‘Now those gloves are off’: Afghan women brace for uptick in domestic violence under Taliban

On the day Afghanistan fell, Diba was helping patients when she received an urgent call from her mother, informing her the Taliban were in Kabul. 

The 27-year-old medical student walked out onto the street to see women, running and screaming — “as if there was an explosion.” 

She boarded a crowded bus, where the fare had increased to 100 Afghani — a tenfold increase over the previous day. Diba thought she was heading home to safety, but instead said she soon found herself confined to a “prison” under her husband’s control.

“My heart is broken, my body is in pain. I am a servant in my own home,” said Diba, adding she now fears her husband more than the Taliban. CBC News is not using her real name out of concern for her safety.

In the more than 50 days since the Taliban swept across Afghanistan, Diba has ventured outside of her home only once to visit her mother — and only after her husband gave her permission. 

From her mother’s home, she spoke in Farsi to CBC News through a translator over Zoom.

Diba has been married for 2½ years, and she and her husband have a one-year-old daughter.

Her husband had “patriarchal” views, she said, but grudgingly allowed her to continue her medical studies. But when the country reverted back to Taliban control, her husband changed, and began beating her out of frustration after losing his government job.

“One of my ears doesn’t hear properly because of his slaps. He threatened to call the Taliban and throw me out on the street without anything, even without my daughter,” she said. 

The threats and beatings are increasing in frequency and growing more violent, she said.

Nowhere to turn

While in medical school, Diba said she juggled a part-time job at a health clinic and was the earning equivalent of $150 US a month — more than four times the average income in Afghanistan. 

Now the banks aren’t functioning and without a job, the walls are closing in. Not only has Diba lost the financial resources to escape, the organizations that could have helped her are no longer functioning. 

The approximately 30 shelters that existed in the country have been forced to close.

In an email, Women for Afghan Women, a non-governmental organization that operates a network of safe houses for women fleeing abuse, said that as “per the Taliban’s strict orders,” no shelters can currently accept any clients. It has suspended its services indefinitely.

Human rights advocates are concerned about increasing domestic violence directed toward women and girls in Afghanistan, as the few institutions and laws which once provided some protection have disappeared under the Taliban.

A member of the Taliban speaks with women protesters as another tries to block the view of the camera with his hand during a demonstration held outside a school in Kabul on Sept. 30, 2021. (Bulent Kilic/AFP via Getty Images)

It’s hard to find solutions for Afghan women like Diba right now, said Heather Barr, of Human Right Watch, whose work involves monitoring human rights abuses in the country.

“[The Taliban] is giving license to every misogynist who was feeling grumpy about their daughters who were going to school, or their wives who insisted on working or was insufficiently obedient,” said Barr.

Even before the Taliban took over, Afghanistan was ranked as one of the worst countries to be a woman. Domestic abuse was pervasive in Afghan culture, despite attempts by the former government to outlaw gender-based violence.

A 2019 United Nations study found that in more than 80 per cent of reported cases of violence against women in Afghanistan, the abuse was perpetrated by a family member, mainly a spouse. Researchers also analyzed 250 honour killings over a two-year period and found that perpetrators were convicted 18 per cent of the time. 

That same study concluded that domestic violence was likely seriously under-reported in the country and complaints were restricted “due to customary structure and strong social norms.” 

A woman carries a container to fetch drinking water from a tanker in Kabul on Oct. 1. According to the United Nations, one in three Afghans don’t know where their next meal will come from. (Hoshang Hashimi/AFP via Getty Images)

The majority of domestic violence complaints were filed with the former republic’s Ministry of Women, which has since been dismantled by the Taliban, replaced by the Ministry for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice.

“We know from past experience what the Taliban’s view is on family violence. It’s very much that women are the property of their male family members and male family members can do what they like,” Barr said. “Of course this is not all men. But there will be some men whose behaviour was being held back by [legal] constraints built within society — but now those gloves are off.”

