This transcript was prepared by a transcription service. This version may not be in its final form and may be updated.
Ryan Knutson: Since the Taliban took over Afghanistan less than two weeks ago, their treatment of women has raised concerns.
Margherita Stancati: They have turned away women from the workplace. They have also defaced images of women in Kabul. Outside beauty parlors, all those images have been defaced with black paint or painted over or ripped down.
Ryan Knutson: That’s our colleague, Margherita Stancati. She used to live in Afghanistan and she’s been covering the Taliban’s takeover.
Margherita Stancati: There’s been a few episodes of women being kind of scolded for what they were wearing and even more alarmingly, in parts of the country, unmarried women were essentially forcibly married off to Taliban fighters. Some women have been whipped by the Taliban. We spoke to one woman. She’s a doctor, she used to drive herself to work. She was in a taxi and took out her phone to film scenes of chaos unfolding near the airport. A Taliban fighter saw her and he whipped her in public.
Ryan Knutson: The atmosphere in Kabul, the country’s capital, has been tense. When the city fell, women like 28-year-old photographer Fatima (Siani) hid from public view, afraid the Taliban would target them.
Fatima Siani: We were hiding ourselves at home. Even my friends couldn’t go out and they would just worry. And they were just texting each other that are you fine? Are you home? We were just deactivating our social media accounts. It was like exhausting and I could see that even in less than one week how everything has been changed.
Ryan Knutson: Young Afghan women like Fatima are terrified that the rights women gained during the 20-year American presence in Afghanistan are being taken away.
Welcome to The Journal, our show about money, business and power. I’m Ryan Knutson. It’s Wednesday, August 25th. Coming up on the show, the uncertain future women face in Afghanistan.
The Taliban ruled Afghanistan from 1996 to 2001, a brief period that had a tremendous impact on the country’s history. The way they ruled, from harboring terrorists to inflicting violence against the Afghan people, turned the country into a pariah state.
Margherita Stancati: The Taliban follow an incredibly strict interpretation of Sunni Islam. They applied what is their interpretation of sharia, of Islamic law. So it’s a mix of their very hardline interpretation of religion and also kind of local Afghan culture.
Life under Taliban rule in the 1990s was awful for women. It was one of the worst places in the world in which to be a woman. You would basically see no woman in the street or very, very few women. And certainly you would not bump into women in government buildings or in offices. The woman you did see would be wearing these head-to-toe gowns called burka, typically in blue with mesh over their faces, so you couldn’t even see their face. The idea was that woman had to be kept away from the public eye, that they were very much supposed to stay at home and take care of children and that it was inappropriate for men who are not related to them to see them. Although, of course, many, many families chose instead to flee Afghanistan.
Ryan Knutson: One of the families that chose to flee was Fatima’s. Her parents left Afghanistan as the Taliban came to power. She grew up in Iran.
What kind of stories did you hear from your family or relatives about what life was like for women under Taliban rule?
Fatima Siani: They just told me different stories about how life was difficult during that regime. Everything was so hard for especially women in Afghanistan. They told me that they killed some of their families in some of the provinces in Afghanistan and also my friends that they even have the photos of those, like their uncle and their aunts and even some of their closest family, like fathers, that the Taliban killed them and try to rape their even grandmother, even their sisters and how they hide their girls in some of like far villages.
Ryan Knutson: The Taliban ruled for five years. They were ousted in 2001 when the U.S. invaded Afghanistan after 9/11.
Margherita Stancati: When the U.S. invaded Afghanistan, one of the goals of the military intervention besides obviously going after Al-Qaeda and the Taliban was the liberation of Afghan woman.
Ryan Knutson: The invasion quickly toppled the Taliban government and, with it, the strict rules that women had been living under. While some of those restrictions continued in rural areas, in places like Kabul things changed drastically for women and girls.
Margherita Stancati: Over the past 20 years, women made lots of progress and now work in fields ranging from journalism to politics, to even the military and these young women who really grew up believing that there was a future for them in Afghanistan as people, not just as women, but just they could aspire to do the kind of jobs their brothers wanted to do.
Ryan Knutson: Fatima visited Afghanistan twice in the early 2010s and she decided to move to Kabul in 2018.
Why did you want to move there?
Fatima Siani: Because, since I was a teenager, Afghanistan was only a name for me and I was always looking for some roots and some signs about Afghanistan, that where I am belonged to, you know? I could see that everything has been changed in Afghanistan and I could make a peaceful place for myself, so I decided to go back and start with teaching at Kabul University and to have a voice and to inspire other girls to experience and to be an artist.
Ryan Knutson: Fatima’s work as a photographer centers on Afghan women. She says her portraits of these women are meant to show off their femininity and push Afghan cultural norms.
What kind of a reaction does your work get in Afghanistan?
Fatima Siani: Some people and some different part of the society in Afghanistan or in all around the world appreciated me that you’re so brave. You’ve been to Afghanistan. You are taking pictures of women in Afghanistan in the middle of the streets, and you’re creating beauty in the middle of war zone, but in another side some of the people of Afghanistan really didn’t like my works because they believe that I am showing women of Afghanistan without hijab, without any sharia law.
Ryan Knutson: Beyond her work, Fatima says her life in Kabul was pretty normal, even though she said she was still sometimes fearful of bombing and terrorism as the war continued, especially outside the city.
How different was the Afghanistan that you lived in compared to the Afghanistan of the 1990s under Taliban rule and the stories that you heard?
