For Women in Afghanistan, the War’s Terror Gives Way to New Fears

The Taliban’s takeover ended decades of war. But their restrictions, and the economic fallout, threw many women into a new era of diminished hopes.

Zulaikha, 25, went into hiding after the Taliban seized power

“There is no income, no job opportunities for me. I don’t know how I’m going to survive.”

Basira, 22, former University student who studied English literature

“I still try to have motivation to continue my studies, but how can I do that if I look into the future?”

Aziza, 35, lost her husband – a Taliban fighter – during the war

“Now we can go out, but there is no job for us, no school for our children.”

Keshwar, 50s, lost her son during the Taliban’s first regime

“There will be no peace in Afghanistan in my lifetime. War will come, war will go, it will return again.”

Marjan, 23, worked as a journalist before the Taliban seized power

“Day after day, I’m getting pushed in a tighter corner. Life has become solitary confinement.”

Loss Piles on Loss for Afghan Women

March 8, 2023

Some women went into hiding, fearing retribution after the Taliban seized power. Others began protesting on the street. Grandmothers in dusty villages walked out of their mud brick homes with relief, free for the first time in 40 years of the fear of stray bullets or airstrikes raining down. Some teenage girls began attending schools in secret, echoing the stories from their mothers’ childhoods that once felt like grim folklore.

When the Taliban returned to power in Afghanistan in August 2021, women were among the most profoundly affected. While the end of fighting offered a welcome respite, particularly for women in rural areas, others’ lives have been severely constricted. Many watched 20 years of gains made under Western occupation unravel as the new government issued edict after edict scrubbing women from public life.

Today, Afghanistan is among the most restrictive countries in the world for women, according to human rights monitors. Girls are barred from secondary schools. Women are prohibited from traveling any significant distance without a male relative, and from going to public spaces like gyms and parks. In recent months, women were banned from attending universities and from working for aid organizations, some of the last hopes left for professional or public lives.

Those policies have come to define the Taliban’s government in the eyes of the West, and have caused tension within the movement’s leadership. The changes threaten the aid offered by Western donors amid the country’s dire humanitarian crisis. And they have been universally condemned, including by other Islamic governments like Iran’s and Saudi Arabia’s, and set Afghanistan on course for near-total isolation in the world.

The New York Times spoke with dozens of women across the country to understand how their lives and Afghan society have changed over the past year and a half. This is what they told us.

Some of the quotations that appear with photos have been edited for length and clarity.

A Wrenching Change

Afifa, 47, wishes more Afghan men would fight for women’s rights

KABUL, Afghanistan — Walk around the capital, Kabul, and it often feels as if women have been airbrushed out of the city.

There are fewer women on the streets these days than even a few months ago. More and more, those who still venture out — once in jeans and long blouses — are covered head-to-toe in concealing robes, their faces obscured behind masks. Female shop mannequins have been beheaded or their heads wrapped in tinfoil.

Fatima, 21, says she hates being a woman now

Razia, 20, is anxious and can’t sleep anymore

But the most profound change is invisible: It is the storm of loss, grief and rage that has enveloped the city’s women, they say.

Hawa Gul, 40, with her daughter Tahera, 17

“The world keeps talking about girls’ education, but women in Afghanistan have a lot more problems: poverty, abusive husbands, strict fathers.”

Zohra, 17, was blocked from finishing her high school degree

“Even within families, fathers and brothers want to take control.”

Munisa, 32, a women’s rights activist who fled Afghanistan

“These restrictions that Taliban are imposing on women are like kidnapping someone.”

Masooda, 51, a women’s therapist

“The young women are not coping well — they lost their hopes.”

Masooda, a therapist in Kabul, encounters that tempest each day as she goes house to house visiting her ever-growing list of clients. With each new dictate restricting women’s rights, she gets more phone calls from women desperate for any emotional outlet, any avenue for relief. Gone are the days when women could find expression, purpose or camaraderie at work or school, or even picnic in the park with friends or wander the zoo’s stone paths.

The return of the Taliban is most difficult for the younger women, she says, whose dreams of becoming politicians, athletes, surgeons or C.E.O.s once seemed achievable. They grew up in a world of possibility — and watched it shatter when the Western-backed government collapsed.

Roya, 21, a former athlete on the national Judo team

Nassima, 57, worked with girls’ public schools across the country

“The young women are not coping well — they lost their hopes. They cannot deal with the situation,” said Masooda, 52, who prefers to go by her first name for fear of retribution.

Najia, 28, a former radio journalist

“Talibs do not feel comfortable talking with women reporters, they think their leaders might insult them for it.”

Raihana, 32, worked at the Ministry of Interior

“A month after the Taliban took control of Kabul, my husband went missing and hasn’t returned home to this day.”

