“Are you familiar with something we call sadism?” Barakzai asked me when we spoke recently. “Like they don’t know why, but they are just trying to beat you, harm you, disrespect you. This is now [what] they enjoy. Even they don’t know the reason.”
She credits this moment for the birth of her life as an activist. Before Afghanistan’s capital descended into civil war in 1992, Barakzai had been studying hydrometeorology and geophysics at Kabul University. When the Taliban, then a relatively new militia, emerged victorious in 1996, Afghan women were forced to leave their studies. As Barakzai recovered from the beating, she made a decision: She would organize underground classes for girls at the sprawling apartment complex where she and her family lived, home to some 45 families. Barakzai would go on to help draft Afghanistan’s constitution and serve two terms in Parliament.
I first traveled to Afghanistan in May 2000, when I was 26 years old. I was living in India at the time, covering women’s issues in South Asia as a photojournalist, and I was curious about the lives of women living under the Taliban. Afghanistan was then emerging from 20 years of brutal conflict—first with the occupying Soviets, and then in a protracted civil war—that had left Kabul pockmarked and with little functioning infrastructure. In the mid-1990s, the Taliban had promised to bring an end to the violence, and many Afghans, exhausted from years of insecurity and relentless destruction, did not resist the Islamic-fundamentalist group. But peace came at the cost of many social, political, and religious freedoms.
By the time of my first visit, the Taliban had implemented its interpretation of Sharia, Islamic law. Education for women and girls was forbidden under almost all circumstances, and women (except for select, approved female doctors) were not allowed to work outside of the home or even leave the house without a male guardian. Women who did go out were required to wear burkas, a traditional modesty garment that fits tightly over the head and drapes all the way to the ankles, rendering a woman fully covered and unidentifiable in public. All forms of entertainment were banned for everyone: music, television, socializing between sexes outside the family. Most educated Afghans had already fled to neighboring Pakistan and elsewhere; those who stayed had to change their lives to conform to the dictates of the oppressive regime.
As a single American woman, I needed to find a way to move around Afghanistan with a stand-in husband, and to take photographs without being caught (photography of any living thing was forbidden under the Taliban). I made contact with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, which was one of the few international organizations still functioning in Afghanistan, and the Comprehensive Disabled Afghans Programme, a UN agency that sought to rehabilitate those injured by the many land mines spread across the country. The groups arranged for men to escort me, along with drivers and translators, through the provinces of Ghazni, Logar, Wardak, Nangarhar, Herat, and Kabul to surreptitiously photograph and interview Afghan women. I quickly learned the virtue of being a female photojournalist, despite the challenges: I had free access to women in spaces where men were culturally or legally prohibited to enter.
From May 2000 to March 2001, over the course of three separate trips, I traveled around with my cameras and film tucked away in a small bag, visiting private homes, women’s hospitals, secret schools for girls. I went to underground mixed-gender weddings where the Titanic soundtrack bounced off the concrete basement walls as men and heavily made-up women (with nail polish) danced around in a display of pure joy—a simple pleasure that was punishable by execution under the regime controlling the streets outside.
Perhaps the silence of life under the Taliban sits with me more than anything. There were very few cars, no music, no television, no telephones, and no idle conversation on the sidewalks. The dusty streets were crowded with widows who had lost their husbands in the protracted war; banned from working, their only means of survival was to beg. People were scared, indoors and out. Those who were brave enough to venture out spoke in hushed voices, for fear of provoking a Taliban beating for anything as simple as not having a long-enough beard (for a man) or a long-enough burka (for a woman), or sometimes for nothing at all. Shiny brown cassette tape fluttered from the trees and wires and signs and poles everywhere—a warning to those who dared to play music in private. Matches in Kabul’s Ghazi Stadium had been replaced with public executions on Fridays after prayer. Taliban officials used bulldozers or tanks to topple walls onto men accused of being gay. People who stole had their hand sliced off; accused adulterers were stoned to death.
During these trips, I witnessed the strength and resilience of Afghan women. I often asked myself what would become of Afghanistan if the Taliban fell. I imagined that the men and women who afforded me such great hospitality, humor, and strength would prosper, and that Afghans who had fled their country would finally be able to return home.
Months later came the attacks of September 11, 2001, and soon after that the American invasion of Afghanistan. The Taliban fell, and women quickly proved themselves invaluable to the work of rebuilding and running the country. There was a great rush of optimism, determination, and belief in the development and future of Afghanistan. But even as the Taliban disappeared back into the fabric of cities and villages, many of their conservative values, which had deep roots in Afghan society, persisted.
I photographed the defeat of the Taliban in Kandahar in late 2001, and returned to the country with my camera at least a dozen times in the subsequent two decades. From Kabul to Kandahar to Herat to Badakhshan, I photographed women attending schools, graduating from universities, training as surgeons, delivering babies, working as midwives, running for Parliament and serving in government, driving, training to be police officers, acting in films, working—as journalists, translators, television presenters, for international organizations. Many of them were dealing with the impossible balancing act of working outside the home while raising children; of being a wife, a mother, a sister, or a daughter in a place where women were cracking glass ceilings daily, and often at great peril.
