Kabul, Afghanistan – Marzia Hamidi, a 19-year-old Afghan taekwondoin, had big plans.
She used to dream of national and international championships but fears that those dreams are now dashed forever after the Taliban took control of the country in August.
By the end of September, she had to go into hiding after she heard that some members of the group had come looking for her.
“When the Taliban came [to power], I was thinking about destroying my medals,” she told Al Jazeera. “Burn them or keep them? I asked myself.”
Even Marzia’s Instagram account – with more than 20,000 followers – is a little bit darker now. She wears a black abaya and matching hijab, fearing Afghanistan’s new rulers.
She is not alone in her fears. Many women fear a return to enforced invisibility they lived under for five years (1996-2001) when the Taliban controlled Afghanistan last.
When the Taliban came to power, it promised to respect women and allow them to participate in public life “in accordance with Islamic law”, but secondary schools remain closed for girls, and many women are finding returning to work difficult, with the exception of some professions such as in the health sector.
Protests erupted across several cities last month, with women demanding their rights, but they were harshly suppressed.
During the first Taliban regime, women virtually disappeared from the public eye as they were banned from working and were not allowed to travel without a male guardian. The violation of strict rules on women’s clothing and their behaviour in public attracted severe punishment.
Marzia worries that women like her will soon meet a similar fate.
‘Burn them or keep them?’
Marzia was born in Iran to a family of Afghan refugees who were often discriminated against and subjected to racist attacks.
At 15, she went to a taekwondo class and immediately fell in love with the sport, going on to compete and earning several gold medals in the Under 57kg category national competitions.
But three years ago, Marzia’s family decided to move to Afghanistan, her father no longer wanted to be a refugee in a foreign land. They would join her brother, who had a profitable business in Kabul.
For the self-confident athlete, this spelled a huge disruption of her career. Kabul would prove to be a difficult place to practice her sport in.
“It’s always been hard for female fighters in Afghanistan. My male coach always stared at me, focused on my looks, which made me uncomfortable. Other girls in the taekwondo team always wore headscarves and complained that I did not,” Marzia says.
When the Taliban came to power, many Afghans tried to destroy or hide items they feared would incriminate them with the new rulers. Marzia’s medals were her “incriminating items” and she pondered long and whether to destroy them. “But my brother talked me out of the idea and told me to hide them in a safe place.”
But she soon realised that the medals were not the only thing she had to hide.
Last month, a group of unknown men came to her family home asking for her whereabouts, likely because of her social media activity, she says. They also visited her brother’s office.
Marzia decided to go into hiding. She now frequently changes locations and lives in constant fear.
“I want to leave Afghanistan to resume my training because I want to prepare for the 2024 Olympic Games. But I don’t want to go back to Iran. The situation of refugees is difficult there, there is a lot of racism. Even if I’m the best, they will not let me attend the Olympics,” Marzia says.
“Everything has changed since the coming to power of the Taliban.”
‘Peace at the expense of eliminating women’
Meena Naeemi could have left Afghanistan after the fall of Kabul, because she works for foreign organisations, but she decided to stay. Now, in the final semester of her master’s in Pashto literature, she is waiting to finish her degree before looking for opportunities abroad.
But completing her studies under the Taliban may prove impossible. Classes at her university have not resumed for women and nobody knows when they will.
“I did not expect to face such a fate. It is still very hard for me to believe that my country is in such a state. I have no hopes for completing my education and getting a job because they do not want us to participate in society. They introduced peace at the expense of eliminating women,” Meena says.
“I’m afraid that from now on, the girls will be stuck at home, while boys continue their education. I look in the mirror and realise that all my plans are a distant dream. I feel like I am slowly dying.”
Homeira Qaderi, a women’s rights activist from Herat, believes in civil resistance against the Taliban. But she also knows that most women will be too afraid to stand up for their rights.
“When the Taliban took over Kabul, I went to the media to talk to them. They should see women who will not remain silent. I believe in the power of speech. But with each passing day, we see the Taliban abusing women on the streets again,” the 41-year-old says.
“The streets of Afghanistan are no longer a safe place for women. The resistance is a path to light. But what if women’s resistance to the Taliban will be met with whips and guns?”
Qaderi remembers the Taliban’s previous rule during the 1990s when women had no choice but to get married and raise children.
“Violence against women is systematic in the behaviour of the Taliban government. If the Taliban do not use violence against women, they will lose their identity,” she says.
“But the period of slavery is over and any attempt to enslave us will sooner or later fail. I hope the world does not turn its back on Afghan women again.”