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‘We want freedom’: worry and fear rise for women in Taliban stronghold

By AFP

Kandahar: Fauzia, an Afghan student, used to make ends meet through advertisements on a radio station in the Taliban stronghold of Kandahar, but that abruptly ended when Islamists came to power in August.

His command was clear: no female voice in the air.

Afghanistan’s new rulers have promised a more liberal regime than their previous term in power, when women were barred from work and education, and barred from leaving the home.

But there is widespread distrust in his pledge of women’s rights. Most girls across the country have been barred from attending secondary school, and most women have been unable to return to work.

When journalists visited Kandahar last month, only a few women were seen in the dusty shopping streets of the southern city, wearing head-to-toe burqas, carrying bags from shop to shop in haste.

The Taliban “posted messages on Facebook saying they don’t want to hear any more music or women (voices) on air,” said Fauzia, who asked not to use his real name.

The 20-year-old medical student’s situation becomes increasingly dire after losing her income from radio commercials – Fauzia and her four younger siblings are orphans, and she struggles to keep food on the table.

Despite the Taliban’s promise of a softer regime this time, women remain depressed and vague about their place in society, while the businesses that once employed them are wary of harassing Islamists.

Fauzia’s former boss said the radio station was forced to stop airing women’s voice ads.

She has been submitting our resumes all over Kandahar, with no luck.

“I’ve been told to wait,” she said.

‘Evil eye from Taliban’
Since taking power, Islamists have repeatedly stated that they will, without elaboration, respect women’s rights within the framework of Islamic law.

Barring a few exceptions, women have been barred from returning to work or education, and are told to stay until arrangements are made, including the separation of men and women.

“We haven’t banned anything for women so far,” said Mullah Noor Ahmed Saeed, a Taliban official in Kandahar province.

“If they don’t feel safe or go back to work, it’s their fault.”

But many have doubts.

“On the streets, people say nothing, but we saw the evil eye from the Taliban,” said Fareshteh Nazri, who is only able to return to work as the head of a girls’ primary school.

However, female teachers and girls are excluded from returning to secondary school.

“Earlier we used to be happy to come to school. Now we are tensed,” Nazri said at the school.

About 700 students were present, less than a third of the 2,500 girls enrolled.

“Most parents don’t send their girls to school after the age of 10 because they don’t feel safe,” Nazri said.

Zohra, a math major in her 20s who asked not to use her real name, is one of the faraway students, her fears heightened by rumors of a violent Taliban crackdown.

“For me, life is more important than anything else,” she told AFP over the phone.

For many women, the ability to work is now more important than ever as Afghanistan grapples with a worsening economic crisis.

Nazari and his teacher colleagues have not received salaries since the fall of the Western-backed government in August.

“Earlier, we had a good life. Now we may have to go to the market and beg,” said the headmaster, who is in his 20s.

“My husband is unemployed, and we have to feed our two kids.”

‘We want freedom’
The Taliban have promised security and peace to all Afghans, including women.

But for Fauzia, the mere presence of Islamists puts social pressure on women to stay away from it.

“We have nowhere else to go, except for groceries,” she said, and yet, women “come back home very quickly”.

“Even my younger brother tells me to cover my face, not to see friends anymore and not to go anywhere except for classes,” Fauzia said.

This is a shocking change for many young Afghan women who have benefited from the previous government’s emphasis on girls’ education.

“We want freedom,” said a 12-year-old girl in the courtyard of Nazri’s school.

But she added that now with the Taliban in power, girls and women will have to “do whatever they say”.

“If not, we will face problems.”

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