In August 2021, shortly after the Taliban took over Afghanistan, spokesperson Zabihullah Mujahid held a press conference in which he vowed that the insurgents would defend women’s rights according to Islamic law. Filmmaker Ramita Navai says it was an empty promise.
“[The Taliban] knew that the world was watching, is watching, and that women’s rights for the world is a litmus test of their governance and how they approach human rights,” Navai says of Mujahid’s press conference. “Of course, it didn’t take very long for the world to realize that they weren’t as reform-minded as they were making out.”
Navai chronicles the Taliban’s treatment of women in the new PBS Frontline documentary, Afghanistan Undercover, which she started researching in early 2020.
“I started looking at the land [the Taliban] were taking and what was happening to women in the territory they were taking over. And it was frightening,” Navai says. “I wanted to make a documentary almost as a warning: Listen, everybody, this is what’s happening.”
The documentary was filmed outside the capital Kabul, in Afghanistan’s provinces, where the crackdown on women’s rights has been particularly harsh. Since coming into power, the Taliban have broken their promise to allow girls to continue their schooling beyond sixth grade. With a few exceptions, women are no longer allowed to work. When out in the street, they are expected to be covered from head to toe with only an opening for their eyes. Many girls and women are disappearing — arrested for violating the morality code or abducted and forced to marry one of the Taliban.
Navai, who is British, says the fact that she was born in Iran and can pass as Afghan allowed her to blend in on the streets of Afghanistan and gain access to places that might otherwise be off-limits. Being a woman also helped, she says.
“Being a woman can be a brilliant thing in a patriarchal society with men like the Taliban, because I was totally overlooked,” she says. “It’s not often I get excited about being invisible as a woman and overlooked and underestimated. That was one of them.”
Navai filmed in Afghanistan in November 2021, and again in March this year, and noticed that conditions for women in the country worsened between her two visits — a fact she attributes to a shift in the world’s attention from Afghanistan to Ukraine.
“So many women we spoke to said exactly that to us, said, ‘Nobody cares about Afghanistan anymore because of Ukraine. And we’re really scared now more than we ever were because there are no checks and balances on these people,’ ” she says.
On what she learned when she spoke to the women and girls in prison
[The women and girls are] in there for moral crimes, for so-called moral crimes, and they had all been in prison since the Taliban took over. Of course, when the Taliban took over, by the way, they emptied all of the prisons across the country. So all of these women have been in prison since the takeover. And the other thing we found out — and we found this out through the women and through their families — was that their cases had not been officially recorded. So they had just been sucked into this black hole because there was no official record of them, they’d just gone missing. Slowly, their families had found out where they were and their families had started to try to negotiate release. But of course, there was just absolutely no record because the Taliban were trying to keep these female imprisonments secret from the world — and they still are.
On women and girls being abducted and forced to marry Taliban fighters
These forced marriages are very different to the cultural phenomenon that happens in Afghanistan of forced marriages, and that’s where parents give their daughters to families for marriage, and that’s a common practice. They get a bride price. And families …. work together, in agreement together, and the daughter usually has no say in it.
But now what’s happening is that the Taliban are abducting women and girls and taking them without the family’s consent, without a bride price. And what usually happens, the pattern that usually follows, is that a Taliban fighter or even a Taliban commander — because we uncovered evidence that this was happening at high levels within the Taliban — will see or hear of a woman they want to marry. A lot of times it’s because there’s a really pretty, attractive young woman or girl that they’ve heard about or they’ve seen at the market, and they approach the family and they try the official route first — ask for a hand in marriage .
When the family says no, that’s when they abduct the girl. So they will turn up with reinforcements. Sometimes they turn up with a cleric in tow and get married, get the cleric to marry them on the spot. And often the girl is taken and the family does not have access to her. Often the family is beaten up in the process because, of course, male members of the family will protest. And I think, again, every single case that I came across, family members were beaten when the girls were taken. … It was almost impossible talking to any of these girls because they’re under lock and key.
On how some women are rebelling against strict Taliban-enforced dress codes
I was quite surprised, actually, in Faizabad, the capital of Badakhshan, women there were dressed in a pretty daring way, and that really surprised me. And I spoke to some of those women, took them aside and said, “Look, you’re wearing really high heels. I can see your ankles. You’re wearing loads of makeup. Your hair’s falling out of your scarf. How do you dare? Aren’t you scared?” And they said, “Yeah, we are scared, but this is a form of rebellion.”
And it really reminded me of Iran. In Iran, when I was reporting there 10, 15 years ago, you could get flogged for a bad hijab. You could get flogged for wearing too much makeup. And yet everybody, all the girls would go out with their hair showing and their makeup showing, and it was kind of the youth’s way of rebelling. And the youth’s one-fingered salute to a system, an ideology they didn’t agree with. And it was really funny talking to these young Afghan women and girls in this province in northern Afghanistan, who are pushing out the boundaries, who were daring to leave the house uncovered, that reminded me of what was happening in Iran and the youth in Iran .
On the women-led underground network of safe houses to help Afghan women
They’d get phone calls from desperate women and families around the country. So it was almost an underground railway network, and they needed shelter. So often, families need to flee. The Taliban were hunting for them. And what was interesting was that these young women who were running this network of secret safe houses, they were also all on the run from the Taliban. So they were working under the radar and undercover all the time, putting their own lives at risk to help families escaping the Taliban.
On the sharp rise in suicides among Afghan women — and why they’re unreported
Afghanistan is one of the few countries where rates of suicide among women were higher than men. It’s one of the few countries in the world where that’s true. But what we’re seeing now is a really sharp rise in suicides across the country. So we’re seeing the very real effects of Taliban rule. And there are people who say women were always forced into marriage and many women weren’t allowed out of their homes. Well, some of this is true. … Life for a lot of women in very rural areas hasn’t changed that much since the Taliban came to power. You know what has changed is the loss of hope. …
I spoke to many women living in rural villages, they knew that there was progress somewhere far in the distance in Kabul, say, that there was progress, that there was hope, that things were changing, even if it was a snail’s pace, that if they did end up in prison, there was a judicial process and that is now gone. And to see the effects of that in this one hospital, while I was there, to see cases of suicide every day come in. And by the way, doctors tell me that a lot of these cases are not being recorded because the Taliban won’t let the doctors record these cases, because they don’t want the world to know that suicide rates are rocketing.
The doctors also told me that where the victims are families of Talibs, the doctors are instructed not to record those cases. So not all cases are being recorded. So actually, suicide rates are far higher than official records show. On top of that, many, many doctors told me they were regularly beaten and threatened.
On why she wanted to focus on women’s rights
When you have entrenched patriarchy, you have misogyny, and you have high rates of violence and sexual violence against women, and you have absolute hypocrisy. And where there are no women’s rights, there are no human rights. Women’s rights are human rights. And I get really frustrated when you talk about women’s rights, and men often in positions of power will dismiss women’s rights. “Oh, there are more important things to be worried about. You’ve got internal politics and you’re worried about women’s rights!” We saw this happen in Iran when the revolution happened and hundreds of thousands of women took to the streets against the hijab. They were told even by liberals and the left wing and the secular, “Get back in your box. Shut up. There’s a big revolution going on here, ladies. Now is not the time to go on about the hijab and women’s rights.”
And that’s absolutely wrong, because women’s rights is a litmus test for human rights, is a litmus test of good governance, of how a society is safe and runs itself. And that’s what I find deeply depressing, is that we’re told that it’s not interesting, that it’s not important, and it’s vital.
Amy Salit and Seth Kelley produced and edited the audio of this interview. Bridget Bentz and Molly Seavy-Nesper adapted it for the web.