Frishta Rahmani was a child the first time the Taliban took control of Afghanistan in 1996. She doesn’t remember much from that period, but she does recall hearing stories about the regime over the years that bred fear in her heart.
That fear materialized when the Taliban recaptured Afghanistan in the summer of 2021.
“It was a dark day for us,” says the now 32-year-old.
Rahmani had previously enjoyed freedom, completing her bachelor’s degree from Kabul University before earning a master’s degree in educational leadership and management. During her career, she worked with the U.N.’s World Food Programme and landed jobs as a librarian and university lecturer. She even taught women how to tailor so they could earn on their own.
But when the Taliban took over on Aug. 15, 2021, Rahmani’s world quickly changed. She lost her job. Girls could no longer go to high school. Covering the face in public became mandatory for women.
As women in Afghanistan face growing despair over the increasing restrictions placed on them, experts say the mental health crisis for women and girls requires urgent attention. The need for psychological support for women like Rahmani has risen sharply since the Taliban took over in 2021, according to mental health workers.
The numbers are bleak: Almost 80% of Afghan women reported symptoms of depression, according to a Discover Psychology study conducted just as the Taliban began their takeover. Now, counselors in Afghanistan say they are increasingly hearing from women wanting to take their own lives.
A few weeks into the new regime, Rahmani received an email from Rana University in Kabul, where she worked as head of quality assurance. She was told not to come to work until the situation changed. The small grocery store and delivery business she ran also had to be shut down. Her husband, too, lost his job after his company closed. The family was in limbo for almost a year, struggling to support their toddler.
In the spring of 2022, Rahmani got another job at a nongovernmental organization (NGO). But the following December, the Taliban banned women from working at NGOs as well. For now, she and her female colleagues at the organization work from home.
The takeover threw Rahmani into shock. She didn’t want to eat. She was afraid to go outside.
“I was feeling that we are just in jail,” Rahmani says.
Prisoners in their own homes
By the end of 2022, women were banned from attending universities; working at NGOs; and visiting parks, gyms and public baths. These followed earlier bans on employment, on attending secondary schools, and on traveling without a male companion, among other restrictions.
Women are “imprisoned inside their houses,” says Jamila Afghani of the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom (WILPF), a feminist NGO with branches across the world. Afghani is president of the Afghanistan section.
Speaking from Kitchener, Canada, where she fled after the Taliban takeover, Afghani adds that the economic crisis is making the mental health situation even worse, pointing to a U.N. report from December 2022 that indicates 97% of Afghans are living in poverty.
One of WILPF Afghanistan’s members committed suicide shortly after the government collapse in 2021, says Afghani. The deceased was the sole breadwinner supporting four children. Her death prompted WILPF Afghanistan to launch psychosocial programming offering mental health support for women in the country, including a pre-counselling assessment followed by individual and group counseling. They even offered clients transportation for appointments.
Soon after starting the program, they were getting up to 400 requests from women per week from Kabul alone, Afghani says.
But after the ban that prevented women from working at NGOs, her team was restricted to working via WhatsApp and Zoom.
In mid-January, there were also rumors the Taliban may put limits on the use of internet and telecommunications, Afghani says. In some provinces, there are already limits on issuing SIM cards to women.
In the last year, WILPF Afghanistan reached more than 1,000 women through its psychosocial program, which is now available in several provinces. This year, they’re targeting up to 5,000 women, Afghani says.
Almost 80% of Afghan women reported symptoms of depression. Now, counselors in Afghanistan say they are increasingly hearing from women wanting to take their own lives.
Demand for mental health services “is growing very highly,” Afghani adds, noting that domestic violence cases are also rising. One source of distress, she says, is that most women know what rights are afforded to them under Islam — like getting an education and owning property — but can’t access them due to the growing restrictions imposed by the Taliban.
For example, Asra (who requested that Analyst News not share her last name) was a master’s student at Kabul University, completing the first year of her studies in sharia, or Islamic religious law, under the Taliban regime before they banned female students.
“It’s not right that women cannot go to school,” Asra says through a translator. “They have the same rights that men have.”
She has one year left in her degree.
“My major goal was to reach a higher position in Afghan society and to help others,” she adds. “I’ve lost my hopes for my future.”
Afghani says she has personally heard of up to 12 deaths by suicide in the last year, of both men and women. Afghani is concerned that if the situation doesn’t change, the consequences will be increasingly dire.
“The majority of women are expressing a desire to commit suicide,” she says of her clients.
A bleak future
Fatima is one such woman struggling in the increasingly suffocating climate. (She requested that Analyst News only share her first name out of fear of danger from the Taliban.)
Speaking from Kabul through a translator, the former social activist says she used to be the breadwinner in her family, supporting her father who has a disability. She fled from another province to Kabul after the Taliban started making gains in the country, but once they seized Kabul, she lost her job.
Her life was destroyed when the government collapsed, Fatima says. She feels like a beggar, struggling to pay rent, selling her laptop, phone and even her shoes to make ends meet, she says through tears. In the winter, she lived in a cold room without a heater because of limited electricity and became ill multiple times.
“I don’t even have money to buy bread,” she says.
The mental health crisis is also affecting those trying to help other women, such as Saghar Yousufi, who works for a women-focused group that’s been connecting women with psychosocial support after the government collapse.
“I feel so hopeless,” says Yousufi, noting that she feels like she’s been stripped of her identity.
Yousufi and her friends try to keep their mind off their “deep depression” by keeping themselves busy with housework and other tasks.
“Breathing is getting really, really hard,” she says.
The international community has a role to play in alleviating the suffering of these women, Afghani says. For starters, she says, governments should stop meeting with the Taliban behind closed doors. Other countries should also impose conditions on Taliban rule and restrict funding to the regime for noncompliance and properly monitor how humanitarian resources are spent, she adds.
Because with no change in sight, there’s no end to the fears Afghan women face.
“Now I’m worried about the future of my daughter,” Rahmani says. “What will happen to her?”