‘If you don’t submit, the Taliban will stone you to death’: Life behind closed doors

As the Taliban closed in on Herat in the summer of 2021, Gulnar* was living with her mother and sister in a rented house in the city. Her mother, who worked as a street vendor, worried about the future of her daughters, especially Gulnar, who was 18. She feared that the Taliban might take her daughter by force. At the same time, a neighbour introduced them to the family of 22-year-old Fawad.* Soon, they raised the idea of a marriage between their son and Gulnar. Thinking this could solve her concerns, Gulnar’s mother happily accepted the idea. 

Gulnar tells Zan Times in a phone interview that it was the start of a nightmare. She and her husband lived in his family’s home and it was there, a year after their wedding, that her father-in-law told her to sleep with a guest. Shocked, Gulnar told her husband, expecting that Fawad would support her and confront his father and support her. To her horror, her husband ordered her to obey his father’s demand. 

When Gulnar refused their demands, her husband and his father beat her with a whip and then dragged her to the stranger, who raped her in her own bedroom. After that violent abuse, Fawad forced her to have sex with other men, and threatened what would happen if she refused. “He told me, ‘If you don’t accept, we will tell all the people that you are a bad woman and the Taliban will stone you,’” Gulnar says with a lump in her voice. 

In the last five months, she has been forced to sleep with dozens of men in her room. Sometimes that violence is accompanied by a beating. Gulnar says that because she has no way out of her marriage and their home, she has contemplated suicide many times. “I hate myself and all humans. I am waiting for the day to die,” she tells Zan Times.  

Under the Taliban, women such as Gulnar are effectively imprisoned within the four walls of their homes and do not see a way out for themselves. After regaining power, the regime abolished the Ministry of Women’s Affairs, the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission and every other support system, however limited in scope, including safe houses for victims of violence.  

Even before the return of the Taliban, married life was dangerous. According to a report by the Human Rights Commission of Afghanistan in 2020, 95.8 percent of violence against women occurred at home, and violence against women within the family was known as one of the most common types of violence, and the home environment was assessed as the most unsafe place for women in Afghanistan. 

Now, in the absence of any support system, what happens to Afghan women trapped in their homes? 

For this report, Zan Times has spoken to 13 women in seven provinces who all say they have experienced violence in their homes, and the perpetrators were immediate family members. These women recount experiencing physical, sexual, verbal, and psychological violence, often happening simultaneously. And most tragically, many of these women think that death is a solution to end the violence being perpetrated against them. 

The 13 women – three each in Herat and Laghman provinces, two each in Bamyan and in Kandahar, and one each Ghor, Samangan, and Jawzjan – spoke about their difficult lives and experiences of violence in their homes. 

Ruqia*, 28, is one of these women. Before the Taliban returned, she wanted to use her legal right to get a divorce to escape domestic violence by her husband. She registered her request at the Directorate of Women’s Affairs in Samangan province, which summoned her husband for investigation. Ruqia’s husband attended that one meeting but refused to agree to the divorce. Ruqia’s family court session was postponed until after his next meeting, which never occurred because the Taliban took over. 

In an interview with Zan Times, Ruqia says that her divorce case fell apart when the Ministry of Women’s Affairs was dismantled. She had been living with her brother since filing for divorce but that became difficult as he insulted and humiliated her. Finally, he told her to leave. With nowhere to go, Ruqia returned to her husband, who doubled down on his torture. During one beating, he broke her hand but refused to allow her to go to a doctor or hospital. As she explains, “My hand does not move because of the pain. My husband said, ‘By asking for a divorce, you brought me down in front of my brothers and my [other] wife, so this is your punishment.’” 

After suffering for two weeks, Ruqia’s mother-in-law finally took her to a shikastaband [untrained medic] who tried to fix her hand. Ruqia’s hand didn’t heal properly and now she cannot lift anything with it.  

Before the Taliban regained power, the legal system and some institutions provided support for victims of violence such as Ruqia, including a way out of torture and domestic violence. Now, there is no escape and no authority to which women can ask for help. On March 4, the Washington Post reported that women now fear that the divorces they obtained in court without their husbands being present may no longer be valid as they don’t comport with the Taliban’s harsh version of Islamic law. The story recounts how some who obtained so-called “one-sided” divorces under the previous government, often because their husbands were addicts or abusive, are now being threatened by their ex-husbands and other family members  

Shahrazad Akbar, the former head of the now-defunct Independent Human Rights Commission in Afghanistan, spoke about the situation with Zan Times in a phone interview. She says that Afghan women enduring domestic violence are in crisis because of the dismantling of virtually institutional or legal support. “There were some small organizations that provided social services and psychotherapy for women who were victims of violence, but since the Taliban have banned women from working in non-governmental organizations, these services have become increasingly impossible, because these organizations were run by women and for women,” she explains. 

Another woman experiencing domestic violence at the hands of her husband and his family is 31-year-old Parisa. She was just 13 when she was forced to marry a man who already had a wife and five children. Because Parisa gave birth to three daughters instead of the expected sons, her husband and his family abuse her. “He punches and kicks me, to the extent that I can’t take care of my daughters,” she explains. 

Now, there is no authority who can save her. “I used to be angry. But now that I want to file a complaint and be saved from this life, there is no one to hear my voice – how long will it be like this?” she says. “And how long shall I continue?” 

*Names have been changed to protect the identity of the interviewees.  

Alongside Zan Times, Women’s eNews is publishing stories from mainly women journalists working both inside and outside Afghanistan, telling stories of the marginalized populations who rarely have a voice to shape and inform public discourse, believing that change begins with awareness. Having previously worked as journalists in Afghanistan, they are aware of the challenges, dangers, and opportunities of working in the media landscape and are doing their part to make sure the stories of the country are told.

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