'You can see the changes': Afghan women go from wearing suits to wearing burqas 1 month since the fall of Kabul

·9 min read

Afghans left behind after the U.S. military withdrew wear their country's changes.

They show up in the bruises left from a beating or the garb required for women who had adopted more modern dress but now must cover their bodies to comply with the Taliban.

It has been only one month since the Taliban, on Aug. 15, retook Kabul without firing a single shot. Now the regime is back in power after a two-decade war that ended when the last U.S. flight left the airport in Kabul on Aug. 31.

“You can see the changes,” a woman who remains in Afghanistan told USA TODAY.

After making early promises about a more inclusive government, the Taliban have returned in some ways to the brutal regime that ruled the country before the American invasion in 2001.

Journalists have suffered beatings. The outgoing government's ambassador to the United Nations has raised concerns about human rights violations in the last province where the Taliban are trying to win control.

Afghan women walk past a closed beauty salon in Kabul, Afghanistan, Saturday, Sept. 11, 2021. Since the Taliban gained control of Kabul, several images depicting women outside beauty salons have been removed or covered up.
Afghan women walk past a closed beauty salon in Kabul, Afghanistan, Saturday, Sept. 11, 2021. Since the Taliban gained control of Kabul, several images depicting women outside beauty salons have been removed or covered up.

As the international community rallies aid for Afghanistan, Afghans find themselves living in a country that has already radically changed and probably will change even further.

“What we are seeing is totally different from what they are saying," the woman said of the Taliban.

Her changing country shows up in the mirror before she leaves for a trip to the grocery store. After years of wearing suits with light jackets, a pop of color in a blouse and a headscarf draped over her shoulders and under her chin, she now dons a borrowed black burqa that covers all but her face.

Even that, though, was too much, she said. A Taliban fighter flashed a gun, she said, when he told her that only her eyes could be visible.

“If you don’t follow what they are saying, they start beating,” she said. USA TODAY is not identifying the woman and others who remain in Afghanistan because of concerns for their safety.

Girls walk upstairs as they enter a school before class in Kabul, Afghanistan, on Sept. 12, 2021.
Girls walk upstairs as they enter a school before class in Kabul, Afghanistan, on Sept. 12, 2021.

A country in crisis

Life in communities that recently came under Taliban rule has been quickly and sharply upended as the extremist group reimposes strict conventions on the population. The immediate fallout of the Taliban's return to power has been a collapse of government and economic stability that threatens to plunge the country into free fall.

Many of the social and economic gains cities like the capital, Kabul, saw over the past two decades have eroded in weeks. The country faces an economic crisis that threatens widespread famine and social collapse should it not be remedied.

Much of the landlocked country's economy depends on imports. Foreign aid accounts for about 40% of the economy.

A United Nations report found that Afghanistan, where already nearly two-thirds of people live in poverty, is on the verge of universal impoverishment and economic collapse in the coming year. The study predicts the country's economy will shrink 3.6% to 13.2% over the next fiscal year.

The U.N. said Monday that it has raised more than $1.2 billion to help 11 million Afghans as famine threatens to grip the country.

The new Taliban government is unable to access about $9 billion in frozen foreign currency reserves while international support from the U.S. and groups like the International Monetary Fund and World Bank has halted.

September 12, 2021: Afghans wait in front of a bank as they try to withdraw money in Kabul, Afghanistan.
September 12, 2021: Afghans wait in front of a bank as they try to withdraw money in Kabul, Afghanistan.

In the meantime, many Afghans are forced to wait days in line at banks to access accounts and are limited in how much cash they can withdraw.

Prices have continued rising, even amid the scarcity of cash. Afghans who spoke to USA TODAY said grocery prices have doubled and medicine is difficult to find.

The combination of rising prices and the inability to obtain money has made it challenging to meet even the most basic needs.

The woman who remains in Afghanistan said the Taliban have prevented women from working. Afghans are selling their possessions – rugs, curtains and dishes – at deep discounts to scrape together money to buy food, she said.

“This is like simply a jail, a jail with big square meters, but there is no one coming in and nobody coming out,” an Afghan man who remains in the country told USA TODAY.

Familiar faces take control of Kabul

Since U.S. and allied forces withdrew from the country, the fundamentalist group has established an interim government headed by a Cabinet stacked with hard-line ministers. Many of the new leaders are veterans of the Taliban's last government in the 1990s and early 2000s.

All the ministers are men, the overwhelming majority are from the dominant Pashtun ethnic group, and at least one, interior minister Sirajuddin Haqqani, is on the FBI's Most Wanted list for a bounty of $5 million.

Taliban fighters escort veiled women marching during a pro-Taliban rally outside the Shaheed Rabbani Education University in Kabul on September 11, 2021.
Taliban fighters escort veiled women marching during a pro-Taliban rally outside the Shaheed Rabbani Education University in Kabul on September 11, 2021.

Though Taliban spokesmen swear the appointments are temporary, the group's exclusion of women and ethnic and religious minorities, including the country's sizeable Shiite Muslim population, already has alarmed the international community.

The Taliban leadership also is poised to announce that its top religious leader, Haibatullah Akhundzada, will head the new government, a spokesman for the group wrote on Twitter.

Akhundzada, a cleric who has presided over the group's brutal tactics for years, further alarms foreign governments hoping the group would chart a different course as it came to power.

Human rights abuses under Taliban rule

Taliban fighters are now going door to door in cities across the country, hunting Afghans who aided American and coalition forces, multiple sources told USA TODAY.

“They will be judging them on the spot,” said Samim Rahman Rahmani, an interpreter who evacuated Afghanistan. “That’s why I am worried about my friends that they left behind in Afghanistan with their families.”

