Mahnaz, a 17-year-old from Kabul, says that before last year she knew about the Taliban — but only from a distance. She was born after the 2001 U.S. invasion of Afghanistan, which drove the previous Taliban regime from power. She had never seen Taliban fighters on the streets of her neighborhood. What she knew about the group came from the news, or the stories her parents and others told her.
Until last summer, Mahnaz and millions of other Afghan girls went to school. Mahnaz fell in love with reading. Her favorite writer, she told Grid, is the English romance novelist Jojo Moyes. “I was reading a book a week,” she said.
That changed last year, when the American forces left and the Taliban retook control of the country. The violent and chaotic collapse of the previous government brought an abrupt end to Mahnaz’s education, her time in libraries and her access to books.
As it happened, she was in a library, studying for an upcoming physics midterm exam, when she heard the news. “Around noon, on Aug. 15, the director of the library came and asked everyone to leave because the Taliban had entered Kabul,” she told Grid.
She has not been back since — not to the library, not to her school. Even going out in the streets is risky business. Mahnaz’s family worries about her when she leaves their home, in a city now home to scores of Taliban fighters.
“These are supposed to be the best years of my life,” she said. “I had dreams. But now I can’t even imagine a future for myself.”
Six months after the fall of the U.S.-backed government, her words were echoed repeatedly in interviews conducted by Grid with women and girls across the country — from the capital Kabul to Badakhshan in the northeast, Herat in the west and Bamiyan in central Afghanistan.
Out of school
Among the first orders of business for the Taliban when it recaptured power was to turn back the clock for girls and women. Last September, soon after the Americans left, the Taliban allowed boys and primary-school-age girls — from 6 to 12 years old — back to school. But secondary-school-age girls — those in their mid-to-late teens — were left out. That shuttered the classrooms for Mahnaz and hundreds of thousands of girls her age. The actual number of girls who were suddenly locked out of school is hard to come by. What is beyond dispute is the thrust of the Taliban project — to ensure, as Farida, a 15-year-old girl in Kabul, told Grid, that women cannot “have dreams of their own.”
“To the Taliban, I am not a person. For them, my identity should be defined by a man,” Farida said. Like Mahnaz, she hasn’t been allowed to attend school since the upheaval last summer. And while she is quick to add that life was hardly perfect before the Taliban took over, she says things have worsened dramatically in recent months, as she has watched not just the shutdown of classrooms but also a broader crackdown on female professionals and activists: “It was gray,” she said. “Now it is pitch-black.”
That deterioration — the progression from “gray” to “pitch-black” — has been among the most profound changes in Afghanistan over the last six months. A group of U.N. rights experts gave their assessment in January: The Taliban’s polices amounted to nothing less than the “collective punishment” of women and girls.
Two decades of gains
Over the past two decades, improvements for women and girls had been evident across several sectors and aspects of Afghan life. Girls entered classrooms, women entered the workforce, and women were visible and increasingly prominent — in politics and the press, in business and in popular soap operas. Before the Americans left last year, as many as a quarter of Afghan civil servants were women. There were 86 women in parliament, and scores of female judges. More than 4,000 served in the Afghan National Police force. In the army, there were almost 2,000 women. An additional 146 served in the Afghan Air Force.
Though still marginalized, and too often treated unequally by men, women had made remarkable gains. Of the 9 million to 10 million children enrolled in Afghan schools in 2020, roughly 40 percent were girls. No girls had attended school when the Taliban was last in power.
For Farida and Mahnaz and so many other teenage girls, there were role models to be found in many professions. Both girls say they were able to dream about a range of careers. It was a hopeful landscape that disappeared almost overnight in August of last year.
The Taliban made public pledges to protect the rights of women and girls, but the new regime has in this respect looked very much like the brutal rulers of two decades before. Most of the country’s female MPs and judges have left the country. Among female judges who remain — recent estimates suggest 90 of the nearly 300 judges are still be in Afghanistan — many have been driven into hiding, as the criminals they put behind bars now roam free, making open threats against their lives. In December, the International Association of Women Judges said Afghan female judges and their families had been “beaten, arrested and subjected to torture.”
