Support Groundbreaking Reporting on Women
Logo Logo

When the Taliban took over Afghanistan in August 2021, they stripped women of their basic rights to work and education. Many families, especially those headed by women, felt they had no choice but to leave. Most of them ended up in neighboring Pakistan and Iran, which for decades have hosted large numbers of Afghan refugees. 

That all changed last year when the Pakistani government announced it would forcefully deport undocumented immigrants who hadn’t voluntarily left by November. This mostly affected the 1.3 million Afghans living in Pakistan. Since mid-September last year, more than 375,000 Afghans have left, 20,000 of them forcibly. Pakistani authorities have carried out mass detentions, seized property and livestock and destroyed identity documents, according to Human Rights Watch. 

At Zan Times, a newsroom led by Afghan women and a regular Fuller Project partner, we’ve been reporting on what it means for women forced to return to a country where they face serious risk. Below is the story of Z Ahamdi, who was arrested in Pakistan with her family (she isn’t using her full name for security reasons). Her words have been translated and edited for clarity.

The Pakistani police stormed my house at 10 a.m. on Thursday, November 2 while we were eating breakfast. My children had just woken up. They quickly and angrily ransacked all the bedrooms, the kitchen and the bathroom. They asked us for documents. When we showed them our U.N. card, [which shows that my family and I came to Pakistan as refugees and our case is being processed], they threw it away and said that our visa had expired, and we should all be imprisoned. They forced us out of our home, including my husband, my four children and my two guests, and locked the door. They took us to prison. 

Before coming to Pakistan, I practiced law independently in Herat for six years. Five other young women worked with me in my office. Most of the cases we worked on had to do with domestic violence, family disputes and divorce. Many times, we were threatened by the parties to our [practice’s] lawsuits. When the Taliban came to power, the people opposed to our work became bolder and could target us more easily. At the beginning of the Taliban rule, I approached the government offices several times to get a work permit, but they did not even allow me to go inside.

In October 2021, the Taliban imprisoned my brother for 10 days. They asked him to stop me from practicing law. My brother left Afghanistan very soon after his release. In May 2022, I was able to get a one-month medical visa and went to Pakistan. [While there], I applied for a visa extension, which got rejected after eight months. That’s why I have been living without a visa since last year. I have only one document from the UNHCR office [the UN Refugee Agency].

The prison was very cold. There were about 40 people, including women, children and men. Everyone was in a miserable situation. There were two beds, on which old women were sitting, and the rest were on the cold and damp floor. No one was wearing warm clothes. Everyone was shivering. Small children were just crying. 

My one-year-old son suffered a seizure. When he fainted, I made noise. They only allowed me and my son to go to the hospital. They kept the rest of my family, including my two daughters and my 9-year-old son. I tried my best to free them from prison. But I heard that they were transferred to the refugee camp the next morning. I was so scared. 

I contacted several places, including UNHCR and the World Association of Defense Lawyers. Their pressure made the Pakistan Bar Association help free my family. They were released after two days and one night. We came to Pakistan hoping to start a comfortable life. My children should study but now no school accepts them because they are refugees. We are all destitute, depressed and have no hope.

Now, if we want to renew the visa again, we have to pay a $6,000 fine. We cannot afford to pay such a big amount. The Pakistani government announced that it would give refugees until February to voluntarily pay the fines and leave Pakistan. Anyone who does not voluntarily leave Pakistan after February 2024 will be fined $100 every month.

We haven’t been able to leave the house for two months. We buy the food we need with the help of our Pakistani neighbor. Every moment I fear that we will be caught and sent back to Afghanistan. If we are deported, the Taliban and those who were parties to our lawsuits can easily harm or kill us. 

Warning: This newsletter contains references to suicide throughout.

Two years have passed since the Taliban took over Afghanistan. After these 730 days, women are now effectively imprisoned in their home. 

They have no rights to education, work, movement, or freedom of association. Public parks, restaurants, gyms, beauty salons, public bathhouses, and all social and public venues are closed for women. The system that was set up to support and protect women survivors of domestic violence has been taken apart. The regime’s systematic violations of women’s rights may amount to “crimes against humanity,” according to the United Nations

Simply put, it has now been two years of women in Afghanistan waking up to their worst nightmares, with little hope or purpose to live. So it is little surprise that news of young women taking their own lives out of desperation has become a regular pattern. 

We started noticing these news reports early on. These stories were short and typically had little information and context about the suicide. So, we became interested in digging deeper, and wanted to get a sense of how widespread the problem was. 

We knew this wouldn’t