KABUL. Afghanistan — After the Taliban took power ,the Taliban ran the sole women’s shelter in northern Afghan city. Left abandoned were 20 women who had fled a variety of domestic horrors, some abused by husbands or family, others forced into early marriages with older men.
Soon after, the Taliban arrived in the shelter in Pul-e-Kumri.
They offered women two options. They could either return to their abusive families (some of whom threatened them with death if they left) or join the Taliban. Salima, one of the women who was recalled, asked that only her first name be used.
Most of the women chose to return home, fearing the Taliban more than their families. Salima claimed that she knew at least one person who had been killed in the past, most likely by an angry relative.
But Salima chose to go with the Taliban. Although she didn’t know what the Taliban would do, Salima knew that there was no other place to go after fleeing her drug-addicted husband. She now finds herself in prison, but she is safe and protected.
Whether they are under Taliban rule, women living in Afghanistan’s deeply traditional and often tribal society are subject to archaic codes that make them accountable for the honor of families. For marrying the man they choose, they can be executed. They often marry at puberty. It is considered shameful to flee an abusive husband.
Hundreds of women are jailed for so-called “morality crimes,” including adultery or running away from home, even though they are not officially crimes under the Afghan penal code. Over the past 20 years, activists have set up numerous women’s shelters in Afghanistan. But even before the Taliban takeover, conservative Afghans, including government officials, viewed them with suspicion, as places that help women and girls defy their families or abet “moral crimes.”
Women’s shelters are just one of a myriad of social changes that became more prevalent in the past 20 years or didn’t even exist when the Taliban last took power in 1996 — everything from social media and the internet to businesswomen and women judges. Now since overrunning Kabul and sweeping into power on Aug. 15, the hardline militant group is wrestling with how to deal with the changes, with the Taliban leadership at times uncertain and fighters on the ground acting on their own.
Salima and Razia were taken to Kabul. They had been living in the shelter for almost a year, fleeing from a predatory brother. With nowhere else to place them, the Taliban moved them into the Pul-e-Charkhi section, Afghanistan’s main prison. The prison was empty because when the Taliban took over Kabul, they freed all the inmates, including thousands of men, 760 women and more than 100 children, according to the prison’s new Taliban administrator, Mullah Abdullah Akhund.
The Associated Press had rare access to the women inside the prison. There are now six women in the prison, including Salima or Razia.
Inside, the women move freely with their children. Salima’s five-year-old daughter Maria, and Mohammad (6 years old), spend the majority of their time in a large, carpeted, main room. They have a large red teddy bear, a few toys and no school.
” We pray and read the Quran every day,” Salima said.
Salima stated that although she doesn’t know what the future holds, she believes she is safe in this place for now, as she has no money or family.
But Mujdha said that she longs for her freedom. Her family had refused to allow her to marry her boyfriend, so she was forced to marry a relative. She fled. She said, “I told them that I would never remain with him.” Her family reported her to Taliban who arrested her boyfriend and her.
Mujdha gave birth in prison to a baby daughter 15 days ago, soon after her arrest. She has not seen her boyfriend, who is in prison elsewhere, and has yet to meet her infant daughter.
” I want to leave but they tell me that it is impossible,” she stated.
Akhund stated that a court would decide whether she should be charged and added, “It’s wrong that she divorced her husband.” She has no right.”
Since taking power, the Taliban’s response to women’s shelters has varied. Suraya Pakzad from Herat, who founded several shelters, stated that several were shut down in the western city Herat.
Pakzad stated Friday via text messages that she is under threat from all sides, including the Taliban and the families of women who sought refuge in her shelters.
For many years, Pakzad along with other women have pressed for a voice at the negotiations between the U.S-backed government and the advancing Taliban. They wanted to guarantee women’s rights in any final agreement. They are now scrambling to ensure their safety.
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Pakzad shared an arrest warrant for her and seven other activists and journalists from western Afghanistan, issued by the new Taliban police chief in Herat. The warrant accuses the eight of “spreading propaganda against the Islamic Emirate” and accuses Pakzad of “involvement with Western countries to spread prostitution.”
But Mahboba Suraj, who runs a shelter for 30 women in Kabul, said the Taliban have come and investigated the shelter and let the women remain there unharmed. She claimed she was visited by senior officials and various departments of the Taliban government.
” The highest ups were the best. She said that they want to protect us and also understand the problems in their own communities.
For now, “they want to have protection for us,” she said. Thank God, I believe that. I honestly do.”