Homeira Qaderi was ironing her headscarf for school when her father came to tell her she would no longer need it, because the Taliban had captured her hometown. For the next five years the group’s harsh rules meant she barely left the house.
A generation of women have grown up in Afghanistan since the Taliban were toppled from power in 2001. But many of those who have guided the country through profound change, running schools, or as journalists or politicians, are haunted by memories of their brutal, misogynist rule.
“I cannot forget those years,” said Qaderi, 34, now a writer and activist who was recently appointed editor of the Afghan newspaper Rah-e-Madanyat. Her first venture into journalism, when the insurgents still controlled Herat, had brought a threat of a public lashing.
As the US casts around for an exit from its longest war, and Afghanistan inches towards some form of peace deal, Afghan women are caught between hope that peace may finally be in sight, and fear that their rights will be the price exacted for an end to fighting.
They have a great deal to fear if the Afghanistan slips back into the full-blown civil war that ravaged the country in the 1990s, but if security means a return to the same rules brought in by the Taliban that decade, it will be a bitter peace for them.
“I think trying to reach a peace deal with Taliban is a good move,” said Fawzia Koofi, a member of parliament and one of just two women at recent talks in Moscow between the insurgents and dozens of Afghan powerbrokers.
“The concern that we have about this process is that the Afghan people are not a part of this process, especially women who paid the highest price under the Taliban government. Women don’t know what will happen to their lives in future, and to the freedoms they won after the Taliban.”
When the insurgents seized Kabul in 1996, they barred women from schools and most work, forced them to wear the all-enveloping burqa when they left home, and even policed their shoes and makeup.
“The Taliban took four years of my life, when I was very young,” said Adela Kabiri, a professor at Herat University. “It should have had time to study and enjoy my life but they didn’t allow me to even leave our home. I will never get those years back.”
The strict rules were enforced by harsh punishments for even minor transgressions. For two relatives of the activist Susan Behboudzada, forgetting to wear burqas when they went out shopping had devastating consequences.
“The Taliban lashed them so much that one them died 20 days later and the other one has been living with mental problems for the last 19 years,” she said. Behboudzada ran a secret school for girls but often they were “too afraid to come to class”.
She is hopeful that the group have changed. “I believe today’s Taliban are different from those who were in power 20 years ago,” she said, pointing to the decision to sit down for serious peace talks. “They think differently, so they accepted talks”.
In Moscow the Taliban did appear to offer some answer to women’s concerns, promising that Islam guaranteed women’s rights to education and work. But they also attacked women’s rights activists for spreading “immorality” and “indecency”.
These mixed messages have fuelled worries that the insurgents might make empty pledges on women’s rights to smooth the departure of western troops, and revert to past practices when the threat of US enforcement fades.
Campaigners pointed out the jarring gap between public pledges of rights and the reality of daily life in parts of Afghanistan the insurgents already control.
These are mostly remote, rural districts, with a conservative population, because although the Taliban threaten more than half the country they have not been able to consolidate control over key population centres.
“There were many reports of beating and public trial of women by the Taliban in recent years,” said Sodaba Ehrari, 29, editor-in-chief of Afghanistan Women News Agency (AWNA).
“So if we imagine Taliban as a part of any government here, I am not even sure if they consider us full members of the community. I am really concerned that restrictions on women in the 1990s would be brought back.”
There are few women who oppose attempting to reach a peace deal. But there are few who aren’t concerned that women won’t have a seat at the table. Without representation at talks, without women being able to follow negotiations in detail, they fear it will be much easier for men to trade way hard-won rights.
No one expects to see women in the Taliban delegation, and so campaigners are focusing their efforts on pressuring the international community and prominent members of the Afghan elite.
Ahead of the talks in Moscow, the Afghan Women’s Network called on the men organising the talks to “bring women to the table”; women shared photos and messages on social media with the hashtag #AfghanWomenWillNotGoBack.
“Today, the male Afghan political actors and their international counterparts are talking about negotiating peace in the country. We, women of Afghanistan, are very concerned about this process,” the campaign network said.
And for all Afghanistan’s many problems, which include high maternal mortality, endemic violence against women and low literacy, there is still a lot of progress to celebrate and protect.
Over the past decade, millions of girls have been educated, female doctors and teachers work across the country, women have started businesses and supported their families and 25% of the country’s politicians are women. Very few of them oppose peace talks; they just want to be part of them.
“Like most Afghans, I am optimistic too, waiting and checking news to hear something about peace. It’s time to rebuild our country,” said Laila Omar, a civil servant. “Women cannot breathe properly under the shadow of war.”