By Eliza Mackintosh and Nilly Kohzad, CNN Illustration by Alberto Mier, CNN
In the four months since the Taliban took over Afghanistan, Nilofar, a 20-year-old university student, has rarely left her small apartment in Kabul, where she lives with her older sister, brother and father.
Her days, which were once punctuated by exam preparation, fitness classes at the gym, meeting friends for coffee at cafes and shopping for new clothes, are now painfully empty.
She was planning to start an economics degree at Kabul University this fall. Instead, she’s stayed at home, too terrified to venture further than the neighborhood grocery store. Confined to four walls, she tries to keep herself busy. She rearranges her furniture frequently, studies English textbooks, posts poetry on Instagram and practices new makeup tricks she finds on YouTube.
“We still try to stay alive and occupy ourselves so that we don’t feel the pain and hurt,” Nilofar told CNN in a recent phone call. “We don’t even know what’s going on outside. We simply watch the sun rise and set outside the window.”
Young Afghan women like Nilofar, who grew up in the shadow of the US invasion that toppled the Taliban in 2001, have lived in an increasingly open society — one defined by cellphones, social media, reality television, pop music and the right to express themselves freely. They’ve endured war, persistent poverty and the threat of suicide bombings. But they came of age with an increasing sense they could break free of the patriarchal society of the past and decide their own future.
“I had many dreams, I wanted to continue my education, to do big things, to work alongside my friends, but all my friends left the country. I don’t know if Afghanistan can return to its previous state,” Nilofar said, adding that she has received a UN scholarship to attend university in Kazakhstan, but is still waiting on her visa to be approved. She says she is determined to follow friends who fled in a frenzy of evacuation flights during the withdrawal of US and NATO troops, and as Taliban militants swept into the capital on August 15.
Nilofar’s best friend, Florance, was among them. The 23-year-old Kabul University graduate is now living in temporary housing in a Paris suburb, where she is trying to learn French and planning to apply for her master’s degree in business. She says that she was heartbroken to leave Afghanistan, but felt there was no future for her there.
“I left my motherland, my home, my mother, my sister, my brothers, my beloved little nephews, my memories, my friends, with tears,” she said. The last time she saw Nilofar was two weeks before the Taliban takeover, during an English language course that they’d taken together for four years with the hope of traveling abroad.
“We were just like sisters. We did everything together,” Florance said. “We had lots of fun, but now I miss all of those things.”
WhatsApp messages between Nilofar and Florance — who asked that their last names not be published for their safety — provide a view into the anguish of a generation of Afghan girls that have seen their freedoms disappear overnight. Now facing a deteriorating economic crisis, many are desperate to leave.
Some 124,000 people escaped from Afghanistan in the massive, chaotic airlift carried out in the final days of the US occupation. But many more were left behind, and hundreds of thousands have since sought refuge in neighboring Iran and Pakistan.
For the women who remain in Afghanistan, life has been stuck in a perpetual state of limbo.
Despite the Taliban’s promises that women and girls would continue to have access to education, many across the country haven’t been allowed to return to secondary schools. Those that have resumed university classes are separated by a curtain from their male peers. Restrictive rules like a stay-at-home order, which was touted as being temporary, have dragged on. Most women still can’t go back to work, having been barred from an array of jobs, including in government and entertainment television.
Young women interviewed by CNN described a sense of being adrift in a waking nightmare, colored in by their mothers’ stories of the Taliban’s cruelty in the 1990s — when the group imposed a harsh interpretation of Islamic law, shut away women and meted out public punishments for those who violated the group’s so-called morality code.
“My parents would tell us many stories about the Taliban … so we have this strong nightmare within us,” Nilofar said. “I can’t believe we are living under their flag now; life has become so difficult for us … Besides sitting at home, we cannot do anything. Our stress levels are very high.”
Taliban leaders in Kabul and other cities have been at pains to present a more moderate face of the group, suggesting that women can participate fully in society “within the bounds of Islamic law.” But it is still unclear what that means in reality, or how a recent decree on women’s rights might be enforced — though the Taliban’s move to abolish the Ministry of Women’s Affairs and replace it with a body aimed at promoting virtue and preventing vice may offer some clues.
Rights advocates say the Taliban has done little to show their views have changed materially; their return has swiftly stifled women’s lives and stirred a deep sense of grief. “For all of the terrible difficulties of the last 20 years, it felt like there was this new space that young women could create for themselves,” Heather Barr, the associate director of women’s rights at Human Rights Watch, told CNN. “This whole new world of opportunities was opening up for young women … What happened for them on August 15, is that just slammed shut.”
The Taliban’s rule in 2021 is developing differently across the diverse nation, especially in the countryside, where some of its strict rules never really receded and patriarchal traditions reign. But in Afghan cities, where daily life for women has changed radically in recent years, the Taliban’s return feels like a death sentence.
“Life in Afghan cities for the last 20 years was like all the cities around the world, but now people feel like they’re in a prison,” Lima Ahmad, a P.h.D. candidate at Tufts University researching Afghan youth under 25, who account for nearly two-thirds of the total population, told CNN in a phone call. “This is alien for Gen Z. They’ve heard from us about it [life under the Taliban] — no TV, no music, no going to cafe, school, hanging out. For how long they can accept this reality?”
“This generation, their eyes are open — they’ve seen the world even if they’ve not traveled, they’ve seen it through social media,” Ahmad added.
As their physical world has narrowed, young Afghan women have turned increasingly to social media as an outlet to share their anxieties over private voice notes, Instagram DMs and posts with friends.
“Nowadays, we’re only connected by WhatsApp, and we talk about memories, but mostly we talk about the situation in Afghanistan. My friends who are still in Afghanistan, they’re really depressed,” Florance said. She is trying to support Nilofar and other friends, who are seeking legal routes out of the country, but is often unsure how to advise them.
“It’s very hard to ask, ‘How are they? What are they doing?’ Because I know that now they don’t do anything and they’re not feeling good, or they get depression or anxieties and when I talk with most of them they are hopeless,” said Hossnia Mohsini, 30. Before she fled to France, she worked as a youth adviser with a non-governmental organization in Afghanistan, promoting leadership and nonviolent communication skills.
In an essay for Rukhshana Media — an Afghan women’s news agency named after a girl who was stoned to death by the Taliban in 2015 — Mohsini wrote that some of the girls she had worked with were so distressed that they were starting to contemplate suicide.
She recently held a virtual empathy circle over Zoom for some of the NGO’s former youth consultants, who are mostly in their 20s, and still living in Afghanistan. Mohsini said she started with an open question: “What’s alive in you right now?” She said the responses were heart-wrenching, especially from the young women, who said they were trying to keep up with their studies, but were unable to concentrate on anything and felt trapped at home.
It is that sort of despair that laces the WhatsApp conversations between Nilofar and Florance, which have waned in recent weeks and months. Between the time difference and settling into their new routines, it’s become more difficult to talk. Both say they hope to see each other soon, but are unsure when that might be.
“We aren’t talking as much as we used to. I know she is busy, she has just started taking French courses and she must become independent. That’s why I don’t try and bother her so much,” Nilofar said. “But we stay connected, and I want to continue our friendship.”
The WhatsApp conversations included in this story have been translated from voice notes and written messages. They were lightly edited for clarity and length.
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Eliza Mackintosh wrote and reported from London. Nilly Kohzad reported from Istanbul. Development by Marco Chacon. Read more from the As Equals series.