The medicine truck was parked in front of the hospital when the nurse arrived for work on that Sunday, Aug. 15, and as she approached the building, she saw the driver standing beside the vehicle, frantically waving at her and the other nurses to turn back.
“He was screaming, ‘All the women must leave, sister please go, the Taliban are here!”‘ the 35-year-old nurse recalled. “At first we could not understand him; it seemed impossible.”
Dressed in jeans and a blouse, Western-style clothes she feared she could no longer wear in Kabul, she and the other women around her climbed into the back of the truck, which dropped them each off at home. For three days, the nurse was too scared to leave her house. On the fourth morning, she received a call from the hospital’s president: “The Taliban have no problem with women,” she recalled him saying. “Please come back to work. There are tasks here that only you can do; we are strapped for resources, we need you.”
The nurse spokes with BuzzFeed News to share with readers a “real picture” of what it is like to be a working woman in Afghanistan right now, she said, requesting anonymity because she fears for her life.
For working women who remain in Afghanistan, the days since the fall of Kabul have brought fear and a chilling uncertainty about what their lives will look like under Taliban rule. For months, the Taliban have publicly claimed that they have moderated their positions on aspects of women’s rights. On Wednesday, Taliban’s spokesperson Zabiullah Mujahid told reporters in Kabul that there was only a “temporary restriction” on working women and that it was for their own safety amid the chaos of the regime change.
“Our security forces are not trained [in] how to deal with women,” Mujahid said. “Until we have full security in place … we ask women to stay home.”
But the early days of the Taliban’s reign in Afghanistan have only confirmed what Afghan women have been saying all along: that their home country will once again turn into a place where women face greater dangers, restrictions, and few opportunities. Women who were once publicly outspoken about their rights have been forced to flee the country, their homes and offices ransacked by armed gunmen, and posters with images of women have been defaced across the capital. Young girls have been sent home from school and warned not to return. Hospitals like the ones the nurse works in being gender segregated — women doctors and nurses can only speak to and treat other women, and all women outside their homes must wear hijab. Even in areas where the Taliban is yet to start policing women, their return to power has emboldened vigilantes who have threatened women for not wearing a hijab or not staying in their homes.
“We’re just waiting now,” said the nurse, who has worked at the hospital for 10 years. “But even we don’t know what we’re waiting for.”
For women like the nurse, the only earning member in her family, going to work was never a choice but a necessity. She now dreams of leaving Afghanistan, she said, but fears that is an impossibility because of her unique circumstances: The nurse lives with her mother and a sister with disabilities who requires constant care. Even before a bomb killed dozens of people at the Kabul airport on Thursday, the nurse said that she couldn’t imagine how she could possibly usher an elderly woman and child through the desperate crowds jostling for the limited seats on flights out of the country.
“If something were to happen to my sister, or if I had to leave them behind, I would not be able to live with myself,” she said.
Even though the nurse did not trust the Taliban or her hospital’s president, she returned to the hospital on Thursday out of a sense of duty, she said. On the streets, she said, there were soldiers everywhere, carrying Kalashnikovs and watching as she walked past in her hijab.
“The fear was intense,” she said. “They glared at me as though I were prey. But I kept telling myself, maybe they are not like before, they do not beat women anymore. They seemed quiet, not violent. At least not yet.”
At the hospital, the security persons who usually manned each entrance were missing and the entire place seemed upside down. She walked in to find that most patient wards were empty — many had simply ripped their IVs out and left the hospital on foot. Those who remained — a few terminally ill patients, one pregnant woman — looked terrified, she said.
The COVID ward, which the nurse said was overrun with at least a dozen patients until the week before, was now empty. The nurse learned from another nurse that the relatives of some patients had decided the Taliban was a more dangerous threat than the coronavirus and had taken their sick family members home or straight to the airport.
“We no longer have any data on the number of COVID patients in this hospital, or for that matter, in this city,” she told BuzzFeed News. “The health ministry is still updating COVID data, but none of that is real. No one who is sick wants to leave their house and run into Taliban soldiers.”
A few stampede victims were brought to her hospital for treatment too, but they were men, whom she could not treat under the new hospital rules. The nurse said she learned about this new rule from a colleague, who told her she had been sent home by Taliban when she was seen speaking to a man with a bleeding foot.
Nurses and doctors are required to go to the hospital every day to log presence in the city for the Taliban. Between the new policies and the empty wards, the nurse is having a hard time motivating herself to keep showing up to work, she said.
Many patients, seeking to avoid the risk of leaving their homes, have turned to privately contacting medical professionals. The nurse recently delivered a baby when a pregnant woman showed up in her neighborhood, begging for help. The nurse carried whatever supplies she could find and walked with the woman to her home, where she delivered the baby in secret. The nurse left the woman with a list of medicines she would eventually need, but she said she has not heard from her again.
The nurse is afraid of making too many home visits because of the Taliban soldiers at checkpoints who are monitoring movement around the city, but she is not sure how else to earn money. The hospital’s president recently told nurses their salaries are on hold until the city’s banks start functioning normally again — banks in Kabul closed on Aug. 15, just before Afghanistan’s former president, Ashraf Ghani, fled and the Taliban arrived in the capital. When banks reopened after nearly a week, they were nearly impossible to enter on account of massive crowds. The nurse said she hasn’t been able to access an ATM and isn’t sure what to do if she runs out of cash. If the Taliban forces women like her to stop working, the nurse said, she will have no way to feed her family.
In her neighborhood, the nurse said that soldiers were not as much of a problem as ordinary men on the street who had suddenly appointed themselves moral guardians, telling women to go back home, wear a hijab, and show some shame, warning them of beatings if they do not comply.
A few days ago, she had an argument with a shopkeeper who chastised her for regularly wearing jeans: “It’s a good thing the Taliban are here to take care of women like you,” she recalled him saying. Since then, the nurse’s mother and a young male neighbor have taken turns going out to buy bread and essentials for the family.
The nurse spends most of her time indoors now, but her primary sources of entertainment at home no longer offer any semblance of escapism — the television airs nothing but the news. “All I see are turbans, beards, and guns,” the nurse said. “No Bollywood films, Afghan Superstar, or the chat shows we used to love.” The radio, she said, no longer plays music but only the Taliban’s religious songs, which “have no melody and sound like a funeral.” ●
Khatol Momand contributed reporting.