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How we live now: Afghanistan’s women speak

With the fall of Kabul on August 15 2021 and the Taliban’s reinstatement of the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan, women across the country had to find ways to cope with their lives being turned upside down swiftly and unexpectedly. 

A group of women writers aged 22 to 60, from different provinces and ethnic groups, found reassurance by creating an online diary, shared via a messaging app and facilitated by Untold, a small UK-based organisation working with writers marginalised in society by community or conflict.

The following excerpts from this collective diary — which now comprises more than 1,500 entries and 200,000 words — mark the anniversary of the fall of Kabul, and reveal both what has changed in the past year and what hasn’t.

These are women on the cultural front line. Their diary is an archive of yet another milestone in the volatile history of Afghanistan. 

A university student at home in Kabul in October 2021 © Zohra Bensemra/Reuters

As the Taliban enter Kabul, the women begin messaging back and forth, exchanging information and advice

Fatema

August 15 2021, 08:08

The Taliban have entered our area. They held a jirga [gathering] with the locals and said, “We have no business with you girls, as long as you obey the Islamic hijab.” 

Are you all OK?

Samira

August 15 2021, 08:09

They are lying. They said the same thing in Herat. 

Fatima H

August 15 2021, 08:24

We are in Herat. I don’t think I can go to university again. 

Marie

August 15 2021, 08:37

One of the girls left a diary message saying that the Taliban had started a house-to-house search, so it would be best to destroy any documents showing that you have worked with foreign organisations. This message was like a sledgehammer — we spent the day putting all our family’s books and documents in a bucket for my father to set fire to. I burnt all my books about journalism and politics. As each sheet was burning, I felt as if a part of me was burning. I have to destroy with my own hands the things that I value the most. I have to trample on them for my survival.

Batool

August 15 2021, 08:54

Ladies who are in Kabul, stay calm and don’t go out. I pray nothing happens in Kabul. I believe they will speak in the presidential palace soon and we will know what’s happening. 

Mariam 

August 15 2021, 09:00

Why have they cut media networks if nothing is going on?

Nargis

August 16 2021, 02:09

Tomorrow is the last day of my two young daughters’ exams. I have to decide whether to let them go to school. It’s a very difficult decision. They want to go. They think it will be their last day at school and that they will be prisoners at home after that, but if they leave the house, they might be whipped.

I decided to be brave and let them go. In the afternoon I heard rumours that the Taliban had reached the gates of Kabul. How would I bring my girls home? The road was blocked. The journey that would normally take 20 minutes took them five hours. Although it is daylight, darkness has spread. For girls and women it is like 20 years ago. 

Girls doing schoolwork at home in Kabul, October 2021 © Zohra Bensemra/Reuters

The Taliban set about implementing policies that limit women’s and girls’ access to education and healthcare, and their freedom of movement and expression

Zainab

August 15 2021, 19:57

I boil some water and add a little dishwashing liquid. I go through my notebooks and manuscripts one by one and soak them in the hot water. My father told me that the ashes of all these books cannot be hidden, but if you soak them in foamy water and then wash them like clothes, no trace of your writings will be left. Now that the Taliban are here, my words are just a pile of rubbish. 

Fatema

september 8 2021, 14:54

The Taliban have banned women from university campuses. All their promises were lies. I can’t bear to be caged. I want to be free, study, travel, work, laugh out loud. I have to run away from here, a place where they break a promise every day.

Naeema

september 18 2021, 15:23

One of my nieces says that her husband’s attitude towards her has changed. He tells her that her voice could be heard with the previous government because the whole world stood by her. But now she has to obey his commands. She also says that he used to listen to her when they discussed an issue, but now he replies, “You have no business discussing these matters, just stick to cooking and cleaning.” But they are not to blame. When the authorities act against you, the public will also settle personal scores. 

Nargis

september 18 2021, 17:31

I opened the cupboard and took out the bag with my indigo chadari [Afghan-style burka] in. I bought it 25 years ago with the money for household shopping, when the then regime made chadari mandatory for women.

When I was tidying the cupboard just a few days before August 15, I took out the chadari to throw it away — I hadn’t worn it in 20 years. I left it outside but no one touched it, so I took it back to the wardrobe.

I put it on today and left for a trip with my son, worried and anxious.

Zainab 

October 7 2021, 13:56

I know that cleanliness and style are not so important any more.

