Afghan Women Still Working Face A Scary Future
Afghan Women Still Working Face A Scary Future
When the nurse arrived for work on that Sunday, Aug. 15, the medicine truck was parked in front of the hospital, and as she approached the building, she noticed the driver standing beside the vehicle, frantically waving at her and the other nurses to turn back.
“He was screaming, ‘all the women must leave, sister please go, the Taliban are here!’” recalled the 35-year-old nurse. “At first, it seemed impossible for us to understand him.”
She and the other women climbed into the back of the truck, dressed in jeans and a blouse, Western-style clothes she feared she wouldn’t be able to wear in Kabul, and were dropped off at their respective homes. The nurse was too afraid to leave her house for three days. On the fourth morning, she received a phone call from the hospital’s president, who told her, “The Taliban have no problem with women.” “Please return to work. There are tasks here that only you can complete; we are short on resources, and we need you.”
The nurse spoke with BuzzFeed News to give readers a “real picture” of what it’s like to be a working woman in Afghanistan right now, she said, requesting anonymity out of fear for her life.
The days since the fall of Kabul have brought fear and a chilling uncertainty about what their lives will be like under Taliban rule for working women who remain in Afghanistan. For months, the Taliban has publicly claimed that they have softened their stance on women’s rights. On Wednesday, Taliban spokesman Zabiullah Mujahid told reporters in Kabul that working women were only subject to a “temporary restriction” for their own safety amid the chaos of the regime change.
“Our security forces are not trained in dealing with women,” Mujahid stated. “We ask women to stay at home until we have complete security in place.”
However, the early days of the Taliban’s rule in Afghanistan have only confirmed what Afghan women have been saying for a long time: that their home country will once again become a place where women face greater dangers, restrictions, and few opportunities. Women who were once outspoken about their rights have been forced to flee the country, their homes and offices have been ransacked by armed gunmen, and posters depicting women have been defaced throughout the capital. Young female students were sent home from school and warned not to return. Hospitals, such as the one where the nurse works, are becoming more gender segregated — women doctors and nurses can only speak to and treat other women, and all women outside of their homes must wear a hijab. Even in areas where the Taliban has yet to begin policing women, the Taliban’s re-election has emboldened vigilantes who have threatened women for not wearing a hijab or staying at home.
“All we have to do now is wait,” said the nurse, who has worked at the hospital for ten years. “But even we are unsure what we are waiting for.”
Working was never a choice for women like the nurse, who was the only earning member of her family. She now wishes to leave Afghanistan, but fears that she will be unable to do so due to her unique circumstances: The nurse lives with her mother and a disabled sister who requires round-the-clock care. Even before a bomb exploded at Kabul airport on Thursday, the nurse said she couldn’t imagine guiding an elderly woman and a child through the desperate crowds jostling for limited seats on flights out of the country.
“I would not be able to live with myself if something happened to my sister or if I had to leave them behind,” she said.
Despite her distrust of the Taliban and her hospital’s president, the nurse said she returned to the hospital on Thursday out of a sense of duty. There were soldiers on the streets, she said, carrying Kalashnikovs and watching her as she walked by in her hijab.
“The terror was palpable,” she said. “They looked at me as if I were prey. But I kept telling myself that maybe they aren’t like that anymore, that they don’t beat women anymore. They appeared to be peaceful rather than violent. Not yet, at any rate.”
The security guards who usually manned each entrance to the hospital were missing, and the entire place appeared to be turned upside down. She walked in to find most patient wards empty — many had simply ripped their IVs out and walked out of the hospital. Those who remained, she said, were terrified, including a few terminally ill patients and a pregnant woman.
The COVID ward, which had been overrun with at least a dozen patients until the week before, was now deserted, according to the nurse. The nurse learned from another nurse that some patients’ relatives had decided that the Taliban posed a greater threat than the coronavirus and had taken their sick family members home or directly to the airport.
“We no longer have any data on the number of COVID patients in this hospital, or in this city for that matter,” she told BuzzFeed News. “The health ministry is still updating COVID data, but none of it is accurate. Nobody wants to leave their house and run into Taliban soldiers when they are sick.”
A few stampede victims were also brought to her hospital for treatment, but they were men, whom she was unable to treat due to the new hospital rules. The nurse stated that she learned about the new rule from a colleague, who informed her that she had been sent home by Taliban soldiers after being seen speaking to a man with a bleeding foot.
Nurses and doctors are required to report to the hospital every day in order for the Taliban to record their presence in the city. With the new policies and the empty wards, the nurse is finding it difficult to motivate herself to keep coming to work, she said.
Many patients have privately contacted medical professionals in order to avoid the risk of leaving their homes. When a pregnant woman appeared in her neighborhood, begging for help, the nurse had just delivered a baby. The nurse took whatever supplies she could find and walked with the woman to her home, where she secretly delivered the baby. The nurse gave the woman a list of medications she would need in the future, but she hasn’t heard from her since.
The nurse is afraid of making too many home visits because of the Taliban soldiers stationed at checkpoints monitoring movement throughout the city, but she is at a loss for other ways to earn money. The hospital’s president recently informed nurses that their salaries will be postponed until the city’s banks reopen — banks in Kabul closed on Aug. 15, just before Afghanistan’s former president, Ashraf Ghani, fled and the Taliban arrived in the capital. Massive crowds made it nearly impossible to enter banks when they reopened after nearly a week. The nurse stated that she has been unable to access an ATM and is unsure what she will do if she runs out of cash. If the Taliban forbids women like her from working, she will be unable to feed her family, according to the nurse.
The nurse said that soldiers were not as much of a problem in her neighborhood as ordinary men on the street who had suddenly appointed themselves moral guardians, telling women to return home, wear a hijab, and show some shame, and threatening them with beatings if they did not comply.
She had an argument a few days ago with a shopkeeper who chastised her for always wearing jeans: “It’s a good thing the Taliban are here to take care of women like you,” he said. Since then, the nurse’s mother and a young male neighbor have alternated going out to buy bread and other necessities for the family.
The nurse now spends the majority of her time indoors, but her primary sources of entertainment at home no longer provide any semblance of escape — the television only broadcasts news. “All I see are turbans, beards, and guns,” said the nurse. “There will be no Bollywood films, Afghan Superstar, or the chat shows we used to enjoy.” She claims that the radio no longer plays music but only Taliban religious songs that “have no melody and sound like a funeral.” ●
Khatol Momand assisted with reporting.