The Taliban is back — Afghan women are scared, but defiant.

Photography by Marcus Yam.

  

Sometimes their words tumble out like the frantic beating of wings. The tears often flow, but now and then, an eye flashes with a glint of determination.

Two months after the Taliban takeover of their country, Afghan women and girls inhabit a world transformed. The freedoms and expectations many have come to prize are vanishing as the militant group’s return to power after two decades has stirred profound sorrow over losses that may prove irredeemable.

“We are back where we started,” said Naheed Samadi Bahram, U.S. country director of Women for Afghan Women, a rights-advocacy group. “It’s very heartbreaking, and very hard.”

generation of Afghan girls grew up having never known the lash of Taliban rule. The fundamentalist movement was toppled in the U.S.-led invasion launched in answer to the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, ending the group’s five-year reign. But their black-and-white flags again fly over the capital. Their fighters patrol the markets; their preachers thunder in the mosques.

Young women largely barred from school or jobs describe the nightmarish sensation of their mothers’ tales suddenly unfolding in real life. What was once said aloud is now whispered or not spoken at all. And for those of an age to have firsthand recollections of the Taliban’s cruelty, any moment of any day can feel like an old wound, opened anew.

The new Taliban era is playing out in different ways across disparate parts of this nation. Particularly in the countryside, elements of the Taliban’s harsh interpretation of Islam never truly receded, and find fertile ground for revival.

Taliban leaders in Kabul and other cities have sought to soften their image — one previously marked by stonings, amputations and public executions — suggesting their new restrictive measures are temporary. They place vague parameters around certain behavior, saying women can participate fully in society, but within the framework of Islamic law.

In a stark symbol of the new order, the Afghan Women’s Affairs Ministry was abolished and replaced by one tasked with promulgating virtue and preventing vice — in essence, the former religious police. Some 124,000 Afghans, including tens of thousands of women and girls, fled the country in the massive airlift staged in the final days of American power. But millions remain behind, and defiance comes at a cost.

The Los Angeles Times, which was present for the fall of Kabul, has since spoken with a variety of Afghan women, some separated by an age span of more than half a century, about life in these Taliban times. Here is a sampling of their voices.

The women’s
rights activist

When Mahbouba Seraj talks about her fears, an unusual thing happens: She sounds more indomitable than ever.

At 73, Seraj is the doyenne of Afghan women’s rights activists — a stature and status that put her in the crosshairs of Taliban rulers.

“Of course I’m afraid,” she said. “Everyone’s afraid.”

But Seraj, who spent more than a quarter-century in exile in the United States before returning in 2003 to help build a women’s movement and women’s institutions, is standing fast in her refusal to leave, and to find ways of continuing her work.

“I’m staying,” she said, interviewed in her Kabul home weeks after the Taliban seized control.

Seraj said she believed — or hoped, at least — that the Taliban movement would come to understand that the Afghanistan of today is not the same country it was 20 years ago.

“We are 18 million women; we have close to 6 million who are educated,” she said, pointing to the roles women carved out for themselves in business, education, medicine, media and government.

A niece of Amanullah Khan, the Afghan sovereign who led the country to independence from Britain in 1919, Seraj has a more finely honed sense than many of history’s vicissitudes.

Named one of Time magazine’s 100 most influential people in 2021, she thinks there is much to be learned from the two-decade-long U.S. presence in Afghanistan. The role of Afghan women was vastly elevated, she said — but in allocating aid and jobs, outsiders also trampled at times on the sensibilities of women reluctant to adopt certain Western mores.

Now, she said, the country’s women must seek a new path.

“If you can, keep us alive in your thoughts and your memory — read about us, ask about us…. It will be a great help,” she said. “We really have to be strong.”

The policewoman

Until the Taliban took over, the young Afghan policewoman thought that the most terrifying moments of her life might be behind her.

One July day in 2019, as she was riding in a police convoy south of Kabul, holding fast to her government-issued M-16 rifle, the vehicle in front of hers hit a roadside bomb. The driver of her Ford Ranger pickup was killed in the blast. She was badly burned.

