Portraits of fear and loss

Taliban rule through the eyes of four women in Afghanistan

Nothing is truly the same in Afghanistan for many women whose lives were turned inside out last summer. The spaces that were once theirs in Kabul and other cities — classrooms, jobs, even the streets themselves — are no longer in their hands. The Taliban is now in charge.

Women who had been active in public life have hunkered down in hiding. With the economy tanking, dreams of running businesses and getting degrees have been replaced with the daily struggle to survive.

Restrictions permeate nearly every aspect of women’s lives, despite Taliban promises to protect their rights.

Secondary schools remain closed for girls and women.

Their faces are disappearing from public life. Some didn’t even wait for Taliban orders to act. In August, at one hair salon in Kabul, photos of women on window posters were blacked over in advance to avoid attracting the militants’ attention. In November, women were banned from appearing in television dramas.

Last month, taxi drivers were told not to accept women wishing to travel more than 45 miles without a male chaperone. But in a time of fear and uncertainty, some have faced problems walking alone even for short distances in their neighborhoods.

The Washington Post interviewed four women over the past four months through weekly phone calls and regular WhatsApp messages. They shared photos and videos of their lives, which informed the illustrations in this story.

The women are all Shiite, a group long persecuted by the Taliban. As urban, minority women who grew up in the past two decades they had some of the most to gain, with opportunities opening up in education and work. Now that the Taliban is back, they may have the most to lose.

This story is based on the women’s personal accounts, which echo wider reporting on Taliban controls since regaining power. Three of the women, Sajida, K and Pahlawan, live in Kabul; Aliya, a university lecturer, was in the country’s north. They spoke on the condition that only an initial, nickname or first name be used because of fears for their safety.

After the Taliban took power, some women tried to push back. A week after the northern city of Mazar-e Sharif fell, Aliya, a 27-year-old university lecturer, felt her past life slipping away.

“I am waiting, staring at the ceiling, waiting for what will be decided for us,” she said.

She had applied for the U.S. green card lottery when she was studying in Iran in 2019. When she won a year later, her feelings were mixed. With it came the promise of more freedom, but she felt an urge to teach women in her home country.

That in itself now felt like an act of resistance. “I must be here,” she said. “I want to say: I’m here, I’m active.”

In early September, the university where she worked circulated rules for returning to classes from the Ministry of Education for the “Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan” — the name used by the Taliban for the country when it was previously in power, from 1996 to the 2001 U.S.-led invasion.

“All students and staff are required to observe the religious hijab,” the circular said. “It should be black in color.”

An example sent alongside showed a long, black abaya more typical of that worn in the Persian Gulf, with a head and face covering, black socks and gloves.

Aliya balked.

She decided to push the boundaries and wear her normal style, which is religiously conservative, but colorful. She said administrators sent her home to change.

And while she returned to teaching, she said her students did not. Some had left, some were too frightened.

“I go to university because I do not want the rights of these students to be lost,” Aliya said. “Otherwise I would not be able to wake up every day from the despair and depression.”

In Kabul, Pahlawan and her friends were mobilizing protests against the Taliban. It started on Facebook, Telegram and WhatsApp.

“I wanted to be involved in a peaceful protest,” said Pahlawan, 20, a poet and photography student. She didn’t tell her parents that she was going to the first one. The Taliban, she recalled, used tear gas, but there were no beatings. Her confidence grew.

On Sept. 8, she went again, even though her father had asked her not to.

The Taliban took out pieces of rubber hose to beat away the crowd, she recounted the next day. When she dropped her cellphone and bent to pick it up, she said, one member of the Taliban lashed her across her back.

Her father forbade her from going to any more protests. They became less frequent anyway.

K heard of her neighbors being robbed by armed men. Her aunt whispered of people she knew taken in the dark and never seen again. Her uncle said a severed head appeared in the gutter outside his house. They told her they believed the man had worked for the former government.

“I haven’t gone out because of the fear,” K said in September, a month after the Taliban had taken power. A younger woman with no male family members in Kabul, she thought if she went outside alone, she would become an instant target. “If we need groceries, my mom will go out to buy those.”

Before the Taliban took over, K worked as a kindergarten teacher and for the former government’s Ministry of Interior Affairs. She would go to dinner parties and lift weights at the gym. Now unable to work, she waited at home afraid, hoping to one day join her brother and his family, who are in the United States under a special immigrant visa.

One day in October, she said she saw two men taken from her neighbor’s house. “They weren’t even working with the government,” she said. “But they were Hazaras,” referring to the ethnic Shiite group.

The women followed by The Washington Post all feared a return to the old days of targeting linked to their faith. K, Sajida and Pahlawan are also from the Hazara minority group, long persecuted by the Taliban, while Aliya is from the tiny Sadat minority, which has suffered similar discrimination.

