The woman who was hunting islamists and terrorists just a year ago in Afghanistan kneels on the carpet in an unadorned room on the outskirts of the capital Kabul. She spends most hours of the day here, hidden from prying eyes. Her identity must remain secret. Zahra Sama, former prosecutor, (name changed, in order to protect her) fears for her life.

Zahra Sama, prosecutor

On the day that was to change Sama’s life, Afghan history took a new course. On August 15, 2021, the Taliban captured the capital. They freed numerous inmates from Afghanistan’s largest prison, reportedly including their own comrades-in-arms and members of other terrorist groups. And Sama got an anonymous phone call.

„With the blessing and support of Allah, we beat the American nation”

„Now our people are in power,” a man’s voice said. „The city is ours. We will find you.” Sama suspects the caller was one of the criminals she had put in prison and who was now at large – seeking revenge. Although the Taliban have declared a general amnesty for associates of the former government, there have been repeated reports of extrajudicial killings. The Taliban government denies such cases.

Zahra Sama, prosecutor

Sama and her family went into hiding, first with a relative, later with friends. The now unemployed prosecutor wanted to leave the country alongside the foreign diplomats and soldiers. At first, she made an effort with the British, who had once trained her in investigative techniques. The attempt failed when ISIS committed an attack on Kabul airport.

Two days later, London stopped its evacuation mission – and Sama set up her life underground. To this day, she hopes for a promise of admission from a Western government. „I don’t only care about myself,” Sama says. „I am the reason my family is in danger. For them, I want a safe place and peace of mind.”

Street market in Kabul

When walking the streets of Kabul, I notice two things. The first is the number of beggars. Women in light blue burkas, their face entirely covered by cloth, are reaching out their arms, hoping for a few Afghanis. Boys and girls, six, seven years old, knocking on windows of cars stuck in a traffic jam.

Street market in Kabul

Afghanistan is facing a humanitarian crisis that has been intensifying in the past months. The economy is in a bad shape after the Taliban took over; international sanctions are complicating foreign aid. And yet, people are so friendly. Almost everyone I talk to invites me to dinner with their family after, which I mostly respectfully decline.

Having the thought of how the west abandoned Afghanistan after 20 years in the back of my mind, I almost feel ashamed.

The second thing is the women. Before coming to Afghanistan, I frantically searched numerous online shops for modest dresses in accordance with the requirements of the Taliban. Officially, they are asking women to cover their faces – but in Kabul, the capital, the rule hasn’t been enforced, at least not in everyday life.

The city of Kabul, Afghanistan

All around me, I see young women with perfect make-up and carefully pedicured feet, in high-heel sandals. Their headscarves sometimes only cover the backs of their heads, hair strands framing their faces. The Taliban don’t seem to mind, at least not yet. I quickly learned to ditch my mud-coloured scarf and buy a beautiful red one with traditional Afghan embroidery.

Those who can afford it, have lunch in one of Kabul’s hipster restaurants. The latest trend in interior design is plants, loads of them, covering the ceilings and lining the tables. Young men smoke shisha, girls open their abayas, revealing chic blouses and jeans. If I didn’t know I was in Kabul, I could be as well in Bucharest or Berlin.

An elegant restaurant in Kabul

On other occasions however, the Taliban are showing the face that the world has learned to fear them for. When a women’s protest is taking place, they fire in the air with their rifles, they forcibly disperse the gathered crowd, they arrest journalists and keep them detained for hours. Journalism has some red lines under the Taliban. They don’t like critical reporting. The problem is, you never know where the red line is. It keeps changing with every individual Taliban officer and their mood.

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The Taliban deny that they exclude women from the workforce. „In the areas where women are needed, they work,” Taliban spokesman and Deputy Minister of Information and Culture Zabiullah Mujahid says.

Zabihullah Mujahid, Taliban spokesman and Deputy Minister of Information and Culture

„In every other area where a woman is needed, we will hire them too, for example in higher education, education and health sectors, police, prisons, passport control and airports.”

In the Islamic Emirate’s workforce, there is room for women where they are with other women – within narrow limits, as part of gender segregation.

On the streets of Kabul, women only walk in burkas and abayas, and only accompanied
Street market in Kabul

Meanwhile, in large parts of the country, schools for girls in seventh grade and above have been closed for a year, despite promises to the contrary.

The Taliban justify this on religious and cultural grounds. „Afghanistan is not only made up of the cities, but also of large tribes and a large number of people in the mountains,” says Bilal Karimi, the government’s deputy spokesman.

„These people have their own demands based on religious precepts. After assessing their demands and desires for the future system, we can get a result,” he says. In the end, he says, schools will be reopened for girls. When asked, he does not give an exact timetable.

„To a certain extent, women’s rights thrived in Kabul. But many of these values were confined to the capital,” says Ibraheem Bahiss of the International Crisis Group.

In the countryside, the strict rules of a conservative society prevailed, even without the Taliban. And yet: since the Islamists have been in power, they deprive all women of their freedom rights – even those like Sama, who grew up believing they could achieve anything they aspired to.

Market in Kabul

Afghan female journalists are still allowed to work, but they are under special pressure. Since May, they have had to cover their faces in front of the camera. The independent private broadcaster Tolo News deliberately hired new women last year. A silent protest.

Waheeda Hasan is part of the morning show. Outside the studio, the 28-year-old wears her turquoise headscarf loosely on the back of her head, strands of hair falling into her face. In front of the camera, however, only her eyes are visible. It feels terrible, she says. Her voice is unclear, it is warm and she has trouble breathing.

Waheeda Hasan, reporter for Tolo News

The Afghan media landscape was considered a great success of the Western military intervention. Now, however, numerous editorial offices and radio stations have stopped working, journalists have left the country in droves. Some reporters were arrested when they reported on women’s protests, for example.

„There is no constitution, no media law, no freedom of information law,” he says.

After terrorist attacks, reporters were often denied access; figures on wounded and killed were withheld by the Taliban, according to Faheem.

Editorial meeting at Tolo News

Female journalist Hasan keeps a diary. She hopes that one day her notes can be a warning to future generations that freedom cannot be taken for granted.

Street market in Kabul

Once, a Taliban religious scholar came to the station, she says. The best cover-up for women, he said according to her, was not to become journalists in the first place.

„I think their main goal is to remove us from the media,” Hasan says. „They have taken away our identity. Our only fault is that we are women.”

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