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.
A Wrenching Change
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.
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.
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 said, whose dreams of becoming politicians, athletes, surgeons or CEOs once seemed achievable. They grew up in a world of possibility — and watched it shatter when the Western-backed government collapsed.
“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.
The older women, who survived the Taliban’s first administration, are hardened by experience, she said. 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
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.
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 police officer in retaliation for a Taliban assault days earlier.
After that, Habiba lost herself in rage, she said. She hated the Western-backed government. When she saw its 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 is around 50 and who, like many people in rural Afghanistan, uses only one name. “Now we can live freely — without fear or danger.”
Slowly Constricted Hope
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 female 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?” said Sabri, 30.
So when she was offered an opportunity to seek asylum in Germany, she turned it down. Then she got to work.
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 that carved out exemptions so women could hold celebrations for International Human Rights Day.
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, 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
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.
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 2022, the government announced that girls were banned from attending high schools indefinitely.
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
BAMIYAN, Afghanistan — The fear lives within her, Keshwar Nabizada said.
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.
After that regime was toppled, she went back to planting potatoes on her small farm and enjoyed the calm the U.S. invasion brought. “It was like we were not in prison anymore,” said Nabizada, 60. 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 be trusted, always to be feared.
When the Taliban returned to power in 2021, the panic roared back. Nabizada and her family fled the area for months, terrified of another massacre. A year and a half later, she said she now believes the Taliban’s new rule is not as brutal as its first.
“To be honest, this regime in power now is better. They are not going around and killing people like before,” she said.
Still, she said, 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.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.