Veiled women hold banners and placards while marching during a pro-Taliban rally outside the Shaheed Rabbani Education University in Kabul on September 11, 2021.
Veiled women hold banners and placards while marching during a pro-Taliban rally outside the Shaheed Rabbani Education University in Kabul on September 11, 2021.

Rahmani said he and his family are in Germany waiting for flights to the U.S. to resume after a measles outbreak, but he remains in contact with people in Afghanistan. They often change locations to evade the Taliban, he said.

Several Afghans told USA TODAY that even if they initially can conceal their identity, they fear being identified as having worked for American interests.

One Afghan man said he goes out only at night after being beaten with a stick by a Taliban fighter, and he moves his family to avoid staying in one place too long. They wear coverings to avoid detection.

“I couldn’t go to work and can’t find a job because I’m not in one place,” he told USA TODAY.

The worsening situation has caused backlash to Taliban rule in cities across the country.

On Tuesday, thousands took to the streets in Kandahar, Afghanistan's second-largest city, after the Taliban began evictions in an area that is largely occupied by the families of retired army generals and other members of the Afghan security forces, according to Reuters.

September 12, 2021: Laborers wait in the street to be hired, in Kabul, Afghanistan.
September 12, 2021: Laborers wait in the street to be hired, in Kabul, Afghanistan.

Afghan media's bleak future

Independent media in the country have been targeted for reporting on the unrest, including major anti-Taliban protests across the country.

Tolo News, the country’s first 24/7 channel, known for its hard-hitting reporting, has come under harassment from the Taliban for its early coverage of the incoming government. A cameraman covering protests in Kabul for the station was detained for three hours before being released, according to The Associated Press, and reporters elsewhere have been harassed by Taliban fighters.

Though the Taliban's promises to preserve an open media environment already have proven false, some within the group see an opportunity in using Tolo and other coerced media as a way to manage their image domestically and abroad, according to a Financial Times report.

Afghan journalists Neamatullah Naqdi, 28, and Taqi Daryabi, 22, pose for a portrait at Etilaat Roz daily office in Kabul, Afghanistan, Friday, Sept. 10, 2021. The Afghan reporters were detained and beaten by Taliban forces after covering a women's protest in Kabul.  The U.N. human rights office said incidents of Taliban violence against protesters and journalists is increasing.
Afghan journalists Neamatullah Naqdi, 28, and Taqi Daryabi, 22, pose for a portrait at Etilaat Roz daily office in Kabul, Afghanistan, Friday, Sept. 10, 2021. The Afghan reporters were detained and beaten by Taliban forces after covering a women's protest in Kabul. The U.N. human rights office said incidents of Taliban violence against protesters and journalists is increasing.

The effort to curb critical media is part of a larger strategy of brand management from the Taliban, who are determined to present a better face to the world than was evident during their past reign.

Taliban-supporting women waving banners reading “the women who left don’t represent us" accompanied by cheerful television newscasts announcing the group's edicts reflect a bid for domestic support and a play to reassure foreign audiences that the situation on the ground is not dire.

Independent journalists in the country were not convinced.

In a column for USA TODAY, Afghan journalist Fatema Hosseini recounted how the Taliban brutalized and tortured her colleagues for reporting on their activities.

Hosseini, who recently fled, recounted how Taliban fighters blamed journalists reporting on protests for inciting backlash. Others have received separate death threats and been tortured for their coverage.

"Journalists in Afghanistan know they can't hide what is happening, to them or their country. If they hide it, the Taliban will get more opportunities to abuse them. But spreading the news is also a huge risk of these people's lives. Next time, if the Taliban see any of my five colleagues, they might be killed," Hosseini wrote.

"The Taliban are already killing people and torturing them. It's so easy for them. It's just a matter of giving an order to them."

New restrictions for women

Life under the new Taliban rule has been especially changed for women. In Kabul, which was a dynamic and diverse metropolis only this summer, women are again required to have male escorts in public.

The Taliban have reimposed gender divisions elsewhere in public life, especially in education, where many women fear they will be barred from attending any form of education and relegated to a reclusive life once more.

attend their class after private universities were reopened in Kabul on September 6, 2021. Women attending private Afghan universities must wear an abaya robe and niqab covering most of the face, the Taliban have ordered, and classes must be segregated by sex -- or at least divided by a curtain.
attend their class after private universities were reopened in Kabul on September 6, 2021. Women attending private Afghan universities must wear an abaya robe and niqab covering most of the face, the Taliban have ordered, and classes must be segregated by sex -- or at least divided by a curtain.

Afghan women who spoke to USA TODAY expressed fear about the new reality.

Asila Wardak, a women’s rights activist in Afghanistan who is involved with Every Woman Treaty, said fear and panic have spread.

At checkpoints outside Kabul, women generally pass without search or acknowledgement, she said, but men who appear out of the ordinary are stopped. The country’s land borders continue to draw crowds of people trying to leave, she said.

Like other women, Wardak said she has started wearing a larger scarf to comply with the Taliban.

“For me personally, I cannot go to work. I don’t go to public places. I don’t visit any friends. I avoid crowded places,” she said.

Sept. 4, 2021: Taliban fighters stand guard at a market in Kabul, Afghanistan.
Sept. 4, 2021: Taliban fighters stand guard at a market in Kabul, Afghanistan.

She now leaves her home only to shop for food and wonders if she will ever return to her job as a professional diplomat. She survived for several days eating boiled chickpeas to avoid going out. While she has maintained a presence on social media, Wardak said activism has become more dangerous.

"We had the right to go to work. We had the right to speak up. We had the right to go alone on the streets. We had the right to wear whatever we want. We had the right to enjoy. We had enjoyment. We had good times," another woman who remains in Afghanistan told USA TODAY. "There is no hope anymore."

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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Afghanistan: One month after fall of Kabul, Taliban harden their rule

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