Fatima Siani: Everything was so different. I mean, I had my freedom, freedom of speech as a photojournalist. I could go to streets and take of women photos, even the communication between women, everything was different. So I could see just the beauties of Afghanistan, because I tried to travel to different provinces and to capture the beauties of Afghanistan.
Ryan Knutson: Did you feel free and independent as a woman in Afghanistan during this time?
Fatima Siani: Of course, yeah, and it was so sweet, because I experienced to be an independent girl in my country, in my Afghanistan. I could see that so many of my friends, so many of women in Afghanistan went abroad. They were so educated. They started their business. So many of them were working in very high positions, in the government, in economy.
Ryan Knutson: But then, earlier this month, everything changed for women like Fatima. When Afghanistan fell to the Taliban. That’s after the break.
After American troops began their withdrawal from Afghanistan, the Taliban quickly took over much of the country, including Kabul and women weren’t sure exactly what was about to happen. Here’s Margherita again.
Margherita Stancati: Women in Afghanistan are afraid they’re going to lose their freedom and there’s several aspects of this. For example, what will they be allowed to wear? What kind of restrictions will there be on dress? It’s almost for sure there will be some sort of restrictions on dress. That’s one issue. The second thing they’re afraid of is work. The Taliban ave said, women will be allowed to work, but in which professions? It’s very possible that many professions will be barred for women. And also gender segregation, will women and men be allowed to mix? And also the role of the so-called (foreign language) or the male guardian. So will women need the permission of their father or husbands to work or to go to university or to marry someone?
Ryan Knutson: Are there any women who are trying to resist the Taliban and not follow their rules? If so, what kind of risks do they face for doing that?
Margherita Stancati: So we still don’t have any hard set rules. We don’t know what women can and cannot do and probably we won’t have visibility on that until an actual Taliban government is formed and they announce these rules. After the Taliban took over Kabul, there were a few women, a few very brave woman who took to the streets and started chanting slogans in support of women’s rights in front of Taliban fighters. They were showing their face.
Protestors: (foreign language)
Margherita Stancati: They were wearing headscarves and they were modestly dressed, but they were standing up for their rights.
Protestors: (foreign language).
Margherita Stancati: At the same time, we haven’t really seen the Taliban meeting any women’s rights activists or prominent women really, since they’ve taken over Kabul.
Ryan Knutson: Since the Taliban took over Kabul, they’ve been trying to project a more moderate image of themselves. One way they’ve tried was by letting a female journalist interview a top Taliban leader on TV.
Interviewer: (foreign language).
Margherita Stancati: The Taliban had just taken over Kabul and a female anchor was essentially grilling the Taliban official about what this meant for the country.
Interviewer: (foreign language).
Taliban official: (foreign language).
Ryan Knutson: The official responded by saying that he was quote still astonished that people are afraid of Taliban. Then, in a press conference last week, another Taliban spokesman said that the group would respect women’s rights and let girls go to school but only quote within the framework that we have. Our women are Muslim. That said, just yesterday the Taliban said women should stay home, at least temporarily for their own safety, because untrained Taliban fighters might mistreat them.
Why would the Taliban want to be seen as taking a more moderate stance toward women?
Margherita Stancati: The Taliban need and want international recognition and international funding. So the Taliban know they can’t do it alone, know they will need a degree of international legitimacy in order to access funding, even if it’s just humanitarian aid. They need support and also they don’t want to be seen as a pariah state in the same way that they were in the 1990s.
Ryan Knutson: At first, Fatima wanted to believe that the Taliban would be more moderate.
Fatima Siani: Even after they took over Kabul, I was hopeful that maybe Taliban has been changed, maybe, but when I saw their behavior in the streets, when I listened to their speeches, and then I checked the news that so many of my friends and even journalists were posting, that they are just searching door to door, searching for journalists, people of government, polices, and NGOs, it was at that time that I decided to leave Afghanistan.
Ryan Knutson: Fatima worked with the French embassy and a nonprofit to try and escape the country. They arranged for her to fly out of the Kabul Airport on a French military plane.
Fatima Siani: I realize that it’s done. Afghans’ identity is gone and my hope is gone, and it’s the time to leave because I have to survive. I have to claim my voice. I have to continue my words. And if I didn’t leave, I’m sure that I had to hide myself and to turn off my voice and everything.
Ryan Knutson: After hours of waiting for the Taliban to let her into the airport, she boarded the plane and set off for Paris where she is now.
Fatima Siani: It was so heartbreaking. I couldn’t imagine that one day I leave my beloved motherland, my Afghanistan, like that in a military flight. It was like in the grand of airplane but just with a little suitcase. I left my everything behind. I just locked my house, my home, and left. It was so heartbreaking. I just can say that.
Ryan Knutson: Is there anything that’s giving you hope?
Fatima Siani: Actually at the moment, no, because I’m still in shocked. I’m still in panic. I still cannot believe it, that how all these things happen in just one week. Just two weeks ago, I was with my friends in Kabul and today I am in Paris looking without anything to a new life. I left everything behind to an unknown future.
Ryan Knutson: What do you think it’s going to happen to all the women who stayed behind in Afghanistan? What do you think the future will be like for them?
Fatima Siani: I’m sure that their life is gone and everything is gone.
Ryan Knutson: That’s all for today, Wednesday, August 25th. The Journal is a co-production of Gimlet and the Wall Street Journal. Special thanks to Jessica Donati for her reporting in this story and Ava Sasani. Thanks for listening. See you tomorrow.