“I don’t think there’s a safe place for Shiite people in Afghanistan anymore,” K said after a bombing in mid-October that killed dozens of worshipers at Shiite mosques in the cities of Kandahar and Kunduz. The attack in Kunduz was claimed by the Islamic State.

A terrorist attack in Kabul killed her father when she was a child. But she said she has never felt more in danger or trapped.

“All the doors are closed on Afghans,” she said.

In the aftermath of the bombing in Kandahar, a city renowned for its pomegranates, Pahlawan penned a poem comparing the slain prayergoers to the red fruit:

On Aug. 16, the last day of classes at her university, students received an email: Sessions would be canceled as Taliban militants had entered Kabul.

“I am as worried about all of you as I am about my own family,” one of Sajida’s professors wrote in an email to his students, which she shared with The Post. “Please take care of yourself while we go through this unexpected change.”

Sajida, 23, had expected to receive her diploma. She wanted to get her master’s degree abroad and one day become an Afghan business executive.

“Now my dream in Afghanistan is to stay alive,” she said. “My family and my safety is important for me.”

Sajida said she spends most of her time at home, preparing dinner as her brothers go off to school each day. She was able to continue working for a nongovernmental organization that helps pregnant women receive education and care.

In November, desperate for some return to normalcy, Sajida took a risk and went into the office. It felt comforting to return to her workspace again. But not everything was back to normal. Her father came with her as an escort.

“I am afraid to travel alone,” she said.

Pahlawan spent the days knitting and laying out tomatoes to dry on the roof.

K took to gardening.

K, who lives at home with her mother, found the monotony unbearable.

“I feel trapped,” she said one October day. “I don’t have much to do at home.”

She said she and her mother listened to the radio and watched television, but their favorite soap opera from Turkey was no longer available.

The music that had once filled Afghan cities, blaring from ice-cream shops and restaurants, was gone.

Pahlawan’s days had once been full: teaching illiterate women in the mornings and studying in the afternoons. She also worked at a radio station. But her independence had been erased.

Her fears were realized one day in November when she was out with her mother. They were out without a male escort, known as a mahram. A pickup truck stopped in front of them, she recalled in tearful voice notes on the day, and in later phone calls.

“What are you doing here?” she remembered the Taliban gunman asking. She said her mom had high blood pressure and needed to walk.

“What is your job?” another asked.

She froze. She had a mask on, but had spoken on television at the protests.

One of the men was getting closer to Pahlawan and her mother raised the bottle of water in her hand to hit him away. But he hit her mother in the face first, with a purple bruise rising instantly. Her mother begged the men to forgive them, she said, with the Taliban responding: “This should be the last time you roam around without a mahram. Get lost.”

Pahlawan’s father had never been completely supportive of her goals in life. He wanted her to keep her head down and give up on photography and journalism. They argued more. Her emails to foreign embassies have led nowhere.

“Unfortunately, I’m not so good,” she sobbed into the phone. She busied herself trying to raise money for projects to help increasingly destitute families in her neighborhood.

Sajida had similar feelings of despair.

“I am lost. I have lost my motivation and energy I had before,” she said. “Now, I just think of peace and security.”

For Aliya, an appointment for an interview at the U.S. Embassy in Islamabad, Pakistan, pinged through her inbox in late September.

She made it across the border, but as she escaped she said she felt numb. She cried for her family, and her country. With a U.S. visa eventually in hand, she finally made it on a plane to San Francisco to stay with family friends near Sacramento.

“I finally arrived after a journey full of weariness and pain in a place where I always wished to be,” she said.

It’s only when she hears the news from home that the sadness creeps back.

For the women in Kabul, the situation is worsening as winter sets in. Food has become more scarce and heat more expensive. Pahlawan said her family’s savings are running out. They have cut back on meals and buy less bread, because it’s too expensive. From her window, K watches people burn plastic and old boots because they don’t have fuel. “People have gotten sick from it,” she said.

The days ahead now seem a reminder of lost dreams.

About this story

The reporting in this story is based on the women’s personal accounts. Reporters Ruby Mellen and Loveday Morris stayed in touch with the women over four months with weekly phone calls and regular WhatsApp messages. The illustrations in this piece are based on photos and videos shared by them. Some of the women used nicknames or initials out of fear for their safety.

Credits: Editing by Reem Akkad, Jennifer Amur and Brian Murphy. Design and development by Yutao Chen. Illustrations by Roshi Rouzbehani. Animation by Emma Kumer. Design and illustration editing by Suzette Moyer and Brian Gross. Translation by Mahnaz Rezaie. Copy editing by Karen Funfgeld. Photography by Helynn Ospina. Photo editing by Olivier Laurent.

Loveday Morris is The Washington Post's Berlin bureau chief. She was previously based in Jerusalem, Baghdad and Beirut for The Post.
Ruby Mellen reports on foreign affairs for the Washington Post.