Foreign Correspondence

Foreign correspondence: The broken dreams of women in Kabul

As the three-year anniversary of the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan approaches, artists and elite sportswomen are trapped in their homes, their ambitions on hold

June 20, 2024
Afghanistan has been deemed the “worst” country in the world for the status of women and girls. Contributor: Associated Press / Alamy Stock Photo
Afghanistan has been deemed the “worst” country in the world for the status of women and girls. Contributor: Associated Press / Alamy Stock Photo

“I was thinking about my future and my dreams,” says Fahima*, a 23-year-old artist, talking to me over the phone. A year before the Taliban takeover, her life was incredibly different. She was enrolled at the Faculty of Fine Arts at Kabul University, where she had been studying and painting for almost four years, and was supposed to celebrate her graduation in 2021. 

Life in Kabul was already becoming more difficult for Fahima before it fell to the Taliban. In the months before the withdrawal of US troops she had to walk for hours each day to and from university, avoiding using public transport because the number of Taliban bombs attached to buses and cabs had rapidly increased. There were daily explosions in the city. But for Fahima the walk was worth it, because she felt alive and empowered through her studies, and she had started a small group of artists called the “Shadow Art Course” to teach others to paint as she did, on wood. She sold her paintings online, which allowed her to support herself financially. 

But now, Fahima’s workshop is closed, and her dreams of a better future are out of reach. She is stuck in Kabul, unable to leave Afghanistan despite trying many times. She spends most of her time at home and tells me that she feels depressed because her freedom of movement is restricted. She can’t meet her friends in cafes or on the university campus like she used to—or attend events happening around the city. Sharing cabs to move around Kabul has become more difficult as there is always a chance of being questioned by the Taliban at check points. Fahima shares her artwork on social media, which is not yet banned in the country, but the Taliban’s rise to power has shattered her dreams.

It is not only artists whose careers have been taken away. Zainab*, 29 years old and a mother of three, was a member of the national women’s volleyball team before the Taliban takeover. Marriage, childcare, and social obstacles didn’t stop her from pursuing sports, until the Taliban closed down the sports centre she trained in. Some of her teammates managed to leave the country in 2021, but Zainab, who was caring for her young children, couldn’t follow. Since then, she has not only lost her sporting career but has become housebound. She feels a deep sense of injustice: “Most women’s sports teams in Afghanistan have been moved to other countries to continue their activities. However, Afghanistan women’s national volleyball team members remain stuck at home across the country,” she tells me. 

She feels a deep sense of injustice

Twenty-year-old Zahra* was one Zainab’s teammates. She is also housebound now. Before the Taliban takeover, sports were a way for her to stay hopeful despite all the difficulties in life. “Both our families and society tried to stop us [playing],” she tells me. “Sometimes we didn’t even have money for transportation and food after practice.” Having overcome so many obstacles to gain a place in the national team, she is now devastated that her sporting career has met an abrupt end. 

Before the Taliban takeover, surveys suggest that Afghanistan was among the worst countries in the world in which to be a woman. Now, according to the Women’s Peace and Security Index, it is “the” worst. The rights of women to education have been severely restricted—and girls’ education beyond the age of 13 is now banned. Instead, madrassas (religious schools), which only preach the strict Taliban interpretation of Islam, are booming. This kind of education is fundamental to the Taliban regime—the word taliban is the plural form of talib meaning “student”.

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Some girls, barred from attending school, seek alternative ways to continue their education, such as online classes, secret schools, and chasing scholarship opportunities. A few organisations have established secret schools to educate girls of an age to attend secondary schools inside Afghanistan, both remotely and in-person. For example, Daricha School, a non-profit based in Canada, is providing home-schooling for girls in several of Afghanistan’s provinces where there is enough community support for girls’ education. Daricha supports former female schoolteachers to organise classes in their homes. Many women also work online, engage in skill building, vocational training and artwork, in defiance of the Taliban’s rules.

Kabul is increasingly becoming a ghost city

But attempts to fight for their rights in a more public way have been met with harsh repression. From the very first days of the Taliban takeover, women organised demonstrations in several provinces demanding naan, kaar, azaadi (food, work and freedom). However, these protests have become more sporadic and are now rare, with the most recent reported protests occurring in the Takhar, Badakhshan and Balkh provinces in February and March this year, tied to International Women’s Day. Since the Taliban takeover, some have been detained and there are even reports of male relatives being tortured to deter women from organising further demonstrations. 

I left Afghanistan for the Republic of Ireland in January 2022. But I hear from family and friends who remain there that Kabul is increasingly becoming a ghost city, where women’s presence in social life and public spaces is diminishing. Women are no longer allowed to sit in the front seat of shared taxis. Couples walking hand-in-hand are stopped by regular Taliban patrols and advised to behave according to vague notions such as “Islamic” and “Afghan norms” (this has happened to my older brother and his wife).  

Families discourage their young adult girls from going out, even to shop for essential needs, fearing that the Taliban morality police might arrest them. According to people I have talked to, girls are often taken to Taliban police stations to be questioned on their clothing, and they are not released until their elderly male family members have been summoned and made to give their commitment that they will control how the girl dresses in the future.

Despite the battle they face, the hope for freedom among women remains alive, and pockets of protests continue despite all the risks to protesters and their families and friends. Rights groups from Iran and Afghanistan are campaigning to expand the definition of apartheid in international law to include gender apartheid. They hope this will help bring an end to the de facto classification of women as second-class citizens in these two countries. Some have explored the possibility of bringing a case before the International Court of Justice under the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), to which Afghanistan is a party, but this action has yet to be launched.      

As an Afghan woman, I watch the situation in horror. While the world can wait to address the persecution of women in Afghanistan, the dreams of many women there are shattered. 

*names have been changed