Today, I walked down a dirty alley towards Pul-e-Surkh Square, the dust settling on the base of my thigh with each step. I continued carelessly on my way, and came across a crowd. Three Taliban members riding in a red Corolla had stopped a girl and were yelling at her. The crowd, mostly men, stood watching. The girl, whose white headphones were sticking out of her black scarf, looked scared. I asked the boy who was standing next to his fruit cart what was going on and he said the girl had style, and so the Taliban had stopped her.

I said, “But only some of her hair shows.”

He said, “No, she was wearing trousers and her cuffs were folded up. She’s also wearing headphones. It’s good what they have done to her.”

I held my head down, thinking cleanliness and style are now a crime. We have to be dirty. 

Nargis

March 23 2022, 14:47

Today is a special day. The girls are thrilled to be going to school. I feel worried and happy for them at the same time. My daughter has the same feeling as me. She is not saying anything but I can see the worry on her face. No one has an appetite but I tell them to eat and drink so they don’t get hungry later. Out of the window, I see girls in school uniforms with bags on their shoulders. It is a very beautiful scene. I thank God.

Two hours later, there is a knock on the door. It’s the girls, crying. They say they went to their classroom, but the teacher told them to go home. “We were all surprised. We said no. Everyone said, ‘We want to study. We don’t want to go home.’” Then, they said, the headteacher came to the class to say that the government has made a new decision. They all cried, but it was no use. 

Nargis

May 23 2022, 14:37

Kabul is without electricity for a third day. All the apartments in my block have modern toilets and bathrooms, but all the residents are looking for water. My son managed to find a gallon — not enough, but better than nothing — and carried it up to the fourth floor. I felt sorry for him — he was so out of breath. I wished that one gallon was enough water for the whole family. 

Much electricity comes to Afghanistan from neighbouring countries, and the government owes them money. What will happen if these debts are not paid? 

Women march through the Dasht-e-Barchi district of Kabul in protest at the Taliban’s announcement of an all-male interim government last September © Marcus Yam/Polaris/Eyevine

Some of the women join public protests against Taliban rule. Others carry out small personal acts of resistance

Mariam

august 16 2021, 07:32

My sister’s classmates were told to stop writing on social media. 

Batool

august 16 2021, 7:33

They said the same thing to me. I said, “Go to hell.”

Zainab

august 20, 2021, 16:40

I heard the voice of a woman from the other side of the door, talking to a neighbour. She was saying, “Sister, the Taliban won’t bother you or me. We didn’t hold a position in the government. We didn’t work with foreigners.” 

The other neighbour agreed. “You’re right. We were wearing the chadari anyway, so nothing has changed. They won’t bother us at all. The others should also sit at home so the Taliban leave them alone.”

I asked myself, “So what sets me apart from them?” I got dressed and put on my red lipstick in protest.

Zainab

september 8 2021, 16:25

Today, I became a character from one of my stories. I gave an interview, looked into the merciless eyes of the Taliban, and chanted slogans of freedom and political inclusion.

While we were in the area, the Taliban looked at us greedily. One of them was walking up and down like a wolf in a cage. Whenever we protested loudly, he would point his gun at us, placing his finger on the trigger. But every time, someone from their group would come and pull him aside. I knew that if he had the orders, he would have emptied his gun without hesitation.

If I stay alive, I will be proud of my courage and remember that I stood for freedom and against injustice. I feel I know more and can write better after my experience today.

Fatema

september 8 2021, 16:29

I hope you are OK, Zainab. I am proud of you.

Zainab

september 8 2021, 16:37

Thank you, dear Fatema, I am fine.

Parand

february 2 2022, 16:04

Today I woke up in a better mood. Choosing what to wear to the office, I picked up a pink scarf to fight the black that I wear from head to toe every day. But it is not easy to fight darkness. When the office car was turning through the streets, we were stopped at a checkpoint. A Talib whose hair was longer than mine asked the driver to roll down the window.

He pointed at me out of the corner of his eye and asked who I was. I began to shiver like a rice field blown by the wind. The driver, who was also scared, slowly said, “She is our colleague.”

Pointing at me, the Talib said, “Tell her to dress appropriately. Advise her.” The driver, who wanted to get rid of him, agreed.

When the car moved away, my emotions changed like the wind. Fear gave way to anger. I felt humiliated. Was a long, head-to-toe black dress not enough? Was wearing a coloured scarf my sin? Why do they act against women? What other forms of humiliation will we witness in the coming days?

Batool

march 18 2022, 06:27

Is this a women’s gathering? No. We’ve changed how we protest. We went to Kabul’s Bagh-e Chihil Sutun [a park], and while pretending to have a picnic we chanted slogans about women’s rights to the foreign and domestic media who we had invited.

