women’s rights and involved in many political and civic activities.”
When the Taliban returned to power in Afghanistan last August, Salma thought that they would uphold women’s rights to work and education, as the leadership promised in a press conference on Aug. 17, 2021.
“Maybe the Taliban had changed,” thought the 28-year-old who asked that her real name not be used. “But it didn’t.”
Many Afghan women and girls now say their lives have been destroyed since the Taliban’s return, losing rights to study, work, travel and dress freely. They have also lost legal protection, which leaves them defenceless against forced marriage, violence, rape and murder.
A generation of Afghan women thought they had bright futures, said 74-year-old women’s rights activist Mahbouba Seraj in an interview from her temporary home in the United States. “Today they are being erased.”
Afghan woman are being killed for raising their voices, asking to work, or just being on the street, said Seraj, who was on Time Magazine’s 2021 list of the world’s most influential people.
“It is the most terrifying thing to be an Afghan woman,” she said. “If nobody kills you, or rapes you or beats you, they ignore that you exist.”
The United Nations in June reported an increase in violence against women including murder, rape, forced marriage, child marriage and assault. And since the Taliban stopped enforcing the country’s Law on Elimination of Violence against Women, victims have no way to report abuse and prosecute men who brutalize them.
Some Afghan women are working underground to educate girls or protect women from violence, said Nahid Shahalimi, the Afghan-Canadian author of “We Are Still Here: Afghan Women on Courage, Freedom, and the Fight to Be Heard,” in an interview from her home in Munich. Some have left Afghanistan, but plan to return to fight for women’s rights, she said. All of them fear that the world has forgotten them.
Shahalimi fled Afghanistan for Pakistan and then Canada with her mother and sisters in 1981 when her father, a government Minister, died.
Without a man to protect them, Shahalimi said, Afghan family members looted their wealth and threatened to sell the sisters as wives for the Mujahideen guerrillas. Since returning to Afghanistan in 2011, she has fought to raise the profile of Afghan women through her writing and award winning film: “We the Women of Afghanistan: A Silent Revolution.”
“We should be all be enraged,” Shahalimi said. “We should be fuming that teenage girls in 2022 are not allowed to go to school.”
The Taliban reversed their promise to reopen schools for girls above the sixth grade on March 23, 2022, suddenly shuttering schools that had been expected to open that day.
One of those girls sent home is Fatima, a 13-year-old living in Baglan, in northern Afghanistan. She cries every day, said her adoptive father, Abdul Karim Farzil, who is desperate to bring her to his new home in Toronto. Fatima (not her real name) has not been able to join her parents in Canada because they do not have legal adoption papers for her.
“She was the top student in her class and now she must stay at home with nothing to do,” Farzil said. “The Taliban has cut the internet so she cannot even study on her own.”
The Taliban also curtailed women’s involvement in political decisions, establishing an all-male cabinet on Sept. 7, 2021. The following week the Ministry of Women’s Affairs was closed, replaced by a resurrected Ministry of Vice and Virtue, a notorious perpetrator of abuses during the previous Taliban regime.
According to Human Rights Watch, the Vice and Virtue department has beaten women publicly for offences as trivial as wearing socks that were not sufficiently opaque or showing their wrists, hands, or ankles.
The Taliban has also prevented women from working except in education and health sectors but only if they cannot be replaced by men, Afghans say. This is creating a desperate situation for families in which women were the primary wage earners.
Jamila, a women’s rights activist and former director at the Ministry of Education, was the only income earner in her family when the Taliban eliminated her job last year. She had been supporting her sisters and her brother’s widow and three young children since he was killed by the Taliban in 2019. Now the family is destitute.
“We have no bread to eat,” she said in an interview “because I don’t have a job.” She is now in hiding from Taliban officials who are threatening forced marriage to a soldier.
“Men have forcibly married many girls in Tahkar province,” she said, “some only 12 and 13 years old, with the power of their guns.”
And they’ve ransacked her family’s house three times in recent months, looking for evidence of where she is hiding.
“I am like a prisoner and a fugitive,” Jamila says, moving from safe house to safe house, leaving her family to starve. “Life under the Taliban is nothing but darkness.”
And the severity of human rights violations against women and girls are increasing monthly, according to an Amnesty International report. Restrictions on women’s freedom of movement have become particularly oppressive. Initially the Taliban decreed that women needed a “Maharam,” or male guardian, to travel long distances, but officials have since said that women should not leave their homes at all unless absolutely necessary, the Amnesty report says.
Sara and Shabnam Saljughi, sisters aged 18 and 21, were living without a male guardian, studying at a university in Kabul, when the Taliban took power last August. A few weeks later, soldiers entered their apartment looking for “infidels.” The sisters, fearing they would be killed, hid with an upstairs neighbour before fleeing to a safe house.
“We don’t know how long we can hide,” said Shabnam in an interview with the Star in November. “Help us save our lives.”
Sara and Shabnam escaped to a refugee camp in Abu Dhabi, where they still feared being found without a male guardian and stoned to death by Taliban believers in the camp. They now live safety in the United States.
Female addicts are also suffering in staggering numbers since a crackdown on drug production and use in April, according to reports. An estimated million Afghan women are addicted to opium because of its history of production in the country. Some are in hiding and others are in prison. Many are starving as their families are too afraid to help them.
Laila Haidari is not afraid to help.
Haidari, whose life story is told in the documentary “Laila at The Bridge,” survived child marriage and founded a pioneering addiction treatment centre in 2010 that provided free treatment to more than seven thousand addicts. But the Taliban looted and closed the centre the day they entered Kabul.
“I lost 12 years of hard work,” she says. “I felt like dying, and I still do.”
In October 2021 she launched the Mother Educational Center, an underground school offering free basic education, sewing and jewelry-making classes to empower vulnerable women. Using her own savings, Haidari helps more than 500 “damaged and terrified” students in the two provinces of Kabul and Daikundi “so they can gain their freedom and an ability to change their lives.”
Haidari is petrified that the Taliban will discover her activities, harass her staff and close the centre. But she dreams of the day when she can help educate millions of girls to understand their rights.
“I am horrified by the indifference of the women of the world towards the women of Afghanistan, more than the horror that the Taliban created, she says. “We need the support of benevolent, brave and generous women and men worldwide.”
Mahbouba Seraj is planning to return to Afghanistan to help foster women’s rights. She will not hide from the Taliban, she said.
“I need to keep telling the world what is going on.”
Salma, too, works underground counselling women suffering domestic violence that has become more frequent and brutal since the Taliban takeover, she said. But with women’s shelters now closed there is little she can do to help.
She and other Afghan women are struggling to understand why after so many years of support the international community now ignores them.
“Afghan women are now living in the height of misery and the world has forgotten us.”
Katharine Lake Berz is a writer based on Vancouver Island and in Toronto. email@example.com