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Afghan women who fought the Taliban fear retribution

Many women took up arms against the Taliban. Their future is now uncertain

afghan-women-boxing-reuters Representational image: Afghan women practise inside a boxing club in Kabul, Afghanistan December 26, 2011 | REUTERS/Ahmad Masood

When the Taliban swept through Afghanistan last week, a photo was uploaded on Facebook. The close-up image showed Kohl outlining the tearful eyes of a lady. The post had text in Persian, a striking line of which read, “I fought, I was wounded, but I did not surrender.” The account belonged to Fatemah (name changed), a woman police officer who exchanged gunfire with the Taliban after they stormed her city. After sustaining a leg injury during the bloody clash, Fatemah took to social media to express her feelings. As street after street fell to the Taliban, her house went up in flames and her pet perished in an alleged revenge attack.  

When contacted over the phone, she agreed to speak from an undisclosed location where she was recovering.      

“I am injured and I can’t stand against the Taliban at this moment. But when I get better, I will again go and fight them,” she said. For constantly taking an anti-Taliban stand in public, she believes she will be killed and nothing less, if captured. But this hardly seems to deter her.  

Narrating what transpired on the day of the encounter, she said. “Taliban had more losses than us. We just lost some essentials, but they lost a lot of soldiers. When I was fighting against the Taliban the only thing on my mind was to kill the enemy of the country.” 

The officer is a strong proponent of women empowerment with an aim to defeat fundamentalist forces. In the past, she encouraged civilian women facing threats from ISIS-Khorasan (a regional chapter of Islamic State) and the Taliban to undergo arms training. To justify why it is important for women to take up arms against the Taliban, she recalled an incident where two women were allegedly killed because they dared to venture out without a male family member and without covering their faces. “Up to what time are we going to put the responsibility of defending the country just on the shoulders of the men?” she asked.  

Her province fell within two days after she got injured.

In another province, a woman associated with the government has acted as a bulwark against the Taliban. She is an exception in the rugged and mountainous battlefields of Afghanistan usually dominated by men. She was usually seen beside a mounted gun or in the company of her preferred M4 rifle or having meals with soldiers. She could effectively bind together commanders, government forces and armed residents. On most days, during the war, her routine included visiting the scenic outposts of her district and joining the first line of defence in sighting enemy movements. Preparing the armed fighters who worked under her and strategising with senior officials and elders used to take up most of her day. To keep the defending men motivated, she also used to organise their food, clothes and essential amenities. For her, the war against the Taliban started long bac, from when she associated herself with the local administration.

“When a person decides to join the battlefield, there will be threats. They [Taliban] put mines in our way and ambushed us. I thank god that I came out alive despite the actions of the Taliban,” she told THE WEEK.

During the height of the conflict, she said she was confident of gathering 1,000 civilians to fight in case of a Taliban onslaught, despite running low on arms and ammunition. With the government in a bad shape, she turned to India and other countries for help. “They answered in the negative,” she said.  

Such battles come with a heavy price as she got to visit her family only once a month in the recent past. 

Airing her views on Taliban, she said, “They don’t recognize international human rights. Taliban do not know anything except inhumanity, cruelty and blood-shedding. Their purpose is to drag back Afghanistan to several years and eliminate all the achievements that we had during these years.” 

She raised concern that extremism nurtured in Pakistan and imported to Afghanistan would engulf the entire world if the Taliban march is not halted. In Afghanistan's patriarchal society, she has already won another war as she confidently fits into the role of a leader guiding and instructing a large group of heavily armed men who seem to trust her. 

“We should attract more and more women to the battlefield because women suffer the most in the hands of the Taliban. That is why they should stay against them,” she said. 

afghan-women-afghanistan-reuters File photo: Full veiled women in Afghanistan | Reuters

There is a growing sense of fear and helplessness in the Hazara community, an ethnic minority in Afghanistan who accuse the Taliban of unleashing genocide on them.

Between 2015 and 2021, around 4,500 Hazaras were either killed or wounded in Afghanistan, said a Hazara activist based out of one of the bigger towns in Afghanistan. Most of the Hazaras are practising Shia Muslims and the members are known to be averse to the ideology of the Taliban. One of their fears in the event of a Taliban takeover is that their presence will be limited in the government as well as in education. During the Taliban regime, between 1996 and 2001, the Taliban banned some ceremonies like Ashura, an important custom to Hazaras, he said. The overwhelming opinion within the community is that they are soft targets of not just the Taliban but also ISIS.

“Hazaras are a secular and open-minded society. They send their women out for education or to markets. After the Taliban uprising in 1996, they banned all these liberties for Hazara women and it was a very dark period for us. The situation would be very bad for Hazaras if the Taliban governed us. We call the international community to keep us safe as we need protection,” he said. 