Now perilously identifiable, with visible scars that mark her hand and zigzag up her neck to the jawline, the 27-year-old is on the run, frightened for herself and for her family — including the father who had adamantly opposed her joining the force.

When the Taliban came to power and the Americans who had trained Afghan security forces departed, the policewoman — who asked to be called by the name Lida for her safety — burned the service uniform she once wore with pride. Her family destroyed her documents.

Even so, the Taliban came looking. They snatched her father from a barber shop, detaining him for a day.

Changing locations weekly, destroying SIM cards after a few calls, Lida and her pharmacist husband wonder whether they can make their way out of the country. They tried to get to Kabul airport before the U.S. pullout on Aug. 31; they were nearly caught up in a suicide blast outside the gates that killed more than 180 people.

Her extended family is suffering the loss of her government salary, afraid of being punished for her police career. As for Lida, she mourns the loss of a livelihood that sustained her and gave her a sense of purpose.

She wept as she spoke of overcoming resistance from her relatives and a tradition-minded community to her joining the force. In the eyes of her compatriots, whose traditions and views are shaped by patriarchy, a woman police officer is little better than a prostitute.

“To become a police [officer] I had to fight everyone — my family and everyone,” she said.

But she has not abandoned her dreams.

“I want to wear my uniform again,” she said. “This is my country…. I’m not going to lose my hope.”

The feminist publisher

Fatima Roshanian was living dangerously even before the Taliban took charge.

She published a feminist magazine whose content touched on taboo topics — menstruation, virginity, domestic violence, choosing to remain childless. One story even featured a woman happily celebrating her divorce with a pink cake.

Roshanian, who wears her hair short and her earrings long, is passionate. She and her colleagues believed airing sensitive subjects was healthy and necessary in a still-conservative society, even when it earned them opprobrium and threats.

In what had become an increasingly freewheeling Afghanistan media scene, they saw room for a new kind of magazine. Its name in Persian, Nimrokh, means a face in profile — meant to symbolize that women are half of the population, a voice that would always find a way to make itself heard.

The magazine’s motto — aimed not just at an urban sisterhood, but readers out in the provinces as well — was “For women, by women.”

Roshanian, 27, cried as she described the day it all changed. Taliban fighters entered the city on Aug. 15, with government forces melting away and President Ashraf Ghani fleeing the capital.

Almost immediately, a florist downstairs from the magazine’s office tipped off the Taliban to their presence. The women hastily used a little portable stove to burn copies of the magazine and notes for articles in progress, and fled.

Roshanian left the capital for a time, but has since returned. She moves from place to place. She’s careful how she dresses, and with whom she speaks. But she has kept a hardbound ledger with the magazine’s first hundred issues. She wonders if it will ever publish again.

Trying to forestall the Taliban from searching for her, Roshanian posted on social media that she had left the country. But the ruse backfired: Word that she had successfully gotten away seemed to be making it harder for her to get help leaving.

A month before the capital fell, as the Taliban made swift inroads, the young publisher wrote an open letter to Vice President Kamala Harris, appealing for assistance on behalf of Afghan women.

“You are a powerful woman, and you can help us,” she wrote. “We are in danger of losing our liberties and rights.”

Roshanian has remained defiant.

“It’s impossible for women living under religious dictatorship to study, go to work and have activities,” she said after male instructors were banned from teaching women and girls. But she has fresh worries. At her latest haven, a sharp-eyed driver spotted a Taliban fighter reconnoitering the compound where she was staying, pretending to be picking up trash.

Once again, she was forced to flee.

The businesswoman

She had $12 and a dream: becoming an entrepreneur.

Her father disapproved, going so far as to strike her when she pushed ahead with her plan to open a workshare and study space. Even some of her friends made fun of her idea.

But Sakina succeeded.

