Dispatch: The Plight of Women in Afghanistan
“Afghan women are no longer in cages. We will hold our heads high and continue to fight for our rights and dignity.”
-Shahla Zaland, Musician and Singer
Saira Saleem, a 23-year-old journalist from Jalalabad, divides her life into two parts: before and after America’s 2021 pullout from Afghanistan. Her voice cracks with grief as she confesses that many people in her country have expressed suicidal thoughts — a concept deeply frowned upon in Islamic societies.
Before the US left, “life was good. We participated in the government, and we worked in every field. Now, it is very hard to work outside [without harassment],” said Saleem, who no longer works as a journalist but as a mental health-counselor for an NGO. “Women can’t attend university unless they wear a full burqa. And the humanitarian situation is so bad.”
It’s been almost a year since the US finally withdrew from Afghanistan on Aug. 30 after occupying the country for more than two decades. The Biden administration’s hasty removal of US troops led to chaotic scenes at Kabul’s international airport, with Afghans clamoring to leave before the Taliban took over. At least 170 people and 13 American service members were killed by twin ISIS-K suicide bombs at the airport’s gates. And while more than 100,000 Afghans were airlifted out of the country, it is believed that up to 80,000 Afghan allies who worked in some capacity to support the US mission are still left in limbo.
Now, for the millions of women and girls left behind, the place no longer feels like home. Their nation has been plunged into antiquity, back to a time when women were relegated to a dank basement, their faces buried beneath a sea of burqas. In May, the Vice and Virtue Ministry of the Taliban ordered all women in the country to cover themselves head to toe, including female TV news anchors.
Taliban leaders have also banned girls from going to school beyond grade six. Although they say they believe in women’s rights and want to return girls to education, they claim they must first ensure that females are transported to school separately and safely from males, and appropriate uniform policies are established. None of this has happened yet.
Women who had once led dynamic lives in public institutions have disappeared from view. Dreams of reaching the top echelons of business, sports and education have vanished, replaced by the fundamental struggle to survive day after day.
Asyeah Jasoor, a 22-year-old human rights activist from the once heavy-resistance enclave of Panjshir, said her existence has been upended since the takeover last August.
[The Taliban] stop you and ask you where is your mahram [escort], and women cannot go out freely after 8 p.m.,” she said. “Previously, we were going to supermarkets during this time, but now the Taliban stops you and wants to know where you are going.”
Before the withdrawal, “I had a job. I was going to university for my studies, and all my brothers and sisters had jobs and were studying,” she said. “Now, everything has stopped. Right now, the life cannot be called a life. Yet somehow, we are forced to live it.”
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