Taliban rule in Afghanistan was brutal and deadly.

Now a peace deal with the US could see the group return to power.

Meet the women holding the line.


Forced to marry at 12.

Beaten by her husband until her body was bruised and scarred.

Locked in a room for months and starved.

Finally, she escaped. But now the Taliban will not stop calling ... they want her back.

“If I go back, they’ll kill me,” says Masuda*, whose name has been changed to protect her identity. “If I don’t, they’ll kill my family.”

Masuda’s story offers a shocking glimpse into what the future could hold for Afghan women if a peace deal being negotiated with the United States results in the Taliban returning to power.

Almost 20 years after the US toppled the regime, large swaths of Afghanistan are again controlled or contested by a resurgent Taliban.

“My area is totally controlled by the Taliban,” says Masuda. “They forced young girls into marriage. One day the Taliban came to my school and took a girl out and shot her because she liked a boy. Everyone was screaming and running away. She was just lying there.”

Speaking from inside a secret women’s shelter where she has spent the last three months, the 21-year-old describes how she made repeated attempts to escape her violent husband.

Every time, he would find her and force her to return.

Every time, the beatings got worse.

In her hometown, she says, the Taliban tell women to come to them if their husbands are abusive.

“But they would punish the women,” says Masuda. “They would beat her with a whip or a Kalashnikov. They’d kick her and they won’t listen, no matter how much she screamed. Then they’ll call her husband to take her home. They’d tell him, ‘This is your wife. You can do whatever you want, even kill her’.”

To punish her for running away, Masuda says the Taliban attacked her mother and brothers, and destroyed their home.

After years of abuse, Masuda says her husband sold her to another man.

Eventually she escaped and made it to the safety of the women’s shelter, but now the fighters are calling her from her mother’s phone.

“The Taliban said they’ll control all of Afghanistan soon anyway. Then they’ll execute me,” she says.

“They’ve burnt my house. My mother’s living in a field and being threatened by them … She told me to turn myself in because their life is in danger. I told her I won’t come back.”


“If they captured us, they’d kill us.”

Laila Haidari drives a car, does not wear a headscarf and likes to meet her friends at a bowling alley.

For that, she fears, the Taliban could kill her.

News that the Taliban could return to power has sparked fears that Afghan women, like Haidari, could again fall victim to brutality and deadly discrimination.

The Taliban became notorious for their treatment of women when they ruled Afghanistan.

They banned them from going to school or work.

They flogged them for singing or dancing, or simply daring to leave their homes without a male relative.

And they publicly executed them for defying their draconian laws, such as committing adultery.


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Since the Taliban was overthrown by the US in 2001, women like Haidari have embraced their newfound freedom.

Haidari embarked on a mission to help those caught up in the drug epidemic plaguing her country, after watching her older brother descend into a devastating spiral of heroin abuse that resulted in him spending a year in prison.

She set up rehabilitation centres in the capital, Kabul, earning her the nickname “Mother of a Thousand Children” for all of the addicts she has helped.

Under the Taliban, she would not have been allowed to drive, let alone do this life-saving work.

Now, this no-nonsense woman, with a fondness for fire engine red lipstick, is outraged that they could return to power.

“The Americans introduced democracy, human rights, women’s rights to us, and encouraged us to defend them. But they’re telling us that now the Taliban is legit?” she says. “Was all this talk of human rights, women’s rights, democracy – was it just a game?”

Despite improvement in the number of women working outside the home and girls going to school, Afghanistan remains one of the most dangerous countries in the world for women.

Haidari’s work has already made her a target.

She fought off two men who broke into her home and tried to strangle her in her sleep.

Another time, she was attacked in what she thought was a taxi.

“The people in the back pulled the scarf around my neck and strangled me,” she says. “I thought I was finished.”

“The driver took a weapon from the glove compartment and said, ‘If you don’t stop your work, it’s this easy for us to kill you’.”

Haidari’s drug rehab centres are not the only thing she fears would put her on a Taliban hit list.

As night falls, she ducks and weaves her way through gridlock traffic, cursing other drivers before coming to a stop in a quiet street beside Kabul River.

She walks through a rose garden, where fairy lights twinkle and men and women sit, smoking shisha and drinking tea. This is the Taj Begum, Haidari’s cafe.

Known for hosting traditional music performances, the cafe is one of the few places in Kabul where men and women can freely socialise together.

“If the Taliban comes back, all our struggles and efforts will be wasted,” she says.

“We definitely won’t be able to have places like this. Women will be forced to return to their homes and their kitchens.”

But with the US desperate to get its troops out of Afghanistan, Haidari fears women’s rights could be traded for peace.

“Today we’re witnessing the freedom of Afghan women being used as a bargaining chip. And the whole world is silent about it,” she says.

Despite the risks, she refuses to leave her war-torn country.

“I don’t want my children to ask me, ‘What did you do when the Taliban came?’ I can’t tell them that I ran away.”


Behind drawn curtains, in a building with no signs and a cautious guard standing watch, Najia Sadiq is consoling a distraught young woman.

The 27-year-old fled to a secret women’s shelter in northern Afghanistan after her father held a gun to her head when she refused to marry the man of his choosing.

“There were tiles on the kitchen floor. He grabbed me by the hair and banged my head against the floor, again and again,” she recalls.

Her story is shocking, but Sadiq is accustomed to hearing about such violence.

A lawyer with the group Women for Afghan Women, she spends her days trying to protect those who desperately need her help - 12-year-old girls forced to marry men three times their age, women who are beaten daily, wives desperate to flee unhappy marriages and abusive in-laws.

At least now, she says, these women can make it to her office.

“These women that we help now as defence attorneys, they would never have been able to raise their voices under the Taliban.”

But even today, women living in parts of Afghanistan where the Taliban has regained control have no way of seeking help, she says.

“It looks like everything is OK there ... because the women don’t have any rights, they don’t have any right to raise their voice. So if you don’t hear something, how can you help someone?,” says Sadiq.

She was 12 years old and living with her family in northern Afghanistan when the Taliban came.

Within days, they closed down her girls school. Sadiq was forced to stay home and help her mother weave carpets while her younger brothers went to school.

“When the Taliban came and I couldn’t go to school … I would cry and ask, ‘Why? Why can’t we go outside?’”

She had been a straight-A student but says she could only watch as her younger brothers surpassed her in their studies and she could no longer understand the books they were reading.

She recalls how girls could not leave their houses without a male relative. She saw the Taliban beat a woman on the street for failing to wear socks under her burqa.

Nail polish and make-up were forbidden, along with television and radio.

“Under the Taliban, we were in complete darkness. We didn’t know what was happening around us or in the world. We didn’t know what rights women have,” Sadiq recalls.

When US air raids bombarded her city in 2001, her former girls school, which had become a Taliban base, was demolished. Terrified by the bombing, she hid with her family.

But the fall of the Taliban marked the beginning of a new life. She returned to school, then went onto university and became a lawyer.

Now she is afraid of what a return of the Taliban could mean for her two-year-old daughter and the unborn baby she is carrying.

“I was just a child and it was so traumatic,” she says. “I don’t want my children to go through this. So I’m fighting for my kids, for their future and for the future of this country.”

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