Marzia Hamidi, a taekwondo competitor, dreamed big. The 19-year-old Afghan athlete had her eyes on national and international championships. But her dreams were dashed after the Taliban, which is against women participation in sports, took control of the country in August.
Her Instagram account – with more than 20,000 followers – was a window into her cheerful and passionate life, but no more. She now adorns a black abaya and matching hijab fearing Afghanistan’s new rulers.
At the end of September, Hamidi went into hiding after Taliban members came searching for her.
Taliban’s return to power after 20 years has led to self-censorship and has caused concerns among Afghans, particularly women, who fear a return of repressive life under the group.
The Taliban had initially promised to respect women and allow them to work in the government as per Islamic law, but secondary schools remain closed for girls, and there is an unofficial ban on women working, with the exception of a few professions such as in the health sector. Critics say their words have not matched actions on the ground.
The Ministry for the Propagation of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice, tasked with promoting Islamic values in the Taliban’s Islamic Emirate, has replaced the Ministry of Women, raising questions about women empowerment in the country.
Female protests erupted across several cities demanding their rights last month, but they were harshly suppressed.
Thousands of women have already fled in the wake of the fall of Kabul on August 15, while many others are looking for ways to leave, fearing the new regime will confine them to their homes.
During the first Taliban regime between 1996 and 2001, women virtually disappeared from the public eye as they were banned from working and were not allowed to travel without a male guardian. The violation of strict rules on women’s clothing and their behaviour in public attracted severe punishment, such as lashing and stoning.
Hamidi worries that women like her will soon meet a similar fate. She sits in a café inside an eighth storey residential building in central Kabul and slowly takes her abaya off – a cloak she says she is not comfortable wearing.
Born in Iran
Hamidi was born in Iran to a family of Afghan refugees. At 15, she went to a taekwondo class and immediately fell in love with the sport. Soon after, she became a professional fighter, earning several gold medals in the Under 57kg category national competitions.
But three years ago, Hamidi’s sporting career was disrupted after her family decided to move to Afghanistan. Her father no longer wanted to be a refugee in a foreign land, where they were often subjected to racist attacks. Iran is home to more than two million undocumented Afghans, in addition to 800,000 registered refugees.
“It’s always been hard for female fighters in Afghanistan. My male coach always stared at me, focused on my looks, which made me uncomfortable. Other girls in the taekwondo team always wore headscarves and complained that I did not,” Hamidi says.
“When the Taliban came, I was thinking about destroying my medals. Shall I burn them or keep them? I asked myself. But my brother talked me out of the idea and told me to hide them in a safe place.”
Soon after, however, the medals were not the only thing she had to hide.
Went into hiding
Last week, a group of unknown men came to her family home asking for her whereabouts, likely because of her social media activity, she says. They also visited her brother’s office.
A month and a half into the Taliban rule, Hamidi decided to go into hiding. She now frequently changes locations and lives in constant fear.
“I want to leave Afghanistan to resume my training because I want to prepare for the 2024 Olympic Games. But I don’t want to go back to Iran. The situation of refugees is difficult there, there is a lot of racism. Even if I’m the best, they will not let me attend the Olympics,” Hamidi says.
“Everything has changed since the coming to power of the Taliban.”
The 20 years of foreign occupation in Afghanistan saw progress on women’s rights. Women like Hamidi benefitted from broader access to education and programmes that supported gender equality.
Women’s literacy rate went up to 29.81 percent in 2018 from 5.6 percent in 2001, when the US-led forces toppled the Taliban regime from power.
Women were allowed to study in coeducational universities and dress in colourful tunics that fell above the knee. Hijabs were still part of women’s attire, but many allowed themselves to take them off in the numerous cafés and restaurants in Kabul, where they could freely mix with men. For these women, the return of the Taliban means the end of life as they know it.
A distant dream
As an employee with foreign organisations, Meena Naeemi had an opportunity to leave Afghanistan after the fall of Kabul, but she decided to stay. Now, in the final semester of her master’s in Pashto literature, she is waiting to finish her degree before looking for opportunities abroad.
But completing her studies under the Taliban may prove impossible. Classes at her university have not resumed for women and when they do, they will be segregated.
“I did not expect to face such a fate. It is still very hard for me to believe that my country is in such a state. I have no hopes for completing my education and getting a job because they do not want us to participate in society. They introduced peace at the expense of eliminating women,” Naeemi says.
“I’m afraid that from now on, the girls will be stuck at home, while boys continue their education. I look in the mirror and realise that all my plans are a distant dream. I feel like I am slowly dying.”
The past 20 years have changed Afghan women; many no longer agree with the strict rules imposed on them, gaining agency that they are unlikely to 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 talk to them. They should see women who will not remain silent. I believe in the power of speech. But with each passing day, we see the Taliban abusing women on the streets again,” the 41-year-old says.
“The streets of Afghanistan are no longer a safe place for women. The resistance is a path to light. But what if women’s resistance to the Taliban will be met with whips and guns?”
Qaderi remembers the Taliban’s previous rule during the 1990s as a teenager when women had no choice but to get married 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 choices.
“Violence against women is systematic in the behaviour of the Taliban government. If the Taliban do not use violence against women, they will lose their identity,” she says.
“But the period of slavery is over and any attempt to enslave us will sooner or later fail. I hope the world does not turn its back on Afghan women again.”