One of the people I met on my trips was Manizha Naderi, a co-founder of Women for Afghan Women. For more than a decade in Afghanistan, her organization helped implement a network of shelters and family mediation, counseling, and legal-aid services for Afghan women who had family issues, were victims of abuse, or were in prison without representation. Naderi now lives with her family in New York. When we spoke recently, I asked her whether she thought things had gotten better for Afghan women over the past two decades.
“Absolutely,” she answered. “Before the U.S. invaded Afghanistan, there was nothing, no infrastructure, no legal system, no educational system, nothing there. And in the last 20 years, everything was re-created in the country, from education, to the legal system, to social, to economics … Women have gained everything. Not just women, but the Afghans in general have gained a lot.”
Now, of course, those gains appear to be disappearing. In the past week, the Taliban has taken over nearly every major city in the country; yesterday, forces swept into Kabul, and Afghan President Ashraf Ghani fled the country. Militants have opened the doors of the prisons and released thousands of prisoners, sent women home from work, and removed girls from schools. In the advance toward the capital, forces have destroyed medical facilities, killed civilians, and left thousands of Afghans displaced. Some claim that the Taliban has demanded that women from the villages it conquers marry its unwed fighters (though the group denies this allegation).
ot to know in Afghanistan, has poured her life into her country since the Taliban came to power in 1996. She, too, started a network of secret girls’ schools in the 1990s, in her home province of Badakhshan. Koofi was a member of Parliament from 2005 to 2019, and has been one of the people representing the Republic of Afghanistan in peace negotiations with the Taliban in advance of American troops’ departure from the country. When I first met her, in 2009, she was shuttling around Kabul, trailed by a small posse of male advisers and a security detail, returning home following long days in Parliament to a line of constituents at her doorstep pleading to voice their concerns about various issues. She was also raising two young daughters alone; her husband had died from tuberculosis in 2003, which he had contracted while imprisoned by the Taliban. Koofi seemed to never stop, or even tire. The Taliban has twice tried to assassinate her. She always carried around a handwritten letter to her daughters, just in case.
When I called Koofi a few weeks ago in Kabul, the Taliban was already gaining ground around the country. Koofi was skeptical of the group’s promises that it would continue to allow Afghan women their freedoms to study and work outside the home. She cited a complete disconnect between what the Taliban officials were saying during peace negotiations in Qatar and the human-rights abuses her contacts said their foot soldiers were carrying out on the ground. I asked if she was scared.
“Honestly, I’m not scared of being assassinated,” Koofi told me. “I’m afraid of the country once again falling into chaos.”
As the Taliban overran cities across Afghanistan, Koofi was spending much of her time fielding calls from men and women who were terrified of the implications of a takeover. She was frustrated that she could offer little in the way of consolation. Shortly before I spoke with Koofi, a pregnant woman had called her from Faizabad, the capital of Badakhshan—a place I visited in 2009 to document the high rates of maternal death in the province. Over the course of the past decade, various advances have reduced that number. The woman calling Koofi needed to deliver this baby by Cesarean section, but the Taliban was closing in and she feared that she wouldn’t be able to get to a hospital for the procedure. She had only three weeks left until her delivery date, and no way to leave her home. What could she do? If the woman could not deliver by Cesarean, she might die, but Koofi had no way to help from Kabul. Last week, Faizabad fell to the Taliban.
Recently, the price of burkas has doubled, and in some cases increased by even more. Women are purchasing the best armor to protect themselves from the Taliban: the veil.
Over the weekend, as the Taliban encircled Kabul, I asked Koofi how she was doing and whether she had evacuated. She fled her home on Sunday and is now in hiding in Afghanistan. “No one is helping,” she told me. “Can you talk to the Americans?” I have been receiving WhatsApp messages like this daily from former female translators and subjects, expressing fear and asking me how to get out of Afghanistan.
I don’t know is my answer. I don’t know where you can go. I don’t think America will help anymore. No, I don’t think they will give you or your brother or my former driver from 11 years ago a visa. I don’t know what will happen to women in Afghanistan.
All I know is that the women I’ve met these past 20 years have astonished me with their determination and wit. They have made me crumble in laughter and in tears. I think about the crisp afternoon in Kabul in 2010 when I was driving around with an Afghan actress in the passenger seat of her car. Her beautiful, fully made-up face and hair were in full view as she blasted Iranian music and danced with her hands around the steering wheel. She drove past checkpoints, huddles of burkas, and startled and sneering men. She laughed, and I laughed, and I thought about how far Afghan women had come. The Taliban cannot take away who Afghan women have become in the past 20 years—their education, their drive to work, their taste of freedom.
And there is a new generation of Afghan women today, women who can’t remember what it was like to live under the Taliban. “They are full of energy, hope, and dreams,” Shukriya Barakzai told me. “They are not like me, as I was 20 years back. They’re more alert. They’re communicating with the world. It’s not [the] Afghanistan that was burned in a civil war. It’s a developed, free Afghanistan, with the free media, with women.” The Taliban is taking territory, Barakzai says, “but not the hearts and minds of people.”