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.”
Afghanistan has around 40 public universities, and while most have reopened, not all cater to both genders. And the universities that have dared to remain open to women have implemented a variety of restrictions, Jasoor said.
“They changed our class times” to too early mornings and alternating days, “and most of us could not go all the time so most of the girls have stopped going,” she said. “They enforced the black hijab on us — a black hijab in this hot weather and also the burqa.”
During the day, women can still roam around — although many choose not to — and they are forbidden from traveling to “faraway places,” typically considered more than 45 miles from their home, without male supervision, Jasoor said.
Shafia, a 33-year-old filmmaker who asked that her last name not be published, lived under the US occupation all her life. Now she hides at home, her throat rising in panic when anyone knocks on the door.
“Before the Taliban came to Kabul, I had a completely normal life and lived as a citizen,” she said. “Now everything is broken, and there is no hope at all. There is no freedom. I am always afraid that I will be imprisoned under any pretext.”
Afghans, she said, now live under “the law of the jungle.”
According to the UN’s World Food Program (WFP), 75% of Afghans spend what little money they have on food, and more than 80% of families are in debt. Afghanistan’s economy, which had been almost entirely supported by foreign aid during the occupation, immediately collapsed once the final cadre of American troops departed.
Washington froze the assets of the Afghan central bank as soon as the Taliban returned to power. That meant that more than 80% of the country was suddenly without salaries in the early months of the new Taliban rule.
Prior to the August fall, government employees earned an average of around $700 per month. Salaries were then frozen and resumed late last year (including back pay) but monthly pay was — and continues to be — only half for women. Female employees are all earning a flat rate of $350 a month regardless of position or profession, while most men are receiving amounts closer to their previous wage, although it differs by ministry and jurisdiction.
For Rabia Niazi, a 38-year-old gender manager at the Afghan Supreme Court and a social activist for several women’s sports and rights groups, the salary reduction has hit hard. And she isn’t sure how long her position will remain.
“My mother is sick, and I cannot even afford to get proper treatment. With my current salary, I can’t afford to travel anyway. I can’t pay for a car rental or a course fee to strengthen my English skills,” she said. “We don’t have the money to travel to other countries, and Pakistan has increased the cost of the visa, so women can’t leave.”
Niazi is worried that the worst is yet to come.
“Twenty years of effort were put into women, and now we suffer from psychological problems. Women have lost jobs and are sitting at home worried about their future, their children, and what they can do,” she said. “Girls have been kidnapped, and now nobody knows where they are.”
Economic hardship has meant women and girls now face the risk of greater exploitation, such as sex and labor trafficking. Some families are forcing their daughters to marry to make ends meet through dowry money. Even one prominent women’s rights activist in Khost tearfully explained that her 8-year-old granddaughter has been promised to an older man for marriage as soon as she starts to menstruate, because the impoverished farming family has another six children to feed and little in the way of flourishing crops.
Meanwhile, it is estimated that up to 90% of the more than 2,000 health clinics that existed before the fall have closed due to a lack of funding and operational challenges, leaving just a small number to serve the country of 39 million. After a June earthquake killed 1,000 people near Kabul, Afghanistan did not even have enough medical supplies to treat the thousands of injured.
“The NGOs and donors are not here to help,” said Ahmad Naweed, the 30-year-old owner of a Kabul-based communications and information technology company.
Although roughly 39 international flights depart Kabul each week to destinations such as Islamabad, Dubai, Doha and Jeddah, only the very affluent and those with official documents can depart for good.
“Earlier, there was hope. In the beginning, everyone thought there would be a way out. Now the number of flights has decreased,” Ahmad said. “It is only people with money — people who can pay up to $20,000 who can find their way to France or Germany.”
Nevertheless, Afghan women still congregate on the streets from time to time, if for no other reason than to show they will not be put to shame.
“I don’t go out a lot now, only when we have demonstrations. Even though I cover myself fully, many pictures of me are out in the media, and I am afraid someone might recognize me and create problems,” said Niazi, adding that the Taliban continues to “fire in the air” to break up protests and detain women who are caught.
“It is a very bad situation. Fewer people now have the courage to demonstrate and have their voices heard. There is much stress and mental pressure.
“Do you think there is still someone out there who can help us?”