Bamyan province in central Afghanistan forms one of the seven provinces which makes up for Hazarajat, a mountainous corridor and homeland of Hazaras in Afghanistan. Following a massacre that took place in 2000, Bamyan also saw one of its great pieces of heritage destroyed under the previous Taliban rule. The giant statues of Buddhas carved on a cliff that dated back to the sixth century, a UNESCO site, were blown up by the Taliban in 2001, prompting worldwide outrage. After the Taliban captured most of the provinces in the country, Bamiyan also fell, but peacefully. 

One week before the Taliban entered the province, we spoke to a local Hazara woman who said that she and other women were ready to take up arms if necessary and fight alongside men.   

Recollecting the two-year period when Bamyan was ruled by the Taliban, she said, “For two years, there was destruction and massacre in Bamyan. Panic was rampant and people were fleeing. Important Bazaars were set on fire.  Women took refuge in the mountains early on and then fled to other districts and countries.”

According to locals, the Afghan army left before the Taliban arrived leaving the locals with no choice but to accept the insurgents. 

In central Afghanistan, Zohra (name changed) who is serving in the military is fighting multiple battles. She is one of the few women in the military who resisted the Taliban advances on the frontline. Unfortunately, she is also marked in her district as it has a significant presence of Taliban sympathisers.  

A graduate of literature, she now carries a Kalashnikov assault rifle. She opens up about the stressful moments when she had to open fire on a group of Taliban and, in the ensuing exchange of fire, lost a few colleagues. Halfway through the interview, she breaks down as she talks about the impact of the war on families of women soldiers. 

“They (Taliban) threaten our families, especially our husbands, to stop their wives from joining the war or they would kill the family members. We struggle on a daily basis, whether in the battlefield or outside of it.” 

Zohra says she is fortunate that her husband supports her despite the challenges they face. There were times when my extended family members commented that I am mentally unwell to have joined the military, she added. Surrounded by war and sexual discrimination, Zohra says she spends most of her time praying. 

“Even if I lose my husband, I will cry and fight on the battlefield but I will not surrender to the Taliban.” For Zohra, her biggest dream is to see Afghanistan prospering in the fields of economy, human rights, culture and peace.

The big question is whether the Taliban changed their attitude towards women? Have they softened their stand when it comes to women’s education and liberties?

“Nothing has changed in them, especially their view of treating the women. In fact, they have become harsher,” said a Kabul based activist. He points out that if one were to refer to Afghanistan history, there are many stories of women taking up guns and fighting for peace and independence. Talking about similar incidents which occurred in the recent past, he said, "In 1995-1996, for the fear of falling in the hands of the enemy or being used as a slave or being sent to a foreign country, women took up guns and fought against the Taliban. Previously, Ms Kaftar, a very famous woman from Baghlan province fought the Taliban. In one of the regions, there was a woman whose children were martyred because of which she killed several members of Taliban and escaped to another region.” He says that it is mostly the non-Pashtun ethnicities like Tajiks, Uzbeks and Hazara women that oppose the Taliban.

He feels there are women who want to fight for freedom and their human rights but there aren't enough opportunities for them. What happened in a province last month can probably explain it better.   

The biggest show of defiance by women against the Taliban took place this year in a town in central Afghanistan. As the influence of the Taliban grew in the province, dozens of women took out a protest on the streets. They held automatic rifles, rocket launchers and other heavy weapons while raising slogans against the Taliban. They declared that they were ready to fight the Taliban. One of the participants said that a bike fixed with a bomb exploded at the door of a local women welfare office. For her, it was a clear message from the Taliban that they neither wanted the functioning of the department nor any women to work there. Amidst more threats, she decided to take matters into her own hands. She went with some of her friends to the national security office with a request to equip them with arms to protect themselves. 

As the officials did not entertain her request, she and her friends went ahead and procured weapons with the intention of battling it out with the Taliban. 

“On one side our family members don’t let women fight and get injured, and on the other side, we are the helpless ones as the enemy directly targets us. As you saw, the women took weapons, organised a rally, got ready and promised to fight. However, the national force, the regional leaders and governmental leaders didn’t allow the women to join because of our cultural beliefs” she said.

Today, scores of women like her feel that they are under the radar of the Taliban because of the way they defied the insurgents. A passionate advocate of women’s rights, she said that she received death threats regularly on social media for her work which involves helping women. 

In the ancient city of Herat in western Afghanistan, when the Taliban offensive reached their doorsteps, a group of women appeared at an indoor event carrying rifles. The women pledged their support to the local resistance movements and declared that they were prepared to join the fight against the Taliban. The pictures were widely shared on social media to drive home the point. In the following days, a few other pictures appeared online of a girl from the same region holding a gun which was a symbolic gesture. 

A retired Indian Foreign Service (IFS) officer who served in Afghanistan said that most of these protests by women were spontaneous but disorganised. He felt that the Afghan government had failed in their efforts in taking along different sections and groups who were opposed to the Taliban and utilising them to counter Taliban advance. 


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