It took years for Women for Afghan Women to build up Afghanistan’s largest network of women’s protection services — 32 safe houses, family guidance centers and children’s homes in 14 provinces, growing by word-of-mouth and driven by the intense need for their services.
They started closing their doors in a matter of days as the Taliban began their lightning advance through Afghan cities on Aug. 6. Most of the shelter directors grabbed or burned records, packed a few belongings and fled with their clients as word arrived that the Taliban were coming.
A very few safe-house directors — not only those affiliated with Women for Afghan Women, but also with a handful of other long-established shelters — opted to stay where they were, but went silent, fearful that anything they said could bring harm to the women in their care. No one is accepting new cases.
“Our shelters, our women’s protection centers, are gone. It is highly unlikely that most of the work we do for women, we will be able to do as we have done it,” said Sunita Viswanath, the co-founder of Women for Afghan Women.
Even before the Taliban takeover, Afghanistan placed near the bottom of every list when it came to protections for women, and at the top in terms of the need for safe houses, counseling and courts that could help keep women safe.
More than half of all Afghan women reported physical abuse and 17% reported sexual violence, while almost 60% were in forced marriages as opposed to arranged marriages, according to studies cited by the Afghan Ministry of Women’s Affairs — and underreporting is rampant.
Honor killings, child marriages, the payment of a bride price for a woman, and the practice of baad — the trading of young girls to pay the debts of the elders, which is tantamount to selling a child into slavery — still occur in rural areas. Everywhere, harassment of women in workplaces and in public is a constant, as is psychological abuse, according to recent studies.
As the insurgency advanced, the first concern of the staff of Women for Afghan Women and others running similar shelters was what the Taliban might do to punish them. As the country’s rulers in the 1990s, the Taliban strenuously opposed women traveling on their own or gathering together.
Relatively recent examples of Taliban conduct have been worrying. When the Taliban briefly took over the city of Kunduz in 2015, the Women for Afghan Women shelter operators and clients all fled as threatening calls flooded in from the insurgents. The shelter director described being actively hunted, and said she was getting calls from the Taliban saying they would capture her and hang her in the village square as an example.
But it is not just fear of the Taliban that has frightened the shelter operators and their clients this time. Taliban fighters have come to some of the shelters in recent weeks. Sometimes they have vandalized the premises and taken over the buildings, but there have been no reports of their harming anyone yet, said Viswanath, the group’s co-founder.
“None of our staff has been beaten, attacked, killed, as far as I know,” she said.
Much of the concern has come from the waves of prisoners set free during the Taliban advance. Among them were men imprisoned under women’s protections laws that were enacted with Western support over the past 20 years. The former prisoners have a grudge to bear not just against the female relative who spoke out against them and humiliated them publicly, but also against all those who supported that effort — the safe house directors, counselors and lawyers.
A woman from rural Baghlan province, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because she has been receiving death threats, described how she is now changing where she sleeps every few nights. Earlier, she had worked with prosecutors to help gather evidence of abuse in cases involving women.
“After capturing cities, the Taliban released all prisoners. Among these prisoners were some who were sentenced as a result of my work,” she said. “Now they are threatening me, and there is no government or system to go to and seek shelter. I am just hiding in one place or another.”
The shelters have long been targets. For many in Afghanistan’s harshly patriarchal society — not just the Taliban — a woman who is on her own or who leaves her family is often viewed as a prostitute. Some see shelters for battered women as thin disguises for brothels.
Over the past 15 years, however, despite the societal antagonism toward protections for women, more began seeking out shelters. Often bearing ghastly injuries — broken bones or internal injuries from being severely beaten — women would again and again knock at the unmarked gates or ordinary homes where women’s aid groups took people in.
Whether those operations will continue is firmly in the hands of the Taliban, who are expected to announce their own laws to govern women’s conduct. That will leave the former Afghan government’s Elimination of Violence Against Women Act, and other protections, on uncertain footing.
For now, Taliban officials have offered assurances that women would be allowed to work and in some cases travel without a male relative’s escort — “as allowed for under Shariah,” or Islamic law. The Taliban’s spokesman, Zabiullah Mujahid, surprised some when he acknowledged, after other Taliban officials urged Afghan women to stay home temporarily for their own safety, that many within the Taliban ranks could not be trusted to treat women civilly, and would need to be educated.
But the Taliban made similar statements after taking control of the capital and most of the country in 1996.
“The explanation was that the security was not good, and they were waiting for security to be better, and then women would be able to have more freedom,” said Heather Barr, the associate director of women’s rights at Human Rights Watch. “But of course in those years they were in power, that moment never arrived — and I can promise you Afghan women hearing this today are thinking it will never arrive this time, either.”
For Mahbouba, a longtime activist who has worked to protect Afghan women for much of her life, the picture is not yet clear. But she says she is giving the Taliban the benefit of the doubt, for now. She has no quarrel with their assertion that everything must be done according to Shariah law, because that is the religion of Afghanistan.
But how the Taliban interpret Shariah will matter, too, she said.
“We just have to wait and see what is happening. The Taliban have not really started anything — check in one month, in two months, in six months,” she said.
Mahbouba, whom the Times is identifying by just one name to protect her and her organization, oversees a long-established safe house for women. She has not fled, or closed its doors, but she is keeping a low profile and calibrating what she says to the news media, she said.
When some Taliban recently came to her office saying that the women were being kept against their will, Mahbouba said she did not let them in, but went outside to talk with them.
They told her they had heard that “some women are kept prisoners here.” She rejected that, saying instead she was defending the honor of Afghan women.
“I do not let them go on the street to be used and abused by other people; these are the victims of family violence,” she recalled saying. “So, instead of running away and having them go to prostitution, I have kept their honor and I am keeping them safe.”
The Taliban appeared to accept that explanation, 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 haywire and it becomes really terrible, we can let people know.”