‘Dark Prison Mirrors the Dark Future of Afghan Women’: A Firsthand Account of a Former Taliban Prisoner

Afghan women march as they chant slogans and hold banners during a women’s rights protest in Kabul on Jan. 16, 2022. (Wakil Kohsar / AFP via Getty Images)

Since the fall of Kabul on Aug. 15, 2021, Afghanistan’s women—many of whom dedicated their lives and careers to working for equality—have experienced a systematic campaign of violence and subjugation. Over the last 12 months, the Taliban have aggressively decimated women’s rights, issuing edicts forbidding girls from attending secondary school and adult women from working outside the home, and mandating full-body coverings for women in public.

Many women took to the streets to protest, and in turn have been beaten, arrested, tortured and murdered. Below, activist-journalist Mursal Ayar‘s firsthand account of her life and arrest is a powerful reminder of our common humanity, and the duty we all share to protect the world’s most vulnerable—yet remarkable—activists. 

Laura Deitz and Sara Gilliam are co-founders of Task Force Nyx, a women-led, all-volunteer NGO, which fights for the futures and freedoms of all Afghan women and girls by amplifying the voices of Afghan women’s rights leaders and providing emergency humanitarian support to the most at-risk activists and their families. They met Ayar shortly before her arrest and assisted with her evacuation to a neighboring country. They helped edit the translation of the essay below, which Ayar wrote.

Shortly after the fall of Kabul, in fall 2021, we protested in the streets against the strict restrictions the Taliban regime placed on women. Even though we were warned and threatened many times, we did not stop protesting against them.

My friends and I continued to fight for our rights and freedoms until we were kidnapped by the Taliban intelligence department and thrown into prison.

When I entered the cramped and dark Taliban prison, I had lost the hope of life and freedom. I did not think that I would be released. I did not believe I would see my family again.

There were no female jailers in the Taliban prison. The guards were armed men with scruffy and rough faces. The jailers treated the women prisoners very harshly. In their view, we were considered immoral women. “Prostitutes.” Therefore, they treated us violently and tried to humiliate us by cursing and behaving strangely, as if they were faced with something very impure and rude.

The protesting women who were imprisoned before me had shared horrible stories about the violent treatment of the Taliban jailers. I was horrified to hear about all the inhuman and immoral behavior. I had no choice but to prepare myself to face any kind of torture from the Taliban; we had no petitioner to try to free us. The Taliban dared, in front of the media cameras, to express their ignorance about the arrests of protesting women and act as if nothing had happened.

When I entered the cramped and dark Taliban prison, I had lost the hope of life and freedom. I did not think that I would be released. I did not believe I would see my family again. … During these 13 days full of persecution and pain, I felt as though I had lived 13 years of my life.

Mursal Ayar
A protest in London on on Aug. 21, 2021, against the Taliban takeover. (Gerry Popplestone / Flickr)

The Taliban wanted to make me talk through mental and physical torture. On my second day in jail, soldiers took me for interrogation. Although the women participated in the protests spontaneously and did not have any gathering base or specific address, the Taliban insisted that I give them the address of such a base, so that they could arrest the remaining protesting women.

During the interrogation, there was a lot of torture and beatings; they barely gave me a chance to talk, and I had to speak quickly. If my answers did not please them, they would hit me with a pipe with an iron rod stuck in it. Yet, I did not say anything that threatened or exposed other women. I knew that if the Taliban found them, there would be no hope for them.

I was in Taliban prison for 13 days. During these 13 days full of persecution and pain, I felt as though I had lived 13 years of my life.

Before my release, the Taliban warned me not to undertake any activities against their group. They threatened to kill my family members and said that once I was released from prison, I should not talk to any media or continue protesting in the streets. Long after I was released, I continued to receive threats from many different contact numbers. They would not let me rest. They would not let me heal.

When I sleep, I am tortured and threatened in my dreams by the people of this group. After those 13 days, I am like a little girl who is afraid of the night. I sleep next to my mother.

The Taliban have not only taken my country from me; they have taken everything from me. My peace, my dreams, my hope and courage. I left the Taliban prison, but I could not regain what I have lost forever. Freedom. Afghanistan has become an open prison since the Taliban returned to power. All people, especially women, have lost their freedom. Even those who managed to flee have lost their dreams and ambitions.

Despite new tragedies, we can’t forget about the struggles of Afghan women and girls. … We need more unity to come together and advocate for their rights and freedoms. Afghanistan’s problem needs national resistance.

Roshan Mashal, visiting scholar at the University of Texas at Austin and the former deputy director of the Afghan Women’s Network
Teachers begging in the street for help to feed their families as secondary schools remain closed by the Taliban in Afghanistan. (Naveed Ahmed)

To NATO members and those who claim to fight against fundamentalism: In the last 20 years, the women of Afghanistan were able to learn and participate in improving what you called the international community. If we talked about human rights, if we protested against human rights violations, if we talked about freedom of expression and if we believed in common global values, it was in part because of the promises of the global community.

We really believed in this vision and we thought that you were truthful and would stand up for your strong beliefs. The presence of international forces, especially Americans, was accompanied by new words and slogans. I was a child at the beginning of your presence. It took 20 years for me to learn these terms:

Fighting terrorism.

Fighting fundamentalism.

Women’s human rights. 

Over time, these concepts became a source of hope and encouragement for everyone, but especially for women of Afghanistan. Even after you left, we stood alone against the Taliban to uplift our common values before the eyes of the international community. We have many common ideals with the people of the world. We consider ourselves a part of the global community.

But you left us alone, even with all we have in common. You left us with a terrorist group that is a danger to everyone.

Under the Taliban, the people of Afghanistan, especially women, are experiencing the world’s worst living conditions. Every day we see violations of human rights. But Western governments, which always boast of defending human rights and women’s rights, are silent. They watch the disaster unfold from far away.

The only thing the U.S., international communities, and world leaders can do is non-recognition of the Taliban government, non-availability (not making resources available) of Afghan people’s funds, capital and wealth to the Taliban, and further restrictions on international travels of Taliban leaders.

Shahla Farid, scholar and researcher at Rutgers University’s Center for Women’s Global Leadership

My friend, Tamana Rezaei, is an Afghan girl who lost her agency as a human being and suffered at the hands of the Taliban. She holds the leaders of Western countries responsible for the situation they have caused. Afghan women were in favor of human rights, women’s rights, democracy and freedom of speech, Tamana said. It was our greatest wish that Afghanistan would be free from war and religious, ethnic and gender discrimination. We would all act for the betterment of the world, together.

But with the Taliban’s return to power, it became clear that allies of the Afghan people did not have such a strong belief in these concepts. Perhaps they are not as strong as we are.

We, the women of Afghanistan, have an unclear future. Our will has been taken from us and for this reason, the future has been taken from us. We are not free and freedom is the source of humanity and equality.

We want you to know that the messages and protests of Afghan women are not only against the Taliban; we are speaking to every human being who played a role in our captivity and this great taking of our freedoms.

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Mursal Ayar is a 27-year-old journalist and activist who dreams of justice. She previously was a parliamentary reporter and also worked for CNN, supporting investigative reports into harrowing human rights abuses and restrictions experienced by Afghan women under the Taliban. A prominent member of the Afghan Women Justice Movement who participated in multiple protests between August 2021 and January 2022. Mursal’s name became synonymous with the Taliban’s violence campaign against women when she was abducted from her home on February 2, 2022. She is a graduate of the Faculty of Law and Political Science at Kabul University. She awaits an offer of asylum from a Western country.