KABUL, Afghanistan – At just 29, Zainab Fayez made herself into one of Afghanistan’s foremost defenders of women.
As the first and only female prosecutor in Kandahar Province, deep in the conservative south of the country, she sent 21 men to jail for beating and abusing their wives or fiancées.
I thought I should speak with her. I had gone to Afghanistan to ask women one of the most urgent questions hanging over the peace talks unfolding among Taliban leaders, the Afghan government and U.S. diplomats: After 18 years of gains for Afghanistan’s women, what are these women thinking now that the Americans might leave and the Taliban might return?
But as I prepared to travel to Kandahar to meet Fayez, I discovered that she had fled the city.
She had received a warning she could not ignore: a handwritten note, attached to the windshield of her family car, folded over a bullet. “From now on, you are our target,” the letter said, “and we will treat you like other Western slaves.” It was signed “The Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan,” the formal name the Taliban use for themselves.
Many Afghan women seized on the freedoms that emerged after the U.S. invasion and the collapse of the Taliban government in 2001. They do not want to go back to the terms of Taliban rule — to the floggings and banishment from public life.
But as some sort of agreement between the Taliban and U.S. officials appears likely, many women do not believe the insurgents’ promises to respect the rights of women this time around.
Take Fayez, the prosecutor
I found her in Kabul, the Afghan capital, holed up with her two children in her relative’s house. Her husband, Fakhruddin, had just driven from Kandahar with the bullet and threatening letter.
Fayez has seen enough of the Taliban to know that their promises to treat women fairly are as empty as the desert outside town. “I have never been so terrified,” she said.
Born in the remote province of Ghor in 1990, at the height of the Afghan civil war, she grew up seeing the bottom line of Taliban rule: No school for girls, no jobs for women. Transgressors were stoned and flogged.
After the Taliban’s ouster, she enrolled in Kabul University and became a lawyer. In 2016, she signed up to prosecute men who abused women in Kandahar Province, where the Taliban movement was born.
One after another, Fayez sent the abusers to jail. Two of the men she convicted were police officers. Last year, the government recognized her as one of the five bravest women in the country and put her portrait on a billboard in downtown Kandahar: “Heroes for women’s rights.”
Most important, her dogged reputation empowered more women to come forward with stories of abuse.“My caseload grew as more women began trusting the rule of law,” she said. “Then the threats began.”
On the floor of her living room she displayed printouts and recordings of previous death threats: e-mails and messages over WhatsApp, text and voicemail, commanding her to quit working. For months, she waved off the warnings as part of her job.
Then in February, her colleague Azam Ahmad, with whom she had worked on many of her domestic violence cases, was shot and killed by unidentified gunmen on his way to the office. “He was a very brave man and a friend,” she said. “These incidents and threats affect us mentally and emotionally. But we try our best to keep working.”
A few weeks later, the Taliban letter — and the bullet — showed up on her windshield.
“A Talib is a Talib,” Fayez said. “They have proven what type of people they are, what their ideology is. And if they return with the same ideology, everything will be the same again.”
Afghanistan remains a deeply patriarchal society, but the overwhelming majority of women I met are unwilling to go back to the way things were. I had a hard time finding any who believed the Taliban had grown more tolerant in their years out of power.
I traveled to Kunduz, capital of the northern province of the same name, to speak with Sediqa Sherzai, a fearless and embattled advocate of women’s empowerment who directs an all-female radio station on the outskirts of town.
The province is controlled mostly by the Taliban, and the city itself has fallen to the insurgents twice for short periods.
“Imagine a house surrounded by Taliban,” Sherzai said. “You would not be able to live, eat or do work with even momentary peace. People here live in constant fear that the Taliban will retake the city at any minute.”
Since 2008, she has run Radio Roshani, a small shortwave station that educates women about their rights and encourages them to share their difficulties and stories. It has an audience across northern Afghanistan.
Voices of women
The day I visited, Sherzai’s producers were recording a segment with young graduates about their challenges finding work in the city. In a room next door, she sat with a number of women from around the city to discuss the peace negotiations for an upcoming segment.
“We reach people who cannot read and write,” Sherzai said. She emphasized how important it is for women to hear the voices of other women, especially in areas where literacy rates are so low.
“Listeners trust that the woman speaking is practicing the advice she preaches, in her own life and on her own children,” she said. “It disarms them.”
In 2015, when the Taliban briefly captured Kunduz, they occupied Radio Roshani’s studio for five hours, set it on fire and stole the equipment. They seized the phone numbers and addresses of staff members. Sherzai’s husband, Obaidullah Qazizadha, who helped found the station, received ominous telephone calls at their home.
“Your wife is changing other women,” the voice on the phone said. “We do not agree with the ways she is changing their mindset.”
She and her husband fled to Kabul, and the station went off the air. But in April, Sherzai decided to restart Radio Roshani. The station’s employees try to keep their involvement clandestine. Her husband keeps a shotgun in the control room.
She is willing to risk her life to continue, she said, and she has no intention of making things easy for her enemies. “The Taliban were right,” she said. “We were changing the mindset of women.”
But not all the Afghan women I spoke to had lost hope.
As a young mother under Taliban rule in the late 1990s, Hawa Nuristani helped run a secret school for girls who were otherwise banned from attending class.
After the Taliban’s fall, Nuristani emerged as one of the most influential women in the new Afghan state, becoming a prominent television news anchor and then moving into politics. She heads a commission that adjudicates electoral disputes.
At various times, the Taliban imprisoned her husband, kidnapped her son and tried to kill her. One attack left a bullet in her leg and gave her a limp. Another attempt on her life, a bomb, demolished her car.
In February, Nuristani was part of the Afghan delegation that traveled to Moscow to meet with a group of Taliban leaders — one of only two women in the group. The other was Fawzia Koofi, a member of parliament.
In her Kabul office, Nuristani recalled the meeting with a defiant look in her eyes. But her tone was hopeful. “I do not think anyone else has ever been as troubled in the Afghan government as much as I have,” she told me. “But I went to this meeting because I feel like you cannot wash blood with blood. How long will this war go on?”
For days, she listened to the Taliban leaders promise, among other things, to honor the rights of women. But when the talk turned to specifics, they froze up.
She recalled them saying that women were too “sympathetic and delicate” for jobs like commissioner or mayor, where “a woman’s emotions might get in the way.”
Still, Nuristani said she was choosing to give the insurgents a chance, if only because she sensed a war-weariness in the negotiators that appeared to match her own. “People on both sides of the war want peace and are tired of the fighting — certainly the Taliban,” she said. “I have heard this from them directly.”