When she first got her start in business, the 21-year-old, who asked that only her first name be published for her safety, had already overcome many obstacles. A shy child who stuttered, she eventually conquered her speech disability. She came to Kabul from a province south of the capital to enroll in computer science classes, the first from her impoverished family to get an education.

Lacking a safe and quiet place to study, Sakina and a close friend conceived the notion of a hybrid library and education center supported by membership fees. She found a mechanic’s garage in disrepair, fixing it up with friends’ help.

“In our family, we don’t have any businesswomen,” she said. “I wanted to lead by example, show my friends and relatives that women can be successful in their work.”

It took two years, and several changes of venue because of security concerns, but the work-study center, which she named the Mehr Library, eventually attracted a clientele large enough to pay the rent and hire a small staff. On some days, it filled to capacity, and people would ask for a spot on the floor.

Even the father who had beaten her stopped in one day and told Sakina he was proud of her.

But the Taliban came and the business collapsed. Women in particular were afraid to venture out. With the economy in free fall, few could afford even the modest membership fee.

Sakina and her friend Fatima, her partner, don’t know how they’ll pay the rent now, and even if they could, they are afraid the militants would show up.

“When the Taliban arrived, I lost hope,” she said.

Now she has a chance to join an IT company in Turkey. There’s a catch: The man who can get her the job and a visa wants her to agree to marry him, even though she told him she doesn’t love him. But she knows there is always a man offering something not wanted or taking away something cherished.

Sakina is trying to carry on, even though going to the near-empty center feels dangerous. She dresses inconspicuously and varies her route, hoping not to draw the attention of Taliban fighters.

“I have a fear inside,” she said. “But in my face and behavior I show them, ‘I am not afraid of you.’”

The university dean

On the day Kabul fell to the Taliban, Tabesh Noor, a university dean from a northern province, was in the capital expecting to receive her formal certification for an academic promotion.

That achievement — along with so much else — was suddenly snatched away. A friend called to warn her against going to the Higher Education Ministry, telling her that Taliban fighters were there.

The 32-year-old educator, together with her husband and two young daughters, sought safety in the relative anonymity of the capital. That proved a wise precaution; back in her home province of Badakhshan, the Taliban soon turned up at a relative’s home, searching for her.

Noor, who asked that only an abridged version of her name be published, knew she would be a Taliban target. She had already been threatened by conservative local mullahs over her academic work and her outspoken views — authoring, for instance, a paper arguing against polygamy.

“Now that power is in the hands of the Taliban, the slightest mistake, or report that we have acted against religion, is punishable with assassination,” she said.

Noor, who was dean of her university’s social science faculty, now sees all around her a systematic dismantling of her life’s work. With word from the Taliban that education for girls will be limited, she grieves for the opportunities lost to her daughters, ages 2 and 6.

“I wanted them to be like me,” she said. A local school principal told her that even in the lower grades that girls are permitted to attend, their enrollment is declining because their parents are afraid.

Noor’s elder daughter is old enough to be alarmed by television reports about the Taliban. The dean and her husband are careful now not to watch the news in front of the children.

Even while wrestling with her personal distress — “I was crying every day, every day” — Noor turns a social scientist’s trained eye on what is happening in Afghanistan.

“The more women are deprived of education and knowledge, the more they are unaware of their rights and alienated from life,” she said. “Apart from the fact that illiterate women cause illiteracy in the family and in society as a whole, on the other hand, women are more abused and cannot speak out against violence and coercion, or exercise their natural and human rights.”

She and her husband feel they live in peril in Kabul. They do their shopping at different markets around the city, to make it harder for anyone who might be watching to pinpoint their neighborhood.

Because of her work and reputation, the couple believe they will be forced to leave — if they can find a way to do so.

“My only wish is to go to a safe place and continue my struggle to make Afghanistan a suitable place for young girls and women to live,” Noor said.

Her husband, she said, agrees that her “struggle against darkness” means she will never be safe in Afghanistan.

“It’s impossible,” he told her. “The Taliban won’t let you. And also, they know you.”

The Taliban is back — Afghan women are scared, but defiant.