Sumaya, 22, with Bahara, 25, former students at the National Military Academy of Afghanistan

“I had a clear path ahead of me, but I feel lost now.”

Maryam, 17, turned 16 the day the Taliban entered Kabul

“The future is dark. I feel like a bird that has wings but can’t fly.”

The older women, who survived the Taliban’s first administration, are hardened from experience, she says. The difference now is the economic collapse threatening families’ ability even to feed themselves. Women’s inability to work in most jobs has made that crisis even more devastating.

“Even women who are leaving the country, they are not leaving just because they want freedom,” she said. “They also want something to eat.”

Peace at Last

Maimoona, 50, lost eight relatives in a U.S. drone strike

TANGI VALLEY, Afghanistan — For most of the past 40 years, Habiba could feel death knocking at her door.

When she was a child growing up in central Afghanistan, she endured the bloody days of the Soviet invasion and then the years of fighting and civil war that followed. After the Americans invaded in 2001, some of the fiercest fighting played out in her village along the Tangi Valley, a lush patchwork of fields flanked by hills in Wardak Province.

Zuhal, 9, became an orphan during the U.S.-led war

Rakima, 85, says she spent her entire life in wars – until now

Habiba often awoke to find new homes destroyed in overnight bombings. Every day that she went to collect water or buy food, she knew she might not make it back home, and no family seemed unscathed. But Habiba endured.

Then one morning four years ago, her 36-year-old son, Mohammad Sami, was shot in the chest while he tended to their wheat fields. Villagers believed he had been killed by a government policeman in retaliation for a Taliban assault days earlier.

Habiba, around 50, lost her son during the war

“It was raining bullets, rockets and mortars. My children now can go to the field and I know they will come home at night.”

Shakila, 12, a sixth grade student

“I want to go to school, even at the cost of war.”

Bibi Alai, 55, became a widow during the war

“Since the invaders have left our country, we can sleep peacefully at night.”

Maryam, 28, came to a clinic for the first time

“With my first childbirth, the pain kicked in at night. I couldn’t come to the clinic: There was heavy fighting going on. This time, peace has returned.”

After that, Habiba lost herself in rage, she said. She hated the Western-backed government. When she saw their soldiers driving through the village, she prayed they would die. She vowed to help the Taliban in any way she could — offering them food, water, a place to sleep.

Her vengeance came in August 2021, when the government collapsed. As the village erupted in celebratory gunfire, Habiba beamed with pride, she said, and in the year and a half since she has felt at ease for the first time in her adult life.

She visits relatives she did not see for decades because of the fighting. She does not worry about bombs falling from the sky. When her slain son’s four young children leave the house to play, she knows they will return home, unharmed.

“All my life was spent in war,” said Habiba, who like many people in rural Afghanistan uses only one name and is around 50 years old. “Now we can live freely — without fear or danger.”

Slowly Constricted Hope

Sohaila Sabri, 30, tried to stay and negotiate with the Taliban administration

HERAT, Afghanistan — Sohaila Sabri was determined to stay.

An employee of the Western-backed government’s Directory of Women’s Affairs in Herat, a cultural and economic hub in northwestern Afghanistan, she watched after the Taliban seized power, as women activists, politicians and artists drained out of the city, and evacuations to Western countries proliferated.

“I was thinking if we all leave Afghanistan, who will build this country?” Ms. Sabri, 30, said.

So when she was offered an opportunity to seek asylum in Germany, she turned it down. Then she got to work.

Simin, 42, lives in hiding because her husband fought for the Western-backed government

Mursal, 21, Simin’s daughter, says there are no public spaces left for women

First, she and the few other remaining activists organized protests in the city. When those protests were met with bullets and arrests, the women switched gears. They met with local officials to negotiate with them, meetings that reversed policies preventing taxis from transporting women traveling alone and carved out exemptions so women could hold celebrations for International Human Rights Day.

Fatima, 23, widowed days before the war ended

“Everyone has gone a different way, living a life in a different country.”

Parigul, 44, mother to five children

“With the Taliban coming into power, my family fell apart. My daughter is in Pakistan. My husband is in Kabul.”

Parissa, 19, former university student

“Those of us in grade 12 are standing above a ditch. You don’t know if you should jump over or throw yourself into the ditch.”

Zarmina, 28, former employee of Herat’s Office of Refugees and Repatriation

“I feel estranged from my own city and have given up on my dreams. I am filled with fear, at every corner.”

She believed that their work could help preserve some space for women in Herat, and hoped that local government officials would keep engaging.

But that would soon change. It happened slowly at first — then like an avalanche. Police officers appeared on the street to enforce hijab mandates. Women were turned away from Herat University, then barred from working at nongovernmental organizations.

