It was not the first time Taliban security forces had come knocking on Fariba’s door in the northern city of Mazar-i-Sharif in search of her son.
This time, though, instead of being subjected to threats and aggressive behaviour, the widowed mother-of-seven was lured out of her home by a promise of kindness from the fighters. But after getting into their 4×4, Fariba, whose name has been changed, was never heard from again; her bullet-ridden body was discovered at the city’s government hospital the next morning by two of her children, her face gaping and contorted beyond recognition.
Fariba’s 21-year-old son worked as a police officer under the previous government, according to someone who knows the family. Taliban security forces had been intimidating the family for a while; they called her son and told him not to leave the house because they were going to offer protection for him and his family; they informed Fariba the family must vacate the property and hand it over to the new authorities; and they also accused her son of hiding weapons – a claim flatly denied by the family, said the source.
Since taking over the country in August, the Taliban have stripped former government security personnel and civilians of their weapons countrywide.
Fariba fought back. “My son has left his job and I have no husband, what should I do without a home?”
Just over two weeks ago, the fighters who appeared at her door told Fariba they wanted to help her son.
“There is a nice man here who wants to dismiss your case so I’m going with him now,” she said in a phone call to her son, who was not at home. That was the last time she was heard from.
Fariba’s family have since fled their home. Their tragedy is not an isolated case in Mazar-i-Sharif. This month a woman was shot dead on a small piece of open land nestled between homes in a quiet residential area called Balkh Bastan in the north of the city — space often occupied by children playing.
“I heard the sound of gunshots and came out to see what was happening. I saw a police ranger speeding away from the scene. The police were called, and the same ranger returned to remove the body,” said a witness who asked not to be named. The shooting happened at about 6.30pm.
According to people in the area, the dead woman was young. In her bag, jewellery and an ID card with the name Nilofar Sayed Muzafar were found. The Times was unable to locate her family.
Separately, a witness told The Times a woman was arrested in Mazar-i-Sharif, accused of being a sex worker after being found in a room with three males.
“The Taliban were called and they said they had orders to kill the woman,” said the witness, who added that a community leader, who was called in, convinced the fighters to spare her.
Women’s freedoms have been drastically curtailed since the Taliban retook power in the summer after a 20-year war with the US-backed Afghan government, more so for those living in big cities such as Kabul and Herat. Images of women have been erased from shop windows, women have been banned from working in government, and the vast majority of secondary schools for girls have been closed.
Now, though, reports are beginning to emerge of women being killed and “disappeared”.
Nervous medical staff at the government-run Mazar-i-Sharif Regional Hospital say they are receiving about 15 bodies brought in by Taliban fighters each month. Although the employees are allowed little involvement with the corpses, they say that from what they have witnessed, the majority are female and most have gunshot wounds to the head or chest.
They do not know who is responsible for the deaths and are not allowed to conduct post-mortem examinations or register the deaths. Prior to the Taliban taking control, the intelligence agency, police department, justice system and hospital would have recorded details about every dead body, staff said.
Another woman was killed this month after being arrested by the Taliban, according to people who knew the family. Her body, also punctured with gunshot wounds, ended up at the same hospital, brought in by the group. The woman, whom The Times has decided not to name, was a mother and described by people who knew her as a “good woman”. The family, fearing reprisals, have since gone into hiding.
Hanifa Nazari, an activist who was a member of Balkh Women’s Peace Group and had attended protests, was shot dead by two unknown assailants on a motorbike in Balkh Bastan, according to reports.
Despite the grave risks, women are refusing to stay silent and continue to organise demonstrations. A protest this month proved to be particularly controversial among both Taliban officials and Afghan citizens when demonstrators sprayed red paint onto a white burqa before burning it, alleging it was adopted from other cultures.
The veil, which covers the entire face and body, has become a symbol of oppression in Afghanistan since women were forced to wear it during the Taliban’s 1996-2001 rule, although it existed in the country before the group came to power.
On Wednesday last week, days after the protest, one of the women’s rights activists, Tamana Paryani, shared a distressing video. She is screaming for help, saying Taliban forces are at her door. She pleads for them to come back the following day.
Her appeals fell on deaf ears; witnesses say armed Taliban forced their way into the apartment and arrested Tamana and her three sisters. A second activist, Parwana Ibrahimkhel, disappeared the same night. No one has heard from them since.
The United Nations has urged the Taliban to provide more details about Tamana and Parwana’s whereabouts.
Taliban officials have denied any involvement in the women’s disappearances. Suhail Shaheen, the group’s spokesman, claimed in an interview with the BBC that Tamana’s video was faked.
Citizens are fearful of a gradual move towards a more hardline rule of law. Recently, the Taliban have been encouraging women via posters around Kabul and messages on television to wear a hijab. The de facto government has also stipulated women must travel with a male relative, known as a mahram, over long distances. While there has been no mention of such need when moving around cities, many women in Kabul told The Times they face harassment from Taliban fighters for not having a mahram accompany them. This makes going to work difficult for some, while making others afraid to leave their homes.
Sitting with colleagues beneath a blanket in her cold, dark beauty salon in Kabul, Basmina Amirzai says restrictions on women are destroying her business.
“Before the Taliban were in control, women had jobs and many of them were coming here to treat and take care of themselves. Those who had money have left the country and those who remain have no incomes,” she says, adding the Taliban have told her to close her shop by 4pm instead of 7pm. “They said women should be at home in the evening.”
Like many other shop owners, Amirzai has been instructed by Taliban representatives from the Ministry for the Propagation of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice to cover the large sticker of a woman’s face on her shop window, on the premise these images are a violation of Islamic law.
“Before the Taliban came to power I could do whatever I wanted, now, that’s not the case,” she says.