Mehr, a 24-year-old university graduate in Kabul, lives in hiding. Dozens of men have a digital photo of her wearing nothing but underwear, she said, and some of them are threatening to get her arrested if she doesn’t have sex with them.
Before the Taliban seized control of Afghanistan in August, 2021, she shared the image with a man she had hoped to marry. Now, violating the new regime’s strict modesty standards for women is a crime. She said the situation has left her fighting suicidal thoughts every day. She fears that if she is arrested she will be killed.
Threats against women are now common in Afghanistan. Advocates for victims say sexual violence is on the rise under Taliban rule, and that previous supports to which women had access are no longer available to them.
The Globe and Mail spoke with six Afghan women who have faced gender-based violence since the Taliban came to power, and two local journalists who cover women’s issues. All of them described a worsening of conditions for women over the past year. The Globe is not identifying them by their full names out of concern for their safety.
For Afghan women, “the absence of war is not peace,” said Ayesha Jehangir, a war and conflict researcher at the University of Technology in Sydney, Australia.
Dr. Jehangir, who is Pashtun, said some gender-based violence stems from a southern Afghan societal code called Pashtunwali, which predates the region’s conversion to Islam in the seventh century. The code prohibits women from interacting with men outside of their families and has long been used to justify honour killings. Women who endure gender-based violence are often victimized again by their communities, whose members blame the women themselves for being sexually assaulted, Dr. Jehangir said.
By upholding Pashtunwali views of women as property, the Taliban have destroyed 20 years of progress on women’s equality and escalated sexual violence, Dr. Jehangir added. The regime has withdrawn a major advance in women’s rights introduced in 2009, known as the Law on Elimination of Violence against Women. The law had allowed victims to report abuse and prosecute perpetrators.
And, in September, 2021, the Taliban shuttered the Ministry of Women’s Affairs. It was replaced by the Ministry for Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice, the Taliban’s morality police.
“Even the sound of a woman’s feet walking around is considered lustful,” Dr. Jehangir said.
The Afghan women who spoke to The Globe described instances of extreme violence supported by the Taliban’s doctrines.
A 25-year-old woman said she was the mistress of a former government official before the Taliban takeover. She now has no choice but to remain the married man’s sex slave indefinitely. If she refuses him, he will kill her and the rest of her family, she said.
A 33-year-old journalist who rallied for gender equality in Kabul in December told The Globe that three of her fellow protesters were imprisoned, tortured and raped by Taliban officers. The women were released a few months later, the journalist said. But they were warned to stay silent, or videos of the rapes would be publicized – a probable death sentence.
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The journalist also confirmed through friends in Afghanistan that eight women who survived a brutal gang rape in January reportedly committed by Taliban officials in the city of Mazar-e-Sharif were later killed by their families. The women were imprisoned, stripped naked, whipped, electrically shocked and repeatedly raped over several weeks, she said. Their families, fearing they were pregnant, killed them to protect family honour.
Afghan women are murdered in myriad ways, including beheading, immolation, hanging, laceration, strangulation, shooting and electric shock, the sources who spoke to The Globe said. A 21-year-old being blackmailed by a man who is threatening to tell her father that she is not a virgin wrote that she fears being buried alive.
Afghan women’s rights activist Mahbouba Seraj said women in Afghanistan live in constant fear of slaughter.
“A woman can die at any moment,” she said.
And there are few places for survivors to hide. An Amnesty International report said the Taliban have looted and closed women’s shelter services. Some survivors had to return to abusive families and some live in hiding, the report said; others were imprisoned for “immoral behaviour” at Pul-e-Charkhi prison, near Kabul.
A 28-year-old former employee of the Afghan Ministry of Women’s Affairs in the northeastern province of Baglan said she still tries to help abused women. But, with shelters closed, there is little she can do. Her own husband brutally beats and rapes her, she said, assaults that have become more frequent and vicious since the Taliban takeover.
Sexual violence in marriage is prevalent in Afghanistan. A 2021 survey by the Afghan Ministry of Women’s Affairs reported that 40 per cent of women in Afghanistan’s Kandahar province had experienced sexual violence and more than 60 per cent nationwide were married without their consent.
Maryam Said Anwar, an Afghan refugee who is now living in Vancouver, said she was drugged and tortured by her husband before she fled. “Even as l lay full of pain and blood on the ground, he would hit my face and remove my nails with heavy-duty pliers,” she said.
The Taliban are ignoring murders of men in domestic disputes as well, several sources told The Globe. A former Afghan government official said his neighbour killed another man and took the man’s wife as his own. The Globe is not naming the official because he fears reprisal from the Taliban.
The Taliban have also created a list of unmarried girls, some as young as nine years old, and is forcing their fathers to marry them off to Taliban men, Dr. Jehangir said. Families live in fear because many Afghans are willing to turn in their neighbours’ daughters to curry favour with the Taliban.
“People are literally hiding their daughters,” she said.
Mia Bloom, a Canadian gender violence expert at Georgia State University in Atlanta, said women in Afghanistan are crestfallen and heartbroken.
The only chance for Afghan women is for Western countries to connect humanitarian funding to improving women’s security in Afghanistan, she said, or “we’re going to lose an entire generation of women.”
The Afghan women who spoke to The Globe said they suffer violence without allies or weapons. Many resort to blaming themselves for their anguish.
“I love my country, but I had desires, I had wishes,” Mehr said.
“This culture does not allow me to be myself … I hate myself now.”