It took Women for Afghan Women to build Afghanistan’s largest network of women protection services – 32 safe houses, family counseling centers and children’s homes in 14 provinces, which have been grown by word of mouth and driven by the high demand for their services.
They began closing their doors within a few days when the Taliban began their lightning advance through Afghan cities on August 6. Most of the shelter’s managers were packing or burning files, packing up a few belongings, and fling with their customers when news arrived that the Taliban were arriving.
A few directors of Safe Houses – not just those affiliated with Women for Afghan Women, but also a handful of other long-established shelters – chose to stay where they were, but remained silent for fear that everything what they said could cause harm to the women in their care. Nobody takes new cases.
“Our accommodations, our women’s protection centers, are gone. It is very unlikely that we can do most of the work we do for women as we did, ”said Sunita Viswanath, co-founder of Women for Afghan Women.
Even before the Taliban came to power, Afghanistan was at the bottom of every list when it comes to protecting women and at the top of the need for safe shelter, counseling and justice that could help keep women safe.
More than half of all Afghan women reported physical abuse and 17 percent reported sexual violence, while nearly 60 percent had forced marriages instead of arranged marriages, according to studies cited by the Afghan Ministry of Women.
Honor killings, child marriages, the payment of a bride price for a woman, and the practice of baad – trafficking young girls to pay the elders’ debts, which is equivalent to selling a child into slavery – still exist in rural areas . Everywhere, harassment of women in the workplace and in public is a constant, as is psychological abuse, according to recent studies.
As the uprising progressed, the first concern of staff at Women for Afghan Women and others who operate similar shelters was what the Taliban might do to punish them. As the country’s ruler in the 1990s, the Taliban fought vehemently against women traveling alone or gathering.
Relatively new examples of Taliban’s behavior are worrying. When the Taliban briefly took over the city of Kunduz in 2015, the operators and customers of the women’s refuge for Afghan women fled when threatening phone calls came in from the insurgents. The shelter manager described being actively hunted and said she got calls from the Taliban saying they would catch her as an example and hang her in the village square.
But it is not just the fear of the Taliban that is terrifying the shelter operators and their customers this time around. Taliban fighters have come to some of the shelters in the past few weeks. Sometimes they destroyed the site and took over the buildings, but there are still no reports of them causing harm to anyone, said Ms. Viswanath, the group’s co-founder.
“As far as I know, none of our employees have been beaten, attacked or killed,” she said.
Much of the concern stems from the waves of prisoners released during the Taliban’s advance. Among them were men detained under the women’s protection laws that have been enacted with Western support over the past 20 years. The former prisoners hold a grudge not only against the female relative who spoke out against them and publicly humiliated her, but also against all who supported these efforts – the directors of the safe house, advisors and lawyers.
A woman from rural Baghlan Province, who spoke on condition of anonymity for receiving death threats, described how she now changes her place to sleep every few nights. She had previously worked with prosecutors to gather evidence of abuse in cases involving women
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“After conquering the cities, the Taliban released all prisoners. Among those prisoners were some who were sentenced for my work, ”she said. “Now they are threatening me and there is no government or system to go to and take shelter. I only hide in one place or another. “
The shelters have long been targets. For many in Afghanistan’s strictly patriarchal society – not just the Taliban – a woman who is on her own or abandons her family is often viewed as a prostitute. Some see shelters for abused women as a thin panel for brothels.
In the last 15 years, however, despite the societal antagonism towards the protection of women, more and more people have started looking for shelters. Women, often with terrible injuries – broken bones or internal injuries from severe blows – kept knocking on the unmarked gates or ordinary houses where Relief Society groups took in people.
Whether or not these operations continue is firmly in the hands of the Taliban, who are expected to enact their own laws governing the behavior of women. That will leave the former Afghan government’s law on the elimination of violence against women and other protective measures on an uncertain basis.
For the time being, Taliban officials have given assurances that women are allowed to work and, in some cases, travel without the company of a male relative – “as permitted by Sharia law” or Islamic law. Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid surprised some when, after other Taliban officials urged Afghan women to stay home temporarily for their own safety, he admitted that many in the ranks of the Taliban could not be trusted to be polite and that they should be educated.
Understanding the Taliban takeover in Afghanistan
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Who are the Taliban? The Taliban emerged in 1994 amid the unrest following the withdrawal of Soviet forces from Afghanistan in 1989. They used brutal public punishments, including flogging, amputation and mass executions, to enforce their rules. Here is more about their genesis and track record as rulers.
Who are the Taliban leaders? These are the top leaders of the Taliban, men who for years have been on the run, in hiding, in prison and dodging American drones. Little is known about them or how they plan to rule, including whether they will be as tolerant as they say they are. A spokesman told the Times that the group wanted to forget their past but had some restrictions.
But the Taliban made similar statements after taking control of the capital and most of the country in 1996.
“The explanation was that security wasn’t good and they were waiting for security to get better and then women to have more freedom,” said Heather Barr, assistant director of women’s rights at Human Rights Watch. “But in the years they were in power, of course, that moment never came – and I can promise you that the Afghan women who hear this today think that it will never happen this time either.”
For Mahbouba, a longtime activist who has spent much of her life fighting to protect Afghan women, the picture is not yet clear. But she says she gives the Taliban the benefit of the doubt for now. With her claim that everything must be done according to Sharia law because that is the religion of Afghanistan, she has nothing against it.
But the Taliban’s interpretation of Sharia law will also be important, she said.
“We just have to wait and see what happens. The Taliban haven’t really started anything yet – check in in a month, in two months, in six months, ”she said.
Mahbouba, whom the Times identifies by name only to protect her and her organization, oversees a long-standing safe house for women. She hasn’t escaped or closed her doors, but she’s holding back and calibrating what she tells the news media, she said.
When some Taliban recently came into her office and said the women were being held against their will, Mahbouba said she did not let them in but went outside to speak to them.
They told her they heard that “some women are being held here.” She rejected that and instead said she was defending the honor of Afghan women.
“I don’t let them take to the streets to be used and abused by other people; they are the victims of domestic violence, ”she recalls. “So instead of running away and letting you go into prostitution, I have kept your honor and protect you.”
The Taliban appeared to accept this statement, and Mahbouba said she was determined to have a dialogue with them.
But she also made a request: please, she said, “keep watching, and if our world goes crazy and it gets really terrible, we can let people know.”
A New York Times employee contributed to the coverage.