In recent months, the Taliban has also issued decrees forbidding women from appearing in soap operas. Women have been prohibited from taking trips of more than 45 miles by themselves. Residents of Kabul told Grid that local taxi drivers had been instructed to make sure that women were properly dressed — that is, in line with Taliban rules mandating the hijab — before taking them on as customers.
Out of work
Beyond the new rules and restrictions, in the last six months women in Afghanistan have suffered disproportionately from steep job losses. In certain areas, the erasure has been total. No more female judges, no female members of parliament — no ministers or senior officials. Several female journalists told Grid they had also lost their jobs.
In other areas, including the healthcare system, education and some areas of the private sector, women have continued to work, according to media reports as well as interviews by Grid. But they have often been forced to work from home, and several women told Grid that they live in near-constant fear of losing their jobs. Recent estimates from the International Labor Organization suggest that women’s employment fell by as much as 16 percent in the months between July and September — as the U.S. troops left and the Taliban moved in. This year, job losses for women could climb as high as 28 percent. That figure may prove to be an understatement — as the ILO itself noted, there is limited data on the current state of the Afghan labor market.
When the Taliban came
“When the Taliban took Herat,” Razia, a government medical worker, told Grid, “they ordered women indoors. We weren’t allowed to come outside unless we covered ourselves with a hijab.”
Razia, who administers vaccinations to women and children, has kept her job — and the nature of the work means she still goes regularly to the clinic. “I used to wear jeans, it was easier in my work. I can’t do that now. No one can. Everyone is terrified.”
The terror is well founded. Those who have raised their voices on behalf of other Afghan women risk a backlash — several female activists have gone missing. Four women who were detained for participating in a protest in Kabul in January were recently released following protests from U.N. Secretary General Antonio Guterres and others. In one high-profile case that has yet to be resolved, Alia Azizi, a former senior female prison official from Herat, has been missing since October. Taliban authorities have offered no information about her condition or whereabouts.
“Until now, I had only heard about the Taliban’s brutality from my parents. But I had never imagined that we would see it for ourselves in this way,” Mahnaz said, referring to the missing activists. “The Taliban have not changed.”
What has changed is how she — along with millions of Afghan girls and young women — see their lives and imagine their futures.
Before the return of the Taliban, when she wasn’t reading, Mahnaz would spend her free time indulging in another hobby that she hoped might become her profession: acting. She had already won small roles in local soap operas. Her plan, she told Grid, was to pursue film studies at university, and then try to make it in the world of entertainment.
Now she has consigned those ambitions to the back of her mind, as she waits to see what happens next.
Under growing global pressure, the Taliban has said it will allow all girls back to school — but it is unclear exactly when it will do so and how many girls will be able to return. Some universities have recently reopened with the inclusion of a small number of female students who must adhere to new rules separating them from their male counterparts, according to reports. Perhaps because of the Taliban’s record and history of terrorizing women, many students have refused to return to classes — and those who have returned remain concerned. Speaking to the AFP news agency in early February, one female student expressed both happiness and trepidation as she was allowed to return to her university in eastern Nangarhar province: “It is a moment of joy for us that our classes have started,” she said. “But we are still worried that the Taliban might stop them.”
In Kabul, Mahnaz told Grid she doesn’t believe the Taliban will ever allow her and her classmates back to school. And even if it moderates its stance for a short period, she said she worries about other hurdles down the line — getting a university education, finding work, and making a life for herself as an independent, professional woman.
“Now I don’t know about any of it,” she said about her dreams. “I can’t even describe what I feel about tomorrow or next year. I cannot think of the right words. I feel helpless and hopeless. But that doesn’t even begin to describe my feelings.”