— The Taliban occupation of Kunduz may have been temporary, but what they did to Afghan women’s rights could prove to be lasting.
In a methodical campaign, the Taliban relentlessly hounded women with any sort of public profile, looted a high school and destroyed the offices of many of the organizations that protected and supported women in Kunduz
Among those who have fled are the women who ran a shelter for female victims of violence, whom Taliban commanders say are “immoral.”
Gone are educated women who worked for the government or international organizations; gone are some women who were school administrators and women who were activists for peace and democracy. They left, mostly at night, on foot or in run-down taxis, hiding under burqas, running for their lives.
“I won’t go back — I will never go back,” said Dr. Hassina Sarwari, the Kunduz Province director of Women for Afghan Women, which ran a shelter for abused women, a family guidance center and a center for the children of women in the Kunduz prison.
After the Taliban completed their campaign of burning and looting women’s organizations, they continued their attacks verbally, by text message and telephone calls, threatening women and their relatives, making it clear that the women would remain in their sights. The Taliban’s message, based on interviews with a half-dozen women who received the warnings after fleeing Kunduz, was that they escaped this time, but that next time they would not be so lucky.
“Before we managed to take control of the shelter, Hassina Sarwari, the head of the shelter house along with all the runaway sluts and immoral girls, had already left Kunduz city,” said Abdul Wali Raghi, a Taliban commander in Kunduz.
“Hassina Sarwari herself is an immoral slut and if we had captured her, she would be hanged in the main circle in Kunduz city,” he added.
If in their publicity statements in recent years the Taliban had sounded more moderate, their behavior in Kunduz left little doubt where they really stand.
Within the first three days of the Taliban occupation, women who ran organizations aimed at helping women had their homes and offices looted, their computers stolen, their furniture, televisions and appliances smashed. Then, the Taliban left messages on their phones, or with relatives or neighbors, saying, “Return and you will be killed.”
Among the organizations destroyed by the Taliban were three radio stations run by women: One was burned, the other two looted. The Fatima Zahra girls’ high school and the Women’s Empowerment Center, which held social and political awareness sessions and taught women to sew, were also looted.
Women for Afghan Women’s office and children’s center were looted, its computers and cars were stolen, and the organization’s shelter for abused women was completely burned; it also appeared to have been attacked with sledgehammers, the windows shattered, the walls and door frames smashed.
Some allegations against the Taliban — that they raped women in the university dormitory and the women’s prison — have not been proved. The accusation of rapes in the dormitory was broadcast on at least two Afghan television stations, Tolo TV and One TV, but neither offered significant evidence to support the allegations.
Taliban commanders and spokesmen forcefully denied that charge and threatened to kill “any staff or reporter” of either Tolo or One TV, calling them “satanic media” that repeated “propaganda.”
The Taliban noted that because their invasion of the city occurred during the annual Eid al-Adha holiday, the women were not even in the dormitory, but home visiting their families. The Kunduz University president, Abdul Qadoos Zarifi, said the same in a television interview.
What happened in the prison is less clear. Mr. Raghi, a Taliban commander in Kunduz, strongly denied the rape allegations. However, there are reports among some women’s groups of at least one woman being raped multiple times. Much remains unclear about that case, including who the attackers might have been.
Even amid the broader destruction in Kunduz over the past few days, including dozens of casualties and widespread building damage, the threat against women there was particularly chilling. That is in part because of how rare, and how recent, improvements for Afghan women have been in territories beyond Kabul, the national capital.
In Kunduz, known for having some of the most horrific cases involving women including at least two cases of stoning in the last five years, gang rape and rapes of children, it has taken years for women to feel secure enough to work there. Now that they feel targeted and under surveillance by the Taliban, they are unlikely to return or, if they do, are likely to choose jobs where they are less visible and less easily tracked.
“There is psychological damage,” Fiona Gall, the director of Acbar, an umbrella group representing nongovernmental organizations in Afghanistan
, said about the effects on both women’s organizations and smaller humanitarian groups working in Kunduz.
“These people are going to be much more reluctant to do anything that stands out,” for fear that their families will be targeted, she said.
Fawzia Bostani, a civil engineer who works for the Ministry of Public Works in Kunduz, had been threatened for years by the Taliban. She was sure they would come looking for her once they entered the city.
She is the only female civil engineer working in Kunduz, she said. And her projects — including routing and restoring roads in Kunduz and its neighboring provinces, and taking part in an effort to learn the views of local women on the construction — have made her well known in the area.
The day after the Taliban arrived, she put on a burqa and slipped through the alleys to a neighbor’s house — it turned out just in time.
“That night the Taliban came to my house and said, ‘Where is that woman who is working in street building?’” Ms. Bostani said. “My older brother said, ‘There is no woman working in any organization doing that work in this house.’”
The Taliban members showed her brother a photograph of the corner of their block, saying that they had watched a car pick her up every morning.
As soon as the Taliban left, her brother called her and told her to flee. Although it was dark, she walked until she was at the edge of the city and then took a three-wheel all-terrain vehicle almost 70 miles to neighboring Baghlan Province.
A few days later, the Taliban returned to her house in Kunduz and left a message with her sister-in-law: “We don’t want to see her here again.”
Ms. Bostani said she has no plans to return to Kunduz.
The head of the Afghan government’s Women’s Ministry office in Kunduz, Naheed Asifi, also fled and made clear she was reluctant to return.
“If your life is in danger and you know that there is a significant threat, would you go back?” she asked. “I am sure you would not.”
Asked if the government will be able to find someone else to fill her job in Kunduz, Ms. Asifi said: “I don’t think anyone would go.”
Despite the sense of crisis and deterioration, Manizha Naderi, the executive director of Women for Afghan Women, said she was sure that the organization would find a way to re-establish its services for vulnerable women in Kunduz, but acknowledged that it would take much more than finding new offices.
“I don’t see most of our people who worked in Kunduz returning, so it will be a big challenge for us to find staff,” she said.
She paused and added: “But, people need us so we have to come up with a plan. If we stop working, it’s a big victory for the Taliban.”