Doctors, judges, athletes, activists: Afghan women trapped and considered at-risk under Taliban rule

KABUL, Afghanistan —

Her voice is steady and calm, but at times, talking of days just passed, she has the look of a person in the grip of vertigo. Or simple disbelief.

” This is a very terrible moment,” she stated. “Suddenly, you feel trapped. And there’s no way out.”

Before Kabul fell to the Taliban on Aug. 15, this 30-year-old Afghan woman was something of a pioneer. She managed a company in an industry that developed swiftly over the last 20 years, one in which women played a small but significant role. This description of her professional life is intentionally vague. We are withholding even the most basic details about her private life.

She is afraid.

A woman in a black burqa next to women and children crouching near barbed wire

A family crouchs in front a barbed wire cordon that was set up by the U.S. military at East Gate of Kabul’s airport on Wednesday.

(Marcus Yam / Los Angeles Times)

Taliban fighters are yet to knock on her door. Sahar has been largely invisible since the country and city changed hands. She wonders if the achievements in which she once took great pride are now her downfall.

” I don’t have any voice right now,” she stated. “You must keep your profile low. Protect yourself. Protect your identity .”

It is difficult to estimate the number of Afghan women who are at risk from the new leadership. Long-time observers of Taliban behavior towards women have found two broad categories of women that could be in serious trouble.

” One would be activists. People who have actively fought against Taliban-like attitudes or in some cases, the Taliban themselves,” Heather Barr, an associate director of Women’s Rights Division at the New York-based Human Rights Watch, said.

“There are also women who are not activists, but have high-profile roles or are non-conventional or highly trained — they stick their heads above the parapet somehow,” she stated.

 Women under colorful weavings at a bazaar

Women shop at the Lycee Maryam bazaar in Kabul’s Khair Khana neighbourhood.

(Marcus Yam / Los Angeles Times)

This could include women who are judges, doctors, lawyers, members of the army or police, journalists, scholars or athletes — “any unusual occupation or pursuit that places you in the public eye where the Taliban doesn’t think women should be,” Barr stated.

Women, in other words, like Sahar. Some of the most exceptional are emerging elsewhere, safe. A group of soccer players found haven this week in Australia, an exodus that totaled nearly 80 including their relatives and officials from their sports federation. Five members of a famed all-female robotics team, which included girls as young as 14, made it to Mexico.

The Taliban have offered a reassuring narrative regarding women’s status since taking control of Afghanistan in a brief offensive that lasted just days. However, this narrative was quickly undermined by caveats.

In its first days of power, the Taliban stated that women would be allowed to work and participate in society within an Islamic framework. Many believed that the Taliban is still committed to its core philosophy from earlier years when it kept women at home, denied education, and punished them for wearing nail polish.

Two men seated at an outdoor area at night as two women in burqas walk by

Men sip fruit smoothies while two women wearing burqas pass by Kabul on Friday.

(Marcus Yam / Los Angeles Times)

On Tuesday, a Taliban spokesperson advised women to stay indoors. He explained that this was to ensure their safety and so the fighters of the Taliban were better trained.

Afghan women of Sahar’s generation have limited firsthand recollection of the Taliban’s five-year rule, which ended when the group was toppled in the 2001 U.S.-led invasion. Their mothers, aunts, and elder sisters still remember the Taliban’s five-year rule. They recalled how they promised greater freedoms if security conditions improved.

” The Taliban have made promises, but they have actually done the opposite,” Sahar stated.

Although a Taliban spokesman said the group would not seek retribution against those who opposed it, some Afghans who consider themselves targets are living in safe houses, together or alone, hoping against hope that Western friends can pull strings and help them secure passage out of the country. This cohort includes both men and women who have worked in international development or civil society organizations. They fear for their own safety and for their families. The Biden administration expressed its determination to assist those who have most openly supported the American-led war effort. These include Afghan interpreters who served with U.S. forces. Those ranks are overwhelmingly male, and several thousand of the estimated 22,000 Afghans who are eligible for so-called special immigrant visas have been spirited away with their families, mainly settled at U.S. military bases.

A program called humanitarian parole may be a route for Afghans who don’t meet the criteria to apply for visas. For people whose circumstances are urgent, they would have one year to apply for asylum or refugee status in the U.S.

A woman is surrounded by her children as she sits amidst a pile of debris.

A mother and her children are seated amid a heap of debris at the processing area, heading towards Abbey Gate in Kabul on Wednesday.

(Marcus Yam / Los Angeles Times)

First, however, one must get out. The U.S.-led airlift’s tempo has accelerated sharply in the last few days, with more than 82,000 Afghans flown out since Aug. 14, the day before Kabul fell to the Taliban.

But the American military presence, at least for now, is scheduled to end in just six days, and U.S. officials have said that in the evacuation effort’s final days, the priority will be flying out American citizens and U.S. forces, whose numbers are already being drawn down.

Regarding the vital security blanket provided by American forces, firepower and troops, allies in NATO Treaty Organization are also winding down their missions. Sahar and other women know that their chances of escape via airlift are diminishing every day.

After the Americans leave and Taliban consolidates their rule, there may be some escape routes, such as reopened borders to neighbouring countries.

Or commercial flight travel, if the airport is reopened to civilians and remains operational under Taliban control. However, this would pose the risk that bearers of documents to leave would be handed over to those who would wish them harm. Taliban officials already advised Afghans not to try to flee.

Though safe for the moment, Sahar speaks like a woman bereaved, grieving for a homeland that no longer feels like her own.

“Everyone’s mourning. She said, “We are so broken.” I wish that this were a nightmare. But when you wake up each morning, you see this is reality.”

Times staff writer Laura King in Washington contributed to this report.

A soldier pats down a woman wearing a golden yellow burqa

Afghans were searched and checked during a line of processing for Wednesday’s flight out of Kabul.

(Marcus Yam / Los Angeles Times)

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