Taliban rule in Afghanistan, one year on: ‘Women don’t want to stay here’ – photo essay

Sitting on a thin mat, a plastic tarpaulin propped up above her head, offering an escape from Kabul’s summer sun, Sabsa Gul is reading women’s palms. She’s a fortune teller, mostly giving marriage or job advice, though lately discussion topics have changed, the 40-year-old says.

“Women are now asking me to help them leave the country. They don’t want to stay in Afghanistan any longer.”

Offices of the former government in Herat are now controlled by the Taliban.

The establishment of the Islamic emirate

Hundreds of thousands of people have fled Afghanistan since the Taliban took control last year, many during a chaotic US-led airlift at Kabul airport. The former president Ashraf Ghani fled too, leaving behind a panicked nation. Less than two weeks later, on 26 August, an explosion outside the airport killed almost 200 people, including 13 US servicepersonnel who were helping with evacuations. Islamic State claimed responsibility for the blast.

People are being evacuated from Kabul airport after the Taliban took over Afghanistan, on 25 August 2021.

A woman with her child at Kabul airport wait for their flight, on 25 August 2021.

Many Afghans have long feared a violent Taliban takeover, a deep-seated fear triggered by memories of the Islamic emirate in 1996, when the former president Mohammad Najibullah – who was ousted in 1992 – was hanged and his body publicly displayed, and when Afghans throughout the country were harassed and killed. This time, the Taliban did not enter by force and promised a peaceful transition. However, many Afghans have not welcomed their new rulers, who swept across the country, taking over former US bases and setting up their own checkpoints.

A Taliban member sorting through ammunition; another holds up a locker door at a former US base in Ghazni province, on September 2021.

One of the sons of a Talib sits next to a gun outside a Taliban ministry in Herat.

Doctors and nurses during their morning rounds at a hospital in Kabul, in February 2022. Though fewer people have been arriving at the hospital with war-related injuries, more people have been turning up with gunshot wounds.

Economic and humanitarian crisis

The establishment of the Islamic emirate triggered an international response that has since crippled the central Asian country: development aid stopped, foreign exchange reserves were frozen and sanctions abounded. The economy nosedived and a humanitarian crisis followed. Most household incomes slipped below the poverty line and the economy shrank by almost 30%.

Noor Agha, 10, collects rubbish in Kabul to help his family pay for food. Child labour has risen since the Taliban takeover. Right: a woman in Herat shows a photo of her sick son – she cannot afford medical care.

Children collecting water in rural Bamyan. The humanitarian crisis has caused almost every household to live below the poverty line since the Taliban takeover.

Farmers walking home in rural Bamyan. Most people in the country live below the poverty line after development funds were halted and Afghan funds frozen in US accounts.

“No country in the world could have absorbed such an enormous economic shock,” said William Byrd, a senior Afghanistan expert at the United States Institute of Peace. “The new equilibrium leaves most of the Afghan population – up to 70% – unable to afford food and other necessities.”

Musa Qala, Helmand. Boys and a girl studying at a madrassa, in September 2021.

Schools close to high school girls; protests erupt, journalists are tortured

Afghanistan has endured more than four decades of war, including 20 years of US occupation. Since the Taliban takeover, large-scale fighting has stopped, mobility across the country has improved and corruption declined.

Pupils outside Sayeed Abad high school in Wardak province. Girls of grade 6 age and older are still not allowed to attend.

At the same time, women have been denied their basic rights – including the right to higher education – and several former government employees have been killed by the Taliban, according to Human Rights Watch. Tens of thousands of Afghans remain in limbo, both in Afghanistan – still waiting for their evacuation a year on – as well as in overseas refugee camps where their futures are unknown.

Women in Dasht-e-Barchi are protesting against the Taliban’s new all-male interim government, demanding women’s rights and education, in September 2021.

Protests erupted across the country when the Taliban announced that many girls would no longer be able to attend school. Several journalists covering the protests were detained and beaten including Nehmatullah Maqdi, 28 and Taqi Daryabi, 22.

Nehmatullah Maqdi, 28, and Taqi Daryabi, 22, video journalists with the EtilaatRoz newspaper, were beaten by the Taliban after being detained while filming a women’s rights protest.

Gobind Singh, 25, stands in Kabul’s Sikh Gurdwara, where Islamic State launched an attack against the minority community. Two people were killed but the attackers just missed the worshippers – up to 70 of them were due to arrive minutes later.

An increase in attacks on minorities

There has been a sharp increase in IS attacks against Hazara people, a Shia minority. At least 72 people were killed when a suicide bomber detonated explosives at a Shia mosque in the northern Kunduz province in October 2021. Days later, a similar attack in Kandahar killed 63 people, most of them Hazara.

In April, a prominent Afghan high school in a Hazara neighbourhood in western Kabul was targeted, killing at least nine students and injuring dozens more. Ramazan Ali told the Guardian his son Ali was 18 years old when he was murdered. He was a “good student and promising athlete”.

Ramazan Ali, 45, father of Ali, 18, who was killed in the attack on Kabul’s Abdul Rahim Shahid high school.

“We no longer feel safe. I’ve already lost my son and I fear the suffering isn’t over. This is our home but our community isn’t even represented in the government. We’re forced to abide by rules we don’t agree with, such as the ban on girls’ education,” the 45-year-old says while sitting on the floor in his house and holding a framed photo of his late son.

Men stand in the ruins of their homews in Paktika, where a 5.9-magnitude earthquake destroyed at least 35 villages, in June 2022.

In spring and summer this year, further IS attacks on minorities ensued, including one on a Sikh place of worship in Kabul in July. A 5.9-magnitude earthquake that month killed more than 1,000 people, while dozens died in landslides and flash floods across the country.

Back in the western Kabul neighbourhood where Sabsa Gul practises her “magic”, several of the women who have visited the fortune teller say that while some people’s lives have improved since the Taliban takeover, theirs – like many other women – have not. There are no jobs and no education, they tell Gul.

Sabsa Gul, 40, is palm reading.

“It’s true – the overall situation for women has got worse,” says Fereshta Abbasi, a researcher at Human Rights Watch. “Women are living in fear and feeling hopeless. There is no future for them under the Taliban.”