Kabul, Afghanistan – Marzia Hamidi, a taekwondo competitor, had a big dream. The 19-year-old Afghan athlete was aiming for national and international championships. However, their dreams were dashed when the Taliban, who opposed the participation of women in sport, took control of the country in August.
Her Instagram account – with more than 20,000 followers – was a window into her happy and passionate life, but nothing more. She now adorns a black abaya and a matching hijab for fear of the new rulers of Afghanistan.
Hamidi went into hiding at the end of September after Taliban members searched for her.
The Taliban’s return to power after 20 years has led to self-censorship and concern among Afghans, especially women, who fear a return to repressive life among the group.
The Taliban initially promised to respect women and allow them to work in government under Islamic law, but secondary schools remain closed to girls and there is an unofficial ban on women, with the exception of a few professions such as the health sector. Critics say their words do not match what happened on the ground.
The Ministry for the Propagation of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice, charged with promoting Islamic values in the Islamic emirate of the Taliban, has replaced the Ministry of Women and is raising questions about the empowerment of women in the country.
Over the past month there were protests by women demanding their rights in several cities, but they have been severely suppressed.
Thousands of women have already fled after the fall of Kabul on August 15, and many others are looking for ways out for fear that the new regime might lock them up in their homes.
During the first Taliban regime between 1996 and 2001, women practically disappeared from the public eye because they were banned from working and were not allowed to travel without a male guardian. Violation of strict rules governing women’s clothing and behavior in public resulted in severe penalties such as lashes and stoning.
Hamidi fears that women like her will soon face a similar fate. Sitting in a café in an eight-story apartment building in central Kabul, she slowly takes off her abaya – a cloak she says she is not comfortable wearing.
Born in Iran
Hamidi was born in Iran to an Afghan refugee family. At 15, she attended a Taekwondo class and immediately fell in love with the sport. Soon after, she became a professional fighter, winning several gold medals in national competitions in the under 57 kg category.
But three years ago Hamidi’s sporting career was interrupted when her family decided to move to Afghanistan. Her father no longer wanted to be a refugee in a foreign country, where they were often exposed to racist attacks. There are more than two million undocumented Afghans living in Iran, in addition to 800,000 registered refugees.
The family joined their brother, who had a lucrative business in Kabul. But for the self-confident athlete, Kabul turned out to be a difficult place to practice her sport.
“It has always been difficult for women fighters in Afghanistan. My male trainer was always staring at me, focusing on how I looked, which made me uncomfortable. Other girls on the taekwondo team always wore headscarves and complained that I didn’t, ”says Hamidi.
“When the Taliban came, I thought about destroying my medals. Should I burn it or keep it? I asked myself. But my brother talked me out of the idea and told me to hide it in a safe place. “
Soon after, however, the medals weren’t the only thing she had to hide.
A group of unknown men came to her family last week and asked where they were, likely because of their social media activities, she says. They also visited her brother’s office.
One and a half months after the Taliban rule, Hamidi decided to go into hiding. She now changes her location frequently and lives in constant fear.
“I want to leave Afghanistan to resume training because I want to prepare for the 2024 Olympics. But I don’t want to go back to Iran. The situation of the refugees is difficult there, there is a lot of racism. Even if I’m the best, they won’t let me go to the Olympics, ”says Hamidi.
“Everything has changed since the Taliban came to power.”
In the 20 years of foreign occupation in Afghanistan, progress has been made on women’s rights. Women like Hamidi have benefited from wider access to education and gender equality programs.
The female literacy rate rose from 5.6 percent in 2001 to 29.81 percent in 2018 when US-led forces overthrew the Taliban regime.
Women were allowed to study at co-educational universities and dress in colorful tunics that reached below the knee. Hijabs were still part of women’s clothing, but many had their clothes removed in Kabul’s numerous cafes and restaurants, where they could freely mingle with men. For these women, the return of the Taliban means the end of their lives.
A distant dream
As an employee of foreign organizations, Meena Naeemi had the opportunity to leave Afghanistan after the fall of Kabul, but decided to stay. Now, in the final semester of her Masters in Pashto Literature, she is waiting to graduate before looking for opportunities abroad.
But finishing her studies under the Taliban may prove impossible. Classes at their university have not been resumed for women and if they do they will be separated.
“I did not expect to face such a fate. I still find it very difficult to believe that my country is in such a state. I have no hopes of completing my education and getting a job because they don’t want us to be part of society. They introduced peace at the expense of eliminating women, ”says Naeemi.
“I fear that from now on the girls will be stuck at home while the boys continue their education. I look in the mirror and realize that all of my plans are a distant dream. I feel like I’m dying slowly. “
The last 20 years have changed Afghan women; many no longer agree with the strict rules that are imposed on them and thereby gain room for maneuver that they will hardly give away.
Homeira Qaderi, a women’s rights activist from Herat, believes in civil resistance against the Taliban. But she also knows that most women will be too afraid to stand up for their rights.
“When the Taliban took over Kabul, I went to the media to speak to them. You should see women who are not silent. I believe in the power of language. But with every day that goes by, we see how the Taliban abuse women on the street, ”says the 41-year-old.
“The streets of Afghanistan are no longer a safe place for women. Resistance is a path to light. But what if women’s resistance to the Taliban is answered with whips and guns? “
Qaderi recalls the earlier Taliban rule in the 1990s as a teenager, when women had no choice but to marry and raise children. Many of them ended up marrying people they did not know or love at an age when they could not make informed decisions.
“Violence against women is systematic in the behavior of the Taliban government. If the Taliban don’t use violence against women, they lose their identity, ”she says.
“But the days of slavery are over and any attempt to enslave us will fail sooner or later. I hope the world doesn’t turn its back on Afghan women again. “