A teenage girl has her ears and nose cut off and is left to die in a pool of her own blood by the mountainside for trying to escape an abusive marriage. A mother of seven is shot dead in front of 30,000 spectators on a football field. A pregnant woman returning from work has her eyes gouged out and is shot and stabbed multiple times but miraculously manages to survive. A Hindu Bengali woman is killed and her face is obliterated by 15-20 gunshots for her insistence on living a life without shackles, and indeed on the suspicion of being an Indian spy.
These are only a few examples of the hundreds of thousands of women who have had their freedoms brutally snatched away by the Taliban, and met with barbarism resembling those under the harshest medieval regimes. Women had hardly any rights, or scope of self-expression under the Taliban during that scary phase in Afghanistan from 1996 to 2001.
American historian Nancy Hatch Dupree, who spent decades documenting and preserving Afghanistan’s heritage, wrote in her chapter 'Afghan Women Under the Taliban' for the 2001 book Fundamentalism Reborn? Afghanistan and the Taliban:
The avowed purpose of the Taliban Islamic Movement is to complete the unfinished agenda of the jihad: to install a pure Islamic state, cleansed of evils perpetrated by their predecessors. Great stress is placed on the creation of secure environments where the chasteness and dignity of women may once again be sacrosanct.
Ironically, the Taliban's idea of ensuring the 'dignity' of women consisted of defiling their 'dignity' in most inhuman ways.
The world shuddered in horror as news of gender apartheid, torture and killings filtered out. In a world where women had scaled great heights, Taliban's Afghanistan seemed to have regressed several centuries, and women were enveloped in pale blue burqas. They were threatened and made to stay anonymous. Many were also taken as sex slaves.
Women were flogged in public for the minutest disobedience of the Taliban's interpretation of the Sharia laws. They were forced to cover themselves from head to toe with only small openings allowed around their eyes for them to see.
Women were forbidden from working and attending school, and had to be accompanied by a male relative if they went out of their homes. Adultery invited stoning, wearing tight jeans called for public beating, donning nail polish resulted in fingers being chopped off.
"The face of a woman is a source of corruption for men not related to them," said a Taliban representative, as per a book by M J Gohari titled The Taliban: Ascent to Power, published in 2001.
There have been numerous other crippling restrictions imposed on women: high-heeled shoes were banned for women as no man was supposed to hear a woman's footsteps. A woman's voice was not supposed to be heard by a stranger and in March 1997, the Taliban ordered the residents of Kabul to screen windows in their homes on the ground and first floors so that the womenfolk cannot be seen from the street, Gohari wrote. Women were also not allowed to appear on their balconies.
Women were forbidden from having their pictures taken, filmed, or displayed in newspapers, books, in stores, or at home. They were prohibited from appearing on radio, television, or any public gathering. Music was banned.
Khatera, Who Now Lives In Delhi
"In the eyes of Taliban, women are not living, breathing human beings, but merely some meat and flesh to be battered," 33-year-old Khatera, who arrived in New Delhi from Afghanistan in November 2020, recently told News18.
In Afghanistan, Khatera was shot at and her eyes gouged out, she said. The attack, she said, was orchestrated by her own father, an ex-Taliban fighter.
She pointed towards another frightening practice. "They first torture us and then discard our bodies to show as a specimen of punishment," Khatera said. "Sometimes our bodies are fed to dogs. I was lucky that I survived it."
When Bibi Aesha was having faux seizures, throwing herself down, banging her head on the floor, pulling her own hair and biting herself, her caregivers in the US could imagine the trauma she had had to go through. She was promised to a Taliban fighter by her father when she was just 12 years old to settle a family score.
Aesha's uncle had killed someone in the Taliban family and she was given away in marriage as payback in a terribly inhuman practice called ‘baad’. Aesha was forced to marry her Taliban husband when she was 14.
What she says she went through thereafter would send a chill down anyone's spine. The teenager was tortured, made to sleep with animals and treated as a slave. She tried to escape, was captured and put in jail for five months.
Aesha's ordeal did not end even after her release. The Taliban tracked her down and dragged her to the mountains. A Taliban court ruled that her nose and ears should be cut off for dishonouring her husband's family. Aesha's father-in-law held her at gunpoint as five other men, including her husband, mutilated her face. Aesha passed out from the pain and nearly choked on her own blood gushing from the grievous injuries. She was left to die in the wilderness.
Aesha, however, refused to die. The brave Afghan girl summoned the last bits of her resilience and crawled her way to her grandfather's place, but was refused help. Finally, the US forces came to her rescue and initial medical aid was provided. She escaped to the US as a refugee and was adopted by an Afghan-American family. Aesha was soon to become the global face of the millions of Afghan women brutalised by the Taliban, many of whom had been condemned to a life of suffering in silence.
The image of Aesha's badly disfigured face was splashed on the cover of the iconic Time magazine in 2010, which also carried the ominous lines: 'What happens if we leave Afghanistan'. The world was terrified.
The Time story and especially the shocking cover image influenced like never before the talk around the plight of women in Afghanistan and the repercussions of a long-deliberated US troop withdrawal.
