It was late evening, Zahra, her mother, and three sisters were heading to dinner at another sister’s house when they heard gunshots and saw people running.
People screamed, “The Taliban are here!”
The 26-year old resident of Herat in Afghanistan, the third-largest, saw everything change in just a few seconds.
Zahra was raised in Afghanistan, which is mostly free of Taliban. There, women had the opportunity to pursue careers and girls could get an education. She has worked with local non-profit organizations for the past five year to increase awareness and push for gender equality.
Her dreams and ambitions came crashing down Thursday evening as the Taliban swept into the city, planting their white flags emblazoned with an Islamic proclamation of faith in a central square as people on motorcycles and in cars rushed to their homes.
Zahra’s parents, five siblings, and her five younger siblings, are all now indoors, too afraid to venture out, and anxious about the future. To avoid making her a target, the Associated Press did not identify her by her full surname.
Zahra, a young, round-faced and soft-spoken woman, said, “I’m in great shock.” “How is it possible that I, a woman who worked so hard to learn and progress, now have to hide and stay home?
The Taliban have taken control of more than two thirds of Afghanistan in the last few days. This is just two weeks before the U.S. plans on withdrawing its last troops. They are gradually closing in on Kabul, the capital.
According to the U.N. refugee agency, nearly 250,000 Afghans fled their homes since May’s end. This was due to fears that the Taliban would enforce their strict interpretation of Islam, which is threatening women’s rights. Women and children make up eighty percent of the displaced.
This fundamentalist group ruled the country from 2005 to 2001, when it was overthrown by the U.S. It forbade women to go to school and denied them the right to work. They also refused to allow them to travel without a male relative. Public executions were also performed by the Taliban, which chucked off thieves and stoned women who were accused of adultery.
No reports have been confirmed of any such extreme actions in the areas that Taliban fighters recently seized. However, militants are reported to have set fire to at most one school and taken over several houses.
Kabul’s park was transformed into a refuge for the displaced last week. Families told the AP that Friday saw girls returning home from the northern Takhar province in a motorized rickshaw were stopped by police and lashed because they were wearing “revealing sandals.”
One schoolteacher in the province stated that no one could go to the market alone without an escort. About 3,000 families, mainly from northern provinces, now live in tents within the park. Some also live on the sidewalks.
Zahra quit going to work about a month ago when the militants attacked Herat. She now works remotely from her home. On Thursday, Taliban fighters attacked the city’s defense lines and Zahra has not been able to work since.
She wept as she thought of the possibilities that she wouldn’t be allowed to return to work, that her 12-year old sister would be unable to go to school (“She loves learning”), that her older brother would be unable to play football or that she wouldn’t be free to play the guitar again. As she spoke, the instrument was hung behind her on a wall.
She listed some of the accomplishments made by women over the past two decades since the Taliban’s defeat — small but significant gains in a conservative society that is still heavily male-dominated. Girls now attend school and women work in government, Parliament and business.
Marianne O’Grady from Kabul, deputy country director of CARE International, stated that the achievements made by women in the last two decades are remarkable, especially in urban areas. She said she can’t see things returning to their current state, even with a Taliban overthrow.
She said, “You can’t educate millions of people.” Women who are “retarded behind walls” and unable to travel as far can still educate their children and their neighbours in ways that weren’t possible 25 years ago.
Yet, there is a feeling of dread, especially among women, as the Taliban force gains more territory every day.
Zarmina Kakar (26-year-old woman’s rights activist in Kabul) said, “I feel that we are like birds who build a nest for a living but then watch others destroy it.”
Kakar was one year old when the Taliban invaded Kabul in 1996. She recalled that her mother used to take her out for ice cream when the Taliban ruled. A Taliban fighter beat Kakar’s mother for showing her face for just a few minutes.
She stated, “Today again I feel that if Taliban get to power, we’ll return to the same dark times.”