Deja vu for older Afghan women as they watch the Taliban return to power

Those who remember the hardliners' brutal rule 20 years ago see little hope for the future

Beta V.1.0 - Powered by automated translation
An embedded image that relates to this article

For most of her life, Hamida Rahmati has lived in the same bright and spacious house in a suburb west of Kabul at the foothills of the Hindu Kush mountains that surround the city, where families often gather for weekend picnics and hikers venture out on to the trails.

From here, the 52-year-old schoolteacher has watched the Taliban come and go, relieved when they were defeated 20 years ago as the US invaded Afghanistan after the September 11 terrorist attacks — though she said “Am’rica”, as she refers to it, betrayed Afghanistan in the end.

With the old rulers back in power once again, she told The National she has lost all hope for the future.

“They’ve buried and destroyed all our hopes,” she said, sitting on a thickly stuffed floor pillow in her light-flooded living room, her eyes filling with tears she silently wipes away with her sleeves.

“I don’t dare go outside at all,” she said. “Afghanistan is done.”

Ms Rahmati was a young mother of 27 when the Taliban first came to power in 1996 and had no choice but to abide by their brutal rule: she was forced out of her job as a Farsi teacher and ended up spending most of her time confined to her home, only allowed outside with a “mahram”, or male escort.

She remembers going outside one day, only to be forced home.

“I had white shoes on,” she said. People “told me that [the] Taliban would beat me, because I’ve insulted their flag.”

This time around, she said she was adamant to push back, but her first encounter with the fighters last week saw her do the opposite: she immediately retreated.

Heading to a doctor’s appointment, she saw Taliban fighters from a distance, manning a checkpoint previously belonging to the Afghan police.

“I was afraid because the fear of 20 years ago was still in me,” she said.

Ms Rahmati never imagined she would see the Taliban back in power — not after a 20-year foreign occupation and more than $83 billion spent on the Afghan army and police.

But when the Taliban launched their nationwide offensive in late July, the army quickly collapsed.

Soldiers hadn’t been paid in months while their commanders lived lavish lifestyles fuelled by money stolen from payments that were supposed to go to rank-and-file troops.

The Afghan government for years understated how many soldiers and police were dying on the front lines, and consistently failed to provide fuel, ammunition, backup and sometimes even food to its forces.

So when the Taliban launched their offensive, many soldiers either fled or surrendered, unwilling to die for a corrupt government that had failed them again and again.

Still, Ms Rahmati explained, the Taliban are no better qualified to run a government. They will struggle to rebuild a shattered nation of 38 million people, she said, and Afghans are not welcoming them back to power.

“We’re 100 per cent sure that it’s the same Taliban as before. I’m 100 per cent sure that out lives will return to what they were 25 years ago: no education, no school, no salary, no women. The same faces that came 20 years ago, it’s the same ones,” Ms Rahmati said.

Twenty years of western occupation had led to some improvements for women and minorities, particularly in urban areas. The government led by former president Ashraf Ghani included women politicians, unlike the Taliban’s newly announced interim government and Cabinet, made up of all men.

If the Taliban don't “give us any rights, in any area — politics, education, health care — we don’t want that,” Ms Rahmati said.

“We’re not the women of 20 years ago. We want to raise our voice, organise protest. The international community should hear our voice and protect our rights.”

Her words resonate with the women’s protests that have erupted throughout Kabul and other major cities around the country. Led mostly by women in their 20s who never lived under the previous Taliban regime, demonstrators are demanding equal rights.

Tamana Sediqi, a 27-year-old human rights advocate and one of Ms Rahmati’s neighbours, says the US had empowered the Taliban in recent years, giving them the impetus to take over the government.

Her mother, Bibi Akila Qayumi, who had raised her daughter to be educated and independent, said the Taliban return was, above all, dangerous for her career-driven and unmarried daughter.

“When they left, we thought they were gone for good. We didn’t think that they would come back again. I don’t think it’s good for anyone,” she told The National from her house, an old Kabul home overlooking a green fruit orchard, with thick walls keeping it cool in the summer and warm in the winter.

Her face is wrinkled, her forehead dotted with a small tattoo, an old tradition among some Pashtun women.

Outside in her garden, two white birds sit in a cage hanging from one of the trees.

“They are [claiming] they are better than before, but they are not good. They prevent women from getting out of the house,” Ms Qayumi said.

“When men and women work in a house, it’s like a bird having two wings. If women stay at home, it’s like you cut a wing off the bird.”

Updated: September 09, 2021, 9:09 PM