Kabul’s main market seems as busy as ever, with vendors and customers – men and women – navigating through the hustle and bustle.
But among the women, there is a fear that with the return of Taliban to power in Afghanistan, they will face the same restrictions as they did during the group’s 1996-2001 rule, when women were granted few rights and were largely confined to their homes, unable to seek an education or professional opportunities.
The National spoke to three women – a teenager, a young professional and an older woman – about their hopes and fears for the future.
‘Who do I hold responsible for this?’
Balquis, 61, scrolled eagerly through her phone, her headscarf slightly pulled back, revealing chestnut brown-dyed hair and grey roots.
“My daughters,” she said, stroking the screen and the faces of two women, one on each side of her in a photo.
“Both of them left last week. One for the US, the other one for Canada.
“My husband died 15 years ago and most of my other relatives left Afghanistan last week through the airport.
“I remain here alone,” she whispered, tears slowly filling her eyes, then flowing uncontrollably.
Balquis had wanted more children, but after five miscarriages and infant deaths, she stopped trying, dedicating her life to her two daughters, both now in their early 30s.
As they grew up under the first Taliban rule, Balquis, a former teacher, educated them within the walls of the family living room.
When the Taliban took over Kabul again on August 15, sending shockwaves through an already vulnerable nation, her daughters were determined to leave.
They were unwilling to give up their freedoms and the careers they had built during two decades of western-backed democracy in Afghanistan.
“We don’t know what we will face under the Taliban this time, but Afghan people’s anger is not just with them,” Balquis said.
“The Americans destroyed our country. The fate of the future of Afghan women is their responsibility.
"They need to be held accountable for the mess they caused.”
Living under the Taliban is not her main concern. “I’ve done it before,” she said, still wiping tears from her eyes.
“What breaks me is that my family has been torn apart, that – in old age – I am now all alone. Who do I hold responsible for this? The Taliban or the Americans? I don’t know.”
‘I feel safe’
Upbeat and outspoken, Sutarah, 15, was shopping for clothes with her mother and sisters. Originally from the northern province of Takhar, her family came to Kabul three months ago to escape fighting in their hometown and moved in with relatives in the Afghan capital.
The Taliban’s takeover came as a surprise, but Sutarah said it had changed little about her routine in Kabul.
“Today, I’m out shopping for shoes and I feel safe,” she said confidently, but admitted that she worried about the future.
“I have always attended school and also learnt English. Education is important for me and I want to graduate. I want to go to university,” she said in perfect English, standing in the busy market next to her mother and sister.
“I am afraid this won’t be possible under the Taliban.”
Sutarah’s father had stayed at home, leaving the women to do their shopping alone.
“I hope we will be able to go out like this in the future,” she said. “I hope the new government won’t stand in the way of my dreams.”
‘Afghan women need me’
Sitting at the side of the road, Mina, 30, said she felt it was “too dangerous” to go back to work as a doctor at an army hospital and risk being associated with the Afghan armed forces.
She said she left the house most days, although she kept her face covered and was often accompanied by her mother.
The Taliban have said that women medical workers could return to work, and many have. But Mina has chosen to wait.
“Once things calm down, I will find a new job,” she explained, saying she was confident of finding work even under the Taliban.
“Right now, I am observing the situation and I’m trying to not draw too much attention to myself,” she said – the reason she asked that her real name be withheld.
“When the Taliban has announced their new government, I will look for a job. As a doctor, Afghan women need me.”
Women’s rights activists and former politicians have voiced concern about the future, but most refuse to give up hope.
Over the past days, women have taken to the streets in the north-western city of Herat as well as Kabul, demanding rights to education and employment.
“Women have always resisted,” said Shaharzad Akbar, chairwoman of the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission.
Ms Akbar left the country after the Taliban takeover but hopes to return.
“I have some hope, and that comes from the brave women of Afghanistan,” she said.