The wonders of modern science first gave Aesha a prosthetic nose and then reconstructed her nose from parts of her own body. She had to undergo 12 surgeries to repair her face. It was a long-drawn-out, complex and painstaking process. Aesha suffered through them but held her nerve. Her forehead was expanded to provide the extra tissue needed to rebuild her face, CNN reported.
An inflatable silicone shell, or a sort of a balloon, was inserted into Aesha's forehead, which the doctors slowly filled with fluid. She screamed in pain each time the doctors injected saline fluid into her forehead. Tissue was also transplanted from her forearm to her face. She could not move her left hand for two months. Cartilage was taken from her rib beneath her breast.
Today, Aesha's life has transformed even if the scars on her psyche still hurt. She lives a comfortable life in the US, her beauty restored and even enhanced.
Sadly, not every Afghan woman is as lucky.
Zarmina was certainly not as lucky. She was accused of murdering her husband. Sources told Daily Mirror reporter Anton Antonowicz that Zarmina's husband Aladdin was abusive and she had killed him to save her children.
Zarmina was brought to the prison along with her one-year-old twins. The Taliban initially declared that she would not be killed till her twins were weaned, but as soon as they were weaned, Zarmina's execution was scheduled. She was, however, convinced that the Taliban would have mercy considering that she had young children to look after. She felt she would at the most get 100 lashes and had prepared for them by wearing two extra dresses that she had borrowed from fellow prisoners beneath her burqa so that the blows could be softened.
Zarmina was taken to Kabul's football stadium that served as an execution arena under the Taliban. She was made to kneel around the penalty spot and shot through the head, paying the penalty for standing up against abuse. Zarmina's body was laid unclaimed by her relatives, ABC News reported. The November 1999 execution left the world horrified.
“Now nobody comes here in the evening, even we don’t go inside. Everyone believes the place is haunted, that the souls of the dead people are not at rest even now,” Nabeel Qari, a young guard told Reuters about Kabul's football stadium.
Hundreds of men and women deemed by the Taliban to have gone against its edicts would be brought to the stadium and shot or stoned to death as people, including children howled and cheered from the stands. Spectators streamed into the stadium to watch the executions, said Mohammad Nasim, who tended to the ground, according to the Reuters report.
People accused of robbery, adultery and murder would have their limbs cut off and hung on the goalposts to set examples. Nasim said that so much blood had been spilled on the field and seeped into the soil that grass could not be grown on the field.
A massive open ground near the infamous football stadium also acted as an execution arena. The Taliban used to bring convicts in open-topped vans, kill them and throw the bodies back in the vans.
Sushmita Banerjee fell in love with Afghan moneylender Jaanbaz Khan in Kolkata in the mid-1980s and married him a few years later, against her family's wishes. She moved with her husband to Afghanistan but found to her utter dismay that her husband already had another wife. She spent a harrowing time with her in-laws in Afghanistan.
Banerjee made two abortive attempts to escape but was caught and sentenced to death. She, however, escaped by snatching a loaded rifle from the wall and turning the tables on the Taliban fighters. She flew back to Kolkata on 12 August 1995.
Banerjee lived in India till 2013. She wrote the memoir Kabuliwalar Bangali Bou and the story was the subject of the film Escape from Taliban with Manisha Koirala in the lead role.
Her return to Afghanistan in 2013 proved to be disastrous. She worked as a health activist in the Afghan countryside and refused to obey the restrictive local Afghan traditions, despite repeated warnings.
As a result of her upbringing, she had a very uncompromising stand on women's rights, much to the Taliban's chagrin. Despite conversion to Islam, she refused to wear the burqa, being the only woman in all of Paktika (a province in Afghanistan) to do so, wore loose-fitting dresses, left her face and hair uncovered and talked in public with both men and women, her neighbours said, according to a Daily Beast report.
In the end, she was hunted down by the Mullah Najibullah-led renegade Taliban militia, The Suicide Group of the Islamic Movement of Afghanistan, on the apparent charge of being an Indian spy. However, many believe that her transgressions had become too bold for the Taliban to tolerate.
She was dragged out of her home and shot. Her body was dumped at the gate of a school about a kilometre from her home.
The US invasion in 2001 had ousted the Taliban, and kept them out of power for 20 long years. During this time, Afghan women were able to experience freedoms that they did not know in the late 1990s. Today, with much of Afghanistan sliding back into Taliban control, the women have started to fear for the worst. Cases of violence against women have already started to be reported.
Some of the most poignant words following the recent Taliban takeover of Afghanistan were the 27-year-old female mayor and women's rights activist Zarifa Ghafari's. The Taliban "will come for people like me and kill me", she said as the dreaded militant group retook control of the country.
“We are going to allow women to work and study. We have got frameworks, of course. Women are going to be very active in the society but within the framework of Islam,” Zabihullah Mujahid, the group’s spokesman, said at a press conference in Kabul a few days back.
Nobody is believing the Taliban though and Afghans continue to desperately seek to escape from the country.
Swati Goel Sharma is a senior editor at Swarajya. She tweets at @swati_gs.
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