A ‘dark future’ ahead

Within days of the Taliban taking over in mid-August, female broadcast journalists were taken off the airwaves. Women were removed from other jobs, too. Girls over the age of 11 haven’t yet been allowed back to school.

There are also widespread reports of the Taliban entering homes, searching for potential brides for their fighters. To protect girls from the extremists, Afghan-Canadian human rights activist Murwarid Ziayee worries that families may force their daughters into marrying other men at a younger age.

“They might pressure their daughters to marry someone at an earlier age — so their childhood is taken from an earlier age. Their dream of completing education will be taken from them and their future hopes for independence [will disappear],” said Ziayee.

Murwarid Ziayee is the senior director of Canadian Women for Afghanistan. She lived in Kabul when the Taliban first took control of Afghanistan in 1996, but now calls Calgary home. (Submitted by Murwarid Ziayee)

Ziayee works for Canadian Women for Afghanistan, an organization that trains teachers and operates community schools in the country. 

When the Taliban first came to power in 1996, Ziayee was living in Kabul and one month away from graduating with a law degree. The extremist group immediately prevented women and girls from attending school, largely confining them to their homes.

When Ziayee ventured outside without a burqa and without a male relative, she was flogged. She said she’s now watching in horror at the déjà vu unfolding in her homeland.

“I know a dark future is awaiting my people,” she said.

Last month, there were sporadic protests by women, demanding some sort of freedom. Taliban fighters quickly dispersed the crowds by wielding whips and firing gunshots in the air.

‘Unrealistic’ feminist policy

Nipa Banerjee, a senior fellow with the School of International Development and Global Studies at the University of Ottawa, was in charge of Canada’s delivery of aid to Afghanistan between 2003 and 2006.

For the moment, she said, the fight for women’s rights in the country must take a temporary back seat to providing humanitarian assistance.

According to the United Nations, one in three Afghans don’t know where their next meal will come from. It estimates that by next year, 97 per cent of the population will fall below the poverty line, unable to earn even $2 US a day.

World Bank data further shows that 42 per cent of Afghanistan’s GDP came from foreign aid in 2020. 

Many donor countries, including Canada, have refused to recognize the legitimacy of the Taliban. 

Canada is not delivering aid through the group, but rather through international organizations, such as the United Nations and the Red Cross. It has provided more than $27 million in humanitarian aid to Afghanistan in 2021, and committed to providing $50 million more.

Canada also remains committed to its feminist approach to Afghanistan, said Geneviève Tremblay, a spokesperson with Global Affairs Canada.

“If the Taliban choose to ignore fundamental human rights — the rights of women, girls, and minority groups — they should expect international isolation,” Tremblay said in an email.

“Canada has achieved significant results for women and girls in Afghanistan over the last 20 years. The preservation of these gains remains a priority for Canada.”

Afghan women walk through a second-hand market in Kabul on Sept. 15. (Bernat Armangue/The Associated Press)

Beyond Afghanistan, Banerjee has worked in other Muslim countries, including Bangladesh and Indonesia. She said imposing a feminist lens on an Islamist state is “impractical and unrealistic,” and will not only offend the Taliban, but will further delay the delivery of aid, resulting in more strife.

“If our purpose is the welfare of the women — to get them to study and earn an income — we can do that without raising the eyebrows of society or the government,” she said, noting many Afghans are not against the Taliban.

Banerjee believes that once humanitarian conditions improve in the country, women will be able to return to work and schooling beyond the elementary level. 

But Banerjee also cautions that any improvements will be incremental and take years.

That is of no comfort to Diba. Just six weeks ago, her ambitions stretched beyond Kabul, into the countryside. Troubled by reports of women dying during childbirth, she was studying to be a gynecologist and dreamed of working in remote villages. 

Now her days are spent cleaning and cooking for her husband and in-laws. Diba said she often breaks down in tears — not just for herself, but for her daughter. She said wanted so much more for both of them.

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