After the reporters left, Taliban vehicles arrived at the gates of the park. I don’t know who had reported us, but thanks to some of the girls we were able to negotiate. Being with these brave girls was a very interesting but scary experience, because I got close up to the Taliban soldiers for the first time.

We’ve made detailed plans for next week. We’re going through a difficult time, but we have hope. Long live the women! Afghan girls are brave and courageous.

An application form of a woman hoping to flee Afghanistan © David Goldman/AP Photo

Some of the women manage to leave Afghanistan. Others are unable to, or have chosen to stay 

Marie

september 10 2021, 11:32

I am struggling to find a way out. I sent text messages to all the organisations I have worked for to see if they can evacuate me, but I received no response. I am angry, disappointed and exasperated. I feel as if a gland like a ball is moving between my throat and heart. Every time it comes up, I swallow it to hide my despair. Our house is full of relatives coming and going. They are terrified, hopeless and helpless. They plead with me: “You are educated and know how to find a way out. Do something for us too.”

These requests just add to my pain. Each time someone asks me to try to get them on the list of evacuees, I am shaken to my core. I can’t say that I am unable to help them, because I know how it would crush them.

Marie

october 15 2021, 15:00

I tell my father that I am probably flying next week. His eyes sparkle. He laughs and says, “Thank God. I wish you a good trip.” He asks me about the details of the journey.

I feel that he is pretending to be happy. I say, “It’s still not too late. I won’t go if you don’t want me to.” He says, “No, go. You don’t have a future here any more. Go and follow your own life and dreams. We are here. We’ll be together again if we’re meant to be. If not, I leave you in the hands of God.” His words break my heart. I feel sad because I am losing my family so easily. I say to myself, “We are never at peace; not in the past, not now, and maybe not in the future.”

Parand

january 31 2022, 14:52

I fail everywhere I go. If I want to get a passport, the passport office is closed. If I want to get a birth certificate, they tell me the population registration department is no longer working. It’s the same when I approach the court to register my marriage. All doors are closed to us these days. We are Taliban hostages unconditionally. How sad it is to feel like a prisoner in your homeland.

Nargis

may 23 2022, 14:37

Most of the officials of the former government are hiding. But is hiding the solution? We’re all worried at home. We have to make a decision. I spoke with my husband about finding a way to leave the country. I make contact with friends who are in other provinces of Afghanistan. I ask them what they are doing. They tell me they are trapped like mice. We often thought this day would come, but we did not expect it to come so soon.

Balloons attached to a bike on a Kabul street, November 2021 © Zohra Bensemra/Reuters

One year on from the fall of Kabul, 10 out of 18 contributors have left Afghanistan. Determined to stay connected, they continue to share their thoughts and experiences

Fatima S, US

september 10 2021, 10:07

Everyone is texting me to say how lucky I was to get out. What are they talking about? I don’t feel this so-called happiness and luck. The other day, a woman named Tanya came to my door and invited me to sit with her. She held my hands in her hands, closed her eyes and started to pray, “Lord, I pray for the health and safety of Fatima’s family . . . ” Her eyes were closed but tears were flowing from them. I was looking at her in amazement. How can a stranger and non-Muslim shed tears and pray for a stranger so sincerely?

Marie, Germany

november 6 2021, 11:31

Today is my birthday and my first day in Germany. It’s an interesting coincidence. I check my messages. My mother has sent me a picture of a cake with “Happy Birthday” written on it. I am both happy and sad. I wish that time could bring us back together safe and sound. I also wish for nobody to experience migration. These are my only wishes. 

Zainab, UAE

January 15 2022, 12:46

The migrants say that the Abu Dhabi [refugee] camp used to be a military camp. That is why it has alarms and iron doors. The days and nights are difficult. I understand what it feels like to be a prisoner, and I realise that freedom is more valuable than anything else in the world. I had heard and read about imprisonment, but hearing and reading are not the same as experiencing it.

Several doctors and nurses came to my room and asked, “Are you not depressed?”

I replied, “Why do you ask?”

“Because you’ve left your country and your family.”

I said “No”, but then realised that tears were flowing from the corners of my eyes. I had no idea how I really felt.

All writers’ names have been changed

Untold’s ‘Write Afghanistan’ project is supported by the Bagri Foundation and the British Council. An anthology of these writers’ short stories, ‘My Pen Is the Wing of a Bird: New Fiction by Afghan Women’, was published by MacLehose Press in February. These extracts from the diary are translated from Pashto and Dari by Dr Negeen Kargar, Dr Zubair Popalzai and Khoshhal Taib

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