This month marks the first anniversary of the Taliban’s return to power in Afghanistan. But in a country crushed by unprecedented humanitarian crisis, there isn’t much to celebrate. Countless jobs lost, the banking system in turmoil, and half the population—nearly 20 million people—suffering from dangerously high levels of food insecurity. To some, the takeover feels like a death sentence in a country already on its knees after decades of war and climate change-driven droughts.
For women, the regime change has manifested in myriad ways. Many of those working in government offices have lost their jobs, and tens of thousands of teenage girls are now barred from school. As women’s rights activist Mary Akrami recently told me, “We lost 20 years of achievements and effort.” It can be hard to make sense of it all.
While on assignment for ELLE, I sat down with three women in Afghanistan whose lives have been turned upside down over the last year. We are withholding their last names for safety purposes. Roshana, a former employee for the Ministry for Women’s Affairs, is searching for a better future after being furloughed. Malalai, a fashion brand manager, fears for her life after narrowly escaping the Kabul airport attack. Zahra, the wife of a Taliban member, is working to make ends meet in her conservative community.
Though Roshana, Malalai, and Zahra all lead vastly different lives, they have one thing in common: resiliency. From fighting to hold a job to protecting their families at all costs, here is what these women had to say about their new realities.
For Roshana, the last year has been a living nightmare. She was sent home when the Taliban replaced the Ministry for Women’s Affairs, where she worked for 20 years, with their own Ministry for the Propagation of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice. “Now women have nowhere to go to speak about their problems,” Roshana tells me while sipping her tea quietly from a house in Kabul. At first, she helped organize protests with other female employees in front of the ministry, which is now occupied solely by men. She would fearlessly chant: “The ministry was ours first, we will not give it to Taliban!” and “Please give our ministry back so we can be the voice of Afghan women!” But today Roshana seems like a shadow of herself. She is tired, and scared. Technically she has not been fired, but sent to wait at home—indefinitely.
Every week, Roshana goes to sign a presence sheet in the parking lot of what used to be her office so that she can receive her monthly salary of approximately $125. “I worked so hard for the people of Afghanistan, and I lost everything,” she says. “I wanted women to have a place in all parts of society, including in politics.” While she is not allowed inside the ministry, her male colleagues can come and go as part of the Ministry of Vice and Virtue, which focuses on limiting women’s rights rather than protecting them.
Roshana has seen her life’s achievements turn to ashes, especially when it comes to helping survivors of domestic violence. Roshana fears retribution from the men who resent her work at the Ministry for Women’s Affairs. “Some [men] who killed their wives call [me] and ask why I wanted to put them in jail, others ask information about shelters and where their wives are,” she explains. “I changed my phone number.” Roshana tried to escape the country, but never received any replies from foreign agencies. She fears for her safety, but more so for her daughters, who are university students. She tells me that she is so desperate to leave Afghanistan, because her girls “don’t have a future here anymore.”
A manager for a fashion brand with fierce eyes and a killer sense of style, Malalai represents the many young women who pushed the envelope with dreams and careers that were unimaginable before 2001—and unimaginable again now. “It was already difficult before the return of the Taliban, because Afghan culture doesn’t accept that women could be very fashionable, or that they could work as a model,” Malalai explains, sitting in her family home in Kabul and wearing her favorite clothing item, a stunning jacket embroidered with gold pattern. “Now it has become even more difficult.” The Taliban, “wants us to have full hijab with just our eyes visible,” Malalai adds, “like putting a bird in a cage.”
Although she studied medicine, Malalai had always dreamed of working in fashion. Her job at ZAAN—a local brand with an innovative take on traditional Afghan designs—was like a dream came true. “We had more than 20 women doing embroidery, and I could choose the patterns, draw designs, and choose the colors,” she remembers with a smile. But Malalai comes from an ultra-conservative, rural area. Her relatives there are affiliated with the Taliban. “My uncle and cousins did not like my job, or that I worked with foreigners,” she recounts, explaining that most of ZAAN’s clients, as well as its creator, were foreign. “They came to my home once and reacted very badly, asking why I did not work in a hospital and why not with Afghan people.”
When the Taliban arrived in Kabul, ZAAN closed and Malalai not only lost her job—but also any protection she had against men she fears could hurt her, especially under a regime that reinforces their beliefs. She says that her life as she dreamed it is now over—and so are the dreams of her sister, who wanted to become a pilot. Now, she can’t even go to school. When Malalai tried to escape the country, she and her sister were put on a list to be evacuated to Greece. At the airport, where total chaos was unfolding, she was not let in. After a night spent waiting outside in the crowd, she says a member of the Taliban hit her and broke her arm. When she came back from the hospital, the explosion happened: a suicide bombing orchestrated by the Islamic state that killed at least 183 persons. Malalai still has nightmares from that day. Since then, she has been hiding at home, desperate to flee the country, even if it means leaving her family behind: “It is not important where I go. I just [want to go] any place where I am safe, and where women have rights.”
The change of government has brought some relief for Zahra. As the wife of a Taliban member and the sister of four others, she never feared them. What she did fear were the night raids conducted by the U.S. government and their allies, which killed both fighters and civilians in the impoverished rural area where she lives. “In Kabul, women like the Americans—but here they were very bad,” she remembers, seating on the floor in her house. Foreign intervention brought violence to her community, and she suffered greatly because of it. Zahra says she still has psychological issues stemming from when U.S. soldiers came to her home looking for her husband. “They would remove [my] kids’ clothes and make them stand naked in the snow,” Zahra says. “They said they’d kill my [9-year-old] son if I did not show them where my husband was.” To the world, the mujahideen (or Taliban fighters) were the enemy. But to Zahra, they were her family.
While Afghan women in urban areas saw great strides over the last decade, women in rural areas have not. Like many other women in the conservative countryside, Zahra never worked. Her duties include taking care of her house and children. Her husband, who is about her age, works as a farmer and a driver now. “He is kind and respects me,” she says, fearing misunderstanding. When I visit, her house is full of laughter, and her family is happy to be together despite crushing poverty.
As Afghanistan’s economy continues to deteriorate under Taliban rule, Zahra wishes she could move to Kabul. She is tired of her life in the village. “Before [the Taliban took over] there was fighting—but now we have to fight poverty,” she says. Her life rotates around the same activities: “We sell the milk and yogurt from the cow. I take care of the children and the house. I cook.” The worst part of her life, she says, is the smoke from the bread oven in the courtyard, which makes her cough. Zahra suffers from asthma and other health issues, but when she goes to Kabul for treatment, the prices are always far above her means. Now that her village is safe, her daughters go to primary school in the nearby mosque. “Najiba is first in her class” she says proudly, “but she complains that we have no books.” Zahra hopes her daughters will study in Kabul to become doctors or midwives one day, and “serve their homeland.” But as Afghanistan sinks further into poverty, that dream seems less and less likely. If nothing changes, Zahra will never move to Kabul, and neither will her daughters.
Elise is a Kabul-based journalist and photographer. She moved to Afghanistan four years ago, and has been living there ever since—traveling across the country to report on the ground for international media outlets.