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During a dialogue on the Pak-Afghan issue, Kulsoom* from Kabul suddenly started screaming, “What will happen to us? Where will we go? What will we do?”

Her questions made the eyes of every Afghan girl sitting there well up. As a woman, I could feel their pain. When a free bird is caught and its wings clipped, the resulting suffocation can often kill the bird. This is the stark reality of the dozen or more women that attended the event.

Kulsoom was a teacher and social activist for nine years before she was held captive by the Afghan Taliban for 16 days. It was a normal day in her class when men from the Taliban took over the school and ordered everyone to go home.

Kulsoom was picked up with her two children and husband.

The Taliban would berate the women, calling them prostitutes, bitches and foreign agents in hateful tones. They were also starved for four days at the start of their captivity and her husband was beaten mercilessly every day.

Her eyes suddenly turned to stone. “It seemed like it was the last day of our lives, every day.

“When we would ask them what our fault was, they would say 'you women do not cover up and are agents from other countries'. The Taliban also blamed women for the world not recognising them. When we gave them examples of other Muslim countries like Turkey, Malaysia or Pakistan and how their women have rights, they would call them infidel countries that follow infidel agendas. They also broke both my mobile phones just because they had pictures of me without a head cover or hijab. They also killed three women in Mazar-e-Sharif.”

The Taliban had picked up 29 women altogether, the news of which spread in the world like wildfire. This put a lot of pressure on them and they had to release the women.

Before the release, they made them sign a commitment that they will not be a part of any future demonstrations or protests and will remain quietly at home. They also ensured that all their social media accounts were shut down.

“I agreed to sign the document but I could not stay quiet,” Kulsoom said. “I wrote an article that posed questions to the Taliban and also exposed their inhumane treatment out for the world to see. After that, it became impossible for me to stay in Afghanistan and I had to leave Kabul.”

Escaping from Afghanistan with her young son was no less than a nightmare. Kulsoom left behind everything she knew.

“Every car that would approach us, seemed like it was there to catch us, but I guess I have some life left to live, hence I was able to escape.”

Despite her escape, it is clear to see that Kulsoom is suffering from severe mental stress and how can she not? Her family is still at the mercy of those from whom you cannot expect any mercy. How does one find peace of mind then?

Rahima*, from the Tajik community, was also among the women taken hostage by the Taliban. She still remembers the Afghan Taliban’s first regime, even though she was just in primary school. Things became so difficult for women that the stress gave her mother a heart attack, which killed her.

She, like Kulsoom, did not want to silently suffer when the Taliban took over in 2021 and decided to rebel. It was this rebellion that spelt her doom, with her 10 to 15 years of activism going down the drain.

She firmly believed that will be killed, like the three women she also knew, but she was released. Rahima now lives in a safe place but cannot be reunited with her family.

Malalai*, a lawyer and women’s rights activist advocating for independent journalism since 2016, was also part of the group that was held hostage by the Taliban. Her only fault was her dream of a better future for girls and women in the country.

In August 2021, when the Taliban took over Kabul, they curtailed the rights of women, forcing them indoors.

Women did not want to take this change sitting down and they took to the streets to show the world how the Afghan Taliban’s promises to safeguard women’s rights were mere optics. The protesters were beaten and sprayed with chemicals as well as pepper spray.

The protesting women were also threatened with guns.

“They picked up my husband because of my activism,” said Malalai.

There is no hope or future for the women in Afghanistan,” she said, “There are only arrests, torture and certain death for us there.”

*names changed to protect privacy

The writer tweets @farzanaalispark