The same officials she had negotiated with in the months after the takeover now told her their hands were tied: The flood of new edicts rolling back women’s rights were coming from Kandahar, the center of power of the new government and home to its more conservative leadership. There was nothing they could do.

Once determined, Ms. Sabri felt defeated. These days, she rarely leaves her house. Her brothers now expect her to make them breakfast each morning and clean their home.

If she could leave the country now, she said, she would.

“Some people in the world are scared of the things they have to lose,” she said, “But Afghan women have lost everything, they have nothing left to lose.”

Studying in Secret

Mozhda, 23, thinks women have been stripped of every right they had

KANDAHAR, Afghanistan — The girls sidle down the cobblestone path to the building with the worn wooden door. Entering, they cross a courtyard shaded by a canopy of vines, descend down a flight of stairs, and walk through a narrow underground passageway to their classroom.

There are no windows, no chairs, no desks. The only decorations on the concrete walls are a dry-erase board, a fluorescent light and a poster depicting proper hand washing technique.

Zarmina, 28, can no longer feed her family

Badam Gul, 14, says her life has not changed since the war ended

But to the dozens of high-school girls who come here each morning, the classroom is an oasis — and their presence an act of defiance.

When the Taliban seized power, girls’ schools remained open in a kind of limbo — neither officially sanctioned nor forbidden — for months. Then hours before classes were set to resume for the spring semester in March last year, the government announced that girls were banned from attending high schools indefinitely.

Zubaida, 20, teaches high school girls in secret

“Regimes come and go all the time in Afghanistan. We should study and be ready for the next one.”

Abeda, 46, teacher in an underground girls high school

“There’s a Taliban checkpoint on my way to school. I look them in the eyes to make sure they see me.”

Sayina, 18, couldn’t complete her final year of high school

“I would like to study. I just can’t stay in my house all day, bored and lonely.”

Raghjia, 38, runs an underground girls school in her home

“Every mother wants her child to study since we could not go to school when we were young.”

It was a dark day for teenage girls across the country. They describe passing the months that followed in a fog of deep depression. But as the anger and grief subsided, many were determined to find a way back to the classroom.

In one neighborhood in Kandahar, a southern city in the Taliban heartland, former high-school students and teachers banded together to create an underground classroom for girls to continue their studies. The teachers post a lookout at the front gate each morning and call the students’ parents to ensure they arrive home safely each afternoon. If they are ever questioned about what happens in the building, the schoolgirls have been coached to answer that they are attending Quranic classes, which are still permitted for girls.

It’s often a terrifying endeavor. But the students and teachers alike are clinging to it as one of the few remaining sources of hope.

“Regimes come and go all the time in Afghanistan,” said Zubaida Azizi, 20, a teacher. “We should study and be ready for the next one.”

An Unyielding Fear

Khadija, 19, says women in Afghanistan cannot give up hope

BAMIYAN, Afghanistan — The fear lives within her, Keshwar Nabizada says.

It was born when the Taliban first seized power a generation ago and wreaked havoc on her village in Bamiyan Province, a center of Afghanistan’s Hazara ethnic minority. The fighters burned her house to the ground, and killed her 17-year-old son, she said. Her brother was arrested and disappeared for months. When he was finally found, dead, she could only recognize him by the wool jacket she had stitched together for him by hand.

Roqia, 60, lost her son during the first Taliban regime

Gulbakht, 49, was displaced during the Taliban’s first stretch in power

After that regime was toppled, she went back to planting potatoes on her small farm and enjoyed the calm the American invasion brought. “It was like we were not in prison anymore,” Ms. Nabizada, 60, said. Still, the terror never truly went away. She recounted stories of those bloody days to her surviving children, telling them the Taliban were never to trusted, always to be feared.

When the Taliban returned to power in 2021, the panic roared back. Ms. Nabizada and her family fled the area for months, terrified of another massacre. A year and a half later, she says she now believes the Taliban’s new rule is not as brutal as its first.

Najiba, 30, former director of Bamiyan’s Department of Returnees and Repatriation

“Everytime I close my eyes, I imagine a world where I don’t have to hide myself anymore. A world where I feel safe.”

Arezoo, 21, mother to a toddler hospitalized with severe malnutrition

“In my tribe, girls never go to school.”

Kobra, 24, nurse in a malnutrition ward of a public hospital

“Poverty has taken over our lives and is sweeping our livelihood away.”

Fatima, 25, is training to be a midwife

“I worry about the future of my children, especially the daughter that I am carrying.”

“To be honest, this regime in power now is better — they are not going around and killing people like before,” she said.

Still, she says, she cannot shake the dread.

“I have the fear 24 hours a day, the fear will not leave me alone even at night. When I wake up, I just pray to God, ‘Please, help Afghan people to at least live in peace,’” she said.