The drug truck was parked in front of the hospital when the nurse arrived for work that Sunday, August 15, and as she approached the building, she saw the driver standing next to the car, waving madly at her and the other nurses to turn back.
“He was yelling, ‘All women should leave, sister please go,’ the two students are here!” the 35-year-old nurse recalls. “At first we couldn’t understand it; it seemed impossible.”
She wore jeans and a blouse, the western clothes she feared she would not be able to wear in Kabul, and she and the other women around her climbed into the back of the truck, which was getting down every one of them at home. For three days, the nurse was afraid to leave her home. On the morning of the fourth day, she received a call from the head of the hospital: “The Taliban have no problem with women,” she remembers him saying. “Please get back to work. There are tasks here that only you can do; we need the resources, we need you.”
The nurse spoke with BuzzFeed News to share with readers a “real picture” of what it means to be a working woman in Afghanistan now, she said, asking not to be identified because she fears for her life.
For the working women who remained in Afghanistan, the days after the fall of Kabul brought fear and uncertainty about what their lives would look like under Taliban rule. For months, the Taliban publicly claimed to have revised their positions on aspects of women’s rights. On Wednesday, Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid told reporters in Kabul that there were only “temporary restrictions” on working women and that it was for their safety amid the chaos of regime change.
Our security forces are untrained [in] Mujahid said. “Until we have complete security… we ask the women to stay at home.”
But the early days of Taliban rule in Afghanistan only confirmed what Afghan women had been saying all along: that their homeland would once again become a place where women faced greater dangers, restrictions, and fewer opportunities. The women who were before openly frankly About their rights, they were forced to flee the country, their homes and offices were looted by armed men, and posters with images of women were defaced throughout the capital. Young girls were sent home from school and warned not to return. Hospitals like those where the nurse works are becoming gender-segregated – female doctors and nurses can only talk to and treat other women, and all women outside their homes must wear a headscarf. Even in areas where the Taliban had not yet begun to monitor women, their return to power was encouraged by guards who threatened women for not wearing headscarves or staying at home.
“We’re just waiting now,” said the nurse, who 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 member of her family, going to work was not a choice but a necessity. She said that she now dreams of leaving Afghanistan, but fears that this will be impossible due to her unique circumstances: the nurse lives with her mother and sister with disabilities who require constant care. Even before a bomb exploded, dozens of people were killed in Kabul Airport on ThursdayThe nurse said she could not imagine how she could receive an elderly woman and her child in the desperate crowds jostling for limited seats on flights abroad.
“If something happened to my sister, or if I had to leave her behind, I wouldn’t be able to live with myself,” she said.
She said that although the nurse did not trust the Taliban or the hospital head, she returned to the hospital on Thursday out of a sense of duty. On the streets, she said, there were soldiers everywhere, carrying Kalashnikovs and watching her as she walked in her headscarf.
“It was very scary,” she said. “They stared at me like I was prey. But I kept telling myself, maybe they weren’t like before, they weren’t hitting women anymore. They looked calm and not violent. At least not yet.”
In the hospital, the security men who usually manning each entrance disappeared, and the entire place looked upside down. I walked in to find that most of the patients’ wards were empty – many simply had their veins taken out and walked out of the hospital. Those who remained – a few terminally ill and a pregnant woman – looked terrified, she said.
The COVID ward, which the nurse said housed at least ten patients as of the previous week, is now empty. The nurse learned from another nurse that relatives of some patients had determined that the Taliban posed a more serious threat than the coronavirus and had taken sick family members home or directly 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 Department of Health is still updating the COVID data, but none of that is real. No one is sick who wants to leave their home and run into Taliban soldiers.”
A few of the stampede victims were brought to the hospital for treatment as well, but they were men, whom she cannot treat under the new hospital rules. The nurse said she learned about the new rule from a colleague, who told her that Taliban soldiers brought her home when she was seen talking to a man with a bleeding foot.
Nurses and doctors are required to go to the hospital every day to register their presence in the city for the Taliban. Between the new policies and the blank sections, the nurse has a hard time motivating herself to keep coming to work, she said.
Many patients, seeking to avoid the dangers of leaving their homes, have turned to contact medical specialists privately. The nurse recently gave birth to a baby when a pregnant woman showed up in her neighborhood, begging for help. The nurse carried all the supplies she could find and walked with the woman to her home, where she gave birth to the baby in secret. The nurse left the woman a list of medications she would eventually need, but said she never heard from her again.
The nurse is afraid to make too many home visits because of Taliban soldiers at checkpoints monitoring movement around the city, but she is not sure how to make the money otherwise. The head of the hospital recently told the nurses that their salaries were on hold until the city’s banks could start operating normally again – banks in Kabul closed on August 15, before former Afghan President Ashraf Ghani fled and the Taliban arrived in the capital. When the banks reopened about a week later, it was nearly impossible to get in due to the massive crowds. The nurse said she couldn’t get to an ATM and wasn’t sure what to do if she ran out of cash. The nurse said that if the Taliban forced women like her to stop working, she would have no way to feed her family.
In her neighbourhood, the nurse said the soldiers were not as much of a problem as the ordinary men on the street who suddenly appointed themselves moral guardians, ordering the women to go home, wear a headscarf, and show some shame, warning them not to be beaten. If they do not comply.
A few days ago, she had an argument with a store owner who berated her for wearing jeans regularly: “It’s a good thing the Taliban are here to take care of women like you,” she remembers him saying. Since then, the nurse’s mother and young neighbor have taken turns going out to buy bread and necessities 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 an escape from reality – TV only broadcasts the news. “All I see are turbans, beards and guns,” the nurse said. “There are no Bollywood movies, Afghan superstars, or chat shows we used to love.” She said the radio no longer played music but only Taliban religious songs that “have no melody and sound like a funeral.” ●
Khatul Momand contributed to the report.