Afghanistan: ‘I ignored death threats then they bombed my house’ – One woman’s reality of life under the Taliban

The Taliban claims it is has changed from its punitive regime two decades ago and will allow women and girls freedoms “under Shariah law”.

Neelab Zarif lived under the Taliban in Afghanistan when it was first in power there and said nobody should believe what the group is now promising.

The women’s rights activist, trainee lawyer and mother of four, who now lives in Cardiff, reveals what it was like during the first Taliban regime.

We only moved to Kabul a month before the Taliban took over the capital in 1996.

It was quite different to now because they took the regime from the mujahideen rather than the government.

I clearly remember that day, there were people talking amongst themselves that the Taliban had taken over in Kabul but there was no chaos, nothing like this. There was fear, but not panic and chaos.

A month after they took over Kabul the schools were shut and all the girls were at home. Some of the girls in our neighbouring streets, their parents asked if I could homeschool them so I did.

Within those three months, there was so much stress as the Taliban twice knocked on our door and asked my dad to stop teaching the girls as homeschooling was also banned.

My family were fearful so I stopped homeschooling the girls and we returned to Pakistan because our stay in Kabul was only meant to be temporary anyway.

We returned back to Afghanistan in late 2002 and things were completely different. The Taliban were no longer in power but everyone was living in extreme fear, they were confused.

They had spent so long under the Taliban regime and I think very few people in the capital were aware of the situation, they didn’t know who the foreigners were or why the Taliban left.

The people in remote places, the provinces and villages, had no idea.

We returned back to where my family is from, Ghazni province, about 200km from the capital. The Taliban were gone so it was not too bad, in terms of safety.

I was working at the hospital there, women were still wearing the full head-to-toe blue burkas you see.

The coalition forces set up a radio station and were struggling to find a woman who could talk on behalf of women in the community so, although I had no media knowledge, I volunteered to do some programmes.

I was presenting the news initially then did some programmes promoting women’s rights because the laws were so new, there was a new constitution and nobody knew about the new laws and rights women had.

I was the only woman in the province on the radio and after about three months I started receiving threats – a lot of threats – from the Taliban, saying I was influencing other women to lose their moral values, it was causing conflict within families.

I was talking about domestic violence and how women were protected, where women should go and that policewomen were available to make a complaint.

I didn’t take the threats seriously and carried on at the radio station – until they bombed our front door and our house collapsed. Luckily nobody was hurt.

I approached the government offices and they said they could not do anything to protect me or my family. So we moved back to the capital immediately, this was in 2003.

There was a lot of money being poured into Kabul but I thought the people in the provinces should have been benefitting in the same way, there has never been a fair distribution over the past 20 years.

So, I settled in Kabul and got a job with US Aid, travelling to provinces promoting small businesses women could do from home such as beekeeping and literacy, to give them a bit of independence and education.

But after I got married and had my son, I didn’t think it was a good idea to travel as there was a threat every time, we had to carefully arrange the travel and co-ordinate with security personnel especially when travelling on motorways.

I got another job in Kabul for a Canadian organisation overlooking safe houses, or shelters, for women escaping domestic violence – most came from the provinces as there was no voice outside the capital, the police would not support them.

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This was frowned upon by the Taliban as they did not believe women should even be outside without a male companion and family issues should be solved by a council of men.

At that time, you didn’t know if members of your extended family were working for the Taliban, or people you knew – they were not in power so would not be blatant about it as they are now.

I received threats again, death threats, threats against my family via text or letters saying “quit your job”, “respect your culture, your tradition” and especially “respect your religion”.

This time I had a son, someone who completely depended on me, so we decided we had to leave Afghanistan in 2007 and came to the UK.

I don’t believe anything the Taliban is saying about how they’ve changed – and nobody should believe them.

We should not forget that Kabul isn’t the whole of Afghanistan – less than two weeks ago in other provinces they prevented women from leaving their homes without men, they’re not allowing them to go to work or university.

I have no doubts they will go back to how it was when I was younger.

There is a whole generation that did not live under Taliban rule, but the stories are in their blood. I feel sorry for them as it’s completely new. For us, the Taliban took over from the mujahideen so it wasn’t too different.

But young people now are used to walking around in jeans and T-shirts, dyeing their hair, going to school – but overnight the Taliban was on the streets, it’s a big change.

As told to Alix Culbertson, news reporter

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