As the Taliban regains Afghanistan, the one image that keeps coming back to me is from my travels in the country in 2005, when I visited the many villages between Kabul and Bamiyan, and the vibrant women I had met in the Bagh-e-Zanana, an exclusive garden for women.

Having tried desperately to talk to women in Kabul, particularly the buzzing Chicken Street, Kabul’s famous shopping area, I finally learnt where to find Afghan women who weren’t afraid to talk to strangers. During the Shah era, Kabul’s women met and let their hair down in an exclusive garden. But after the Russian invasion, and during the Taliban’s rule since 1995, as women were banished to their homes, the garden had decayed into wasteland. Thanks to an NGO run by the Agha Khan it had just been revived and bustled with women and children every Friday. I found here at least a couple of hundred women and children and their loud chatter was music to my ears.

Contrary to the Chicken Street, where the women in blue burqas (known as chadri in Afghanistan) had slunk away when I tried to talk to them, here I found them sans their blue cover, uninhibitedly sharing sandwiches, naans, and kebabs out of picnic baskets. There was laughter and banter, and with the help of a 10-year-old English-speaking girl, I chatted with them for over two hours. The young women, dressed in tops and jeans, begged me to share Shah Rukh Khan and Hrithik Roshan’s mobile numbers, but the older women, striking a serious note, wanted the help of India for birth control pills. They were exhausted from bearing children; “Our bodies need rest, but our men won’t allow family planning measures,” they complained.

The women shook their heads in terror at the very mention of the world Taliban. The refrain was — “we still cannot believe that the Taliban is gone and wake up with nightmares of the Taliban whipping us”.

Nishaan (name changed) in charge of that garden project, talked about “special visitors” to the Bagh-e Zanana the previous month — three Afghan women doctors who had been living and working in Germany for almost a decade. They had returned home to check the situation on the ground, visited Kabul’s dilapidated and ill-equipped hospitals, found foreign doctors, including Indians, working against all odds to save lives. “When they saw so many women assembled here, chattering, laughing, singing, they tore their German passports, saying we are not going to leave Afghanistan. It needs us.”

Fast forward from 2005 to August 2021. Watching video footage of desperate women behind barbed wire at Kabul airport, begging the US troops to allow them to leave as “the Taliban are coming after us”, I wonder what is the plight of Nishaan, those doctors, the carefree women and the girls at that garden.

The speed and zero resistance with which the Taliban took over province after province and finally Kabul, in just five days, with the Afghan President Ashraf Ghani fleeing the country, left the entire world stunned.

The gender trauma

In every statement made by anybody of any consequence, including the brilliant Afghan novelist Khalid Hosseini, the main concern is about the fate of Afghan women under Taliban rule. To get recognition and legitimacy the Taliban are now making politically correct statements on allowing girls’ education, women to work and so on. But they are not fooling anybody.

After the US invasion of Afghanistan post-9/11, the country was on a tortuously slow, yet sure path to development and progress, particularly on the gender front. Girls’ education and women at the workplace had become a norm. And India’s role in that development had been huge. The World Bank country chief in Afghanistan, Jean Mazurelle, a Frenchman, while discussing the gender situation had said this was an area where the Western aid organisations had to tread cautiously. A “white” man telling Afghan women to seek emancipation and discard the burqa would be a disaster. “If we do that we could be perceived as imposing Western values on Afghan women and trying to unveil them.” But, he added, Indian women, who were there in good numbers in several UN and voluntary organisations, were much better placed to make a difference on this front. He was all praise for his women colleagues from the World Bank in Delhi, then working in Afghanistan. “They are respectful of the local environment, but at the same time able to convince Afghans on important gender issues.” He added that he would be delighted to “see the Afghans looking at India’s development path rather than that of Iran or Pakistan on the gender front”.

Taliban terror of past

Well, all that is water under the bridge now. It is heartbreaking to even think of what the Taliban will do to Afghan women. Hosseini said in his Facebook post that he felt “heartbroken, helpless” as he worried for his female cousin in his heart and millions who have fled their homes. “Where will they go? What will happen to them? But I worry the most about my fellow Afghan sisters. Women and girls stand to lose more than any other group. There are many lasting horrific images from the last time the Taliban ruled Afghanistan: the public beatings, cutting off of hands, executions inside stadiums, barbaric and senseless destruction of historical artifacts. But for me the lasting mental picture of the Taliban circa 1990s is that of the stick-holding Talib beating a burqa-clad woman. The Taliban systematically terrorized women. They took away their freedom of movement, their freedom to work, their right to education, their right to wear jewellery, to grow their nails or paint them, to laugh in public, to even show their faces.”

India’s role

Unfortunately, India, the country that Afghans love and respect, and which did step in to help Afghanistan after 2001 in a variety of ways, is now a helpless bystander. The words of carpet seller Haji Abdul Hakim, a huge Indophile I met in Kabul in 2005, ring in my ears. “For long years we had a troubled history, with so much violence and bloodshed. Afghanistan has been like a muddy river, and so many countries, the United States, Soviet Union, Iran, Pakistan, all of them fished in our troubled waters and exploited us. Except India; India has always been a friend and has never coveted anything that belongs to us or done anything to hurt Afghanistan’s interests.”

So what will this long-time friend do for the beleaguered country now, I ask Shakti Sinha, an expert in Afghan policy, who was Prime Minister Vajpayee’s private secretary and now is the director of the AB Vajpayee Institute of Policy Research and International Studies. And why didn’t we have a clue of the ground reality?

He responds: “Well everybody, including the US, was taken by surprise as it didn’t reckon that the Afghan army would collapse in a matter of not weeks, but days... just five days. Nobody visualised this… though I had written in July that the Afghan government could collapse like a pack of cards.”

India had already started evacuating our citizens except those in the Indian embassy, “which we could not have closed while the government was functioning. The message to the Afghan people would have been all wrong”.

Asked how India could help now, he says the Indian embassy is already accepting visa applications on the Internet, which its Afghan staff will process. “So we will continue giving visas... business, tourist, medical and student visas will continue. We are also giving visas to our partners and friends which are not limited to the 700 Hindus and Sikhs left in Afghanistan.”

Interestingly, he shares that 30 years ago, there were one lakh Sikhs and Hindus in Afghanistan. The majority left in the 1980s, and there has been a steady exodus over the last 10 years too. The Taliban representative has already met the Sikh leaders at the Gurudwara — “to them Sikhs and Hindus are one, and they said ‘don’t worry, you will be safe here’. They are okay with the Dhimmis, or the non-believers, they have less rights but are okay!”

Asked specifically what India can do to help Afghan women, Sinha responds: “That is very, very tough. As a gender activist told me 15 years ago, if you want to help Afghan women, don’t talk about the gender issue. Help in improving the schools, courts, hospitals, etc.”

He recalls that during his days in Afghanistan, “when I visited Afghan homes, the women never came out. You could meet the women who worked for NGOs and the government, in their offices, but never at home. I’ve met Afghan women with their families in Delhi, London and New York but never in their homes in Afghanistan and I am talking about the non-Taliban Afghan families. And even all our projects for Afghan women were done in the exclusive Bagh-e-Zanana space... women-to-women.”

Fact be told, in the last couple of decades, women’s status, even during non-Taliban rule, was not that great in Afghanistan. Parveen, an activist from the Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan (RAWA), which had put up such a valiant fight for the rights of women during the Taliban era, and even earlier, had told me in Kabul, “The Afghan woman is most persecuted within her own home. The father, the husband, the brother... these are the people who torture her the most; in many homes there is a lot of domestic violence, the women are forced to wear the burqa and girls are not allowed to go to school or college or work.”

Right now, the images of women emerging from Afghanistan are those of the abaya-wearing, head-covered foreign women correspondents courageously reporting from Afghanistan about the terrorised Afghani people and desperate, traumatised women, trying to get out of Kabul.

So pathetic is their plight that British soldiers at the Kabul airport said the Afghan women’s screams haunted them in the nights. All the statements that Taliban is now making about decent treatment for women sound hollow and ring untrue. We’ve seen video footage of a Taliban leader laughing his guts out when asked by a woman correspondent if women politicians will be allowed in the government, if democratically elected. And then he says: Stop the video.

Things will only get much worse. As I write this, I am thinking of Mariam, the ill-fated protagonist in Hosseini’s heart wrenching novel A Thousand Splendid Suns , and her mother’s warning to her: “Learn it well, my daughter: Like a compass needle that points north, a man’s accusing finger always finds a woman.”

Also, who can forget Siba Shakib’s book Afghanistan where God comes only to weep, about the feisty Shirin-Gol, who after her village is devastated by Russian bombs in 1979, flees as a child to Kabul first and then ends up in a refugee camp in Pakistan, being forced into a marriage to pay off her brother's gambling debts, selling her body to feed her family and her unsuccessful attempt to get out, just like Mariam’s futile attempt to leave Afghanistan.

As the carpet seller said… the Americans and Russians, Pakistan and Iran… have all fished in troubled waters in Afghanistan. Hopefully, this time around god will come here to do much more than weep for its women, its people. And he’d better hurry up.

Rasheeda Bhagat is a BusinessLine columnist and Editor, Rotary News magazine