The Lowdown Hub

‘We’re going back to the dark ages’: Why women could pay the ultimate price for peace in Afghanistan

Many fear that a return to the harsh militant rule might be the cost of an end to the war

A return of the Taliban might seem closer than ever before in Afghanistan CREDIT: Stefanie Glinski

As initial peace talks between the Taliban and the Afghan government drag on, many fear that a return to the dark ages of the harsh militant rule might be the price of an end to war – and that women could bear the brunt. For some – like Sana – this is already beginning to turn into a reality. Her literacy classes have been canceled, her friend has been “verbally assaulted for elaborately pinning up her hair under her scarf”, and new rules mean she cannot leave her house without a male guardian. Growing up in Pashtun Zarghun, a rural district in Western Afghanistan’s Herat province, Sana, a 55-year-old mother of five, has lived through Soviet occupation and civil war, Taliban rule and US invasion. War, she says, has always been brutal, but over the past two decades, she has seen positive developments: roads were built, new schools opened, and women of her age were even given opportunities to study.

After the fall of the Taliban in 2001, Sana had been seeing better times. Her province of Herat, bordering Iran to the west, is relatively safe, businesses started to flourish after the US invasion; and Sana was looking forward to a brighter future.

Men say that local Talibs have instructed them to tell their wives, mothers, and sisters that they should be fully covered when going outside CREDIT: Stefanie Glinski/The Telegraph

But recently, a familiar pattern has re-emerged: the local Talibs have returned to her village, enforcing similar restrictions to what Sana experienced two decades ago. “They haven’t changed over the past 20 years,” she says from Herat city, where she has taken temporary shelter from her village’s Taliban rule. “We’re going back to the dark ages.” As the Taliban and the Afghan government meet in Doha to discuss a potential future power-sharing deal, fighting on the ground has intensified, with levels of Taliban violence doubling in the past three months, according to US oversight authority SIGAR. The Afghan government has been asking for a permanent ceasefire, but Taliban militants have so far rejected the bid. With all US troops due to leave by May next year, the Afghan forces will soon be left fighting a group of militants that even the US didn’t manage to defeat. A return of the Taliban might seem closer than ever before. The group, who were in power between 1996 and 2001, has said they would renounced their previous harsh rule. But what this means in practice is unclear. They now aim to “put an end to the foreign invasion and establish true and Afghan based rule”. according to Taliban spokesperson, Dr Muhammad Naim.

Back in the 1990s, the group banned music and television sets, staged public executions and had women confined to their homes CREDIT: Stefanie Glinski/The Telegraph

In a recent report, analysts Ashley Jackson and Rahmatullah Amiri say that, “conversations with Talibs in the field strongly indicate that they do in fact expect the outcome of Doha negotiations to be a return to the 1990s-style emirate”, adding that the difference between the group’s leaders in Doha and the fighters on the ground is vast. Back in the 1990s, the group banned music and television sets, staged public executions and had women confined to their homes, unable to leave without a male escort and being fully covered. While aspirations at the negotiation table might vary, most local Taliban fighters are far removed from the Doha talks, with many of them unaware of what discussions might even entail. In places like Pashtun Zarghun, local Talibs have once again imposed strict rules, especially for women, says Sana. “In the past months, my life has changed so much,” she says. “I used to visit friends in the village and I used to farm. None of it is possible anymore. It is like the Taliban is back and they are going to stay.” Of course she remembers the militant’s arrival some 25 years ago. “When they controlled Afghanistan, the situation for women was really bad,” she says. Most of her children live in the village too apart from her son Hasseeb who after returning from working in neighbouring Iran, took his wife and children to the relative safety of Herat city, about 30 minutes from Pashtun Zarghun. “They came and killed all the police,” he says. “They ask us to be vigilant and tell them if we see any government forces nearby. They ask us for food and they also demand women to stay indoors.”

Women may soon find themselves navigating violence and new sets of rules CREDIT: Stefanie Glinski

For the past few days, Sana has managed to stay with her son in the city, escaping both fighting and a new set of rules. She sits in the small, dark living room her son’s family has rented, her feet tucked under a ‘sandali’, a table with a bucket of burning coal underneath and covered with thick blankets; a traditional Afghan way to keep warm in winter. She watches her grandchildren play for a while, then snaps back into the conversation. “I am too old for this,” she says. Her family is convinced they left at the right time, as even travel had become difficult. Another woman, Perima, 45, who lives in a nearby village in Pashtun Zarghun, describes a recent trip to Herat city, where she frequently goes to visit relatives. “We were six relatives in the car and prior to traveling we had agreed on a story we’d tell the Taliban if there were any checkpoints,” she says. They set off in the early hours, with everyone tense and quiet in the car, with heart rates increasing as they approached the checkpoint. “We told them we had a sick person who needed to go to the hospital. I was afraid, even though nothing happened,” Perima says, adding that travel at night has been forbidden. Perima’s village has seen similar changes - with male residents saying that local Talibs have instructed them to tell their wives, mothers, and sisters that they should be fully covered when going outside and always keep a guardian with them, allegedly threatening to beat the men if their female relatives weren’t sticking to the rules. But Prima describes violence as her biggest concern, saying she hides in a corner of her house when fighting between the government and the Taliban starts, with both sides attacking each other and civilian houses often ending up in the crossfire. She says the Taliban doesn’t want to kill civilians, so they instruct people to stay indoors but admits to being scared nonetheless. “We lock our compounds now. We used to not lock our doors because our village felt safe,” she said. Life isn’t easy on either side of the conflict - often with strict social norms prevailing in both rural government and Taliban-held areas. But whether life in Prima's village is a glimpse of the future she doesn’t know - and doesn’t hope - but even with changes to her daily routine, she is adamant that the majority of problems she is facing relate directly to the war. “We need peace, development, and education,” she says, sitting under the blue sky of a wintery Herat garden, her blue burka tugged away, revealing a white dress with handmade yellow stitching. Today, she’s not going home, but will be staying with relatives in the city - the journey back to Pashton Zarghun at night is too dangerous. “Fighting might stop with the Taliban or the government reigning in Afghanistan. The outcome for women might look different, but at least we’d have peace, at least the war might stop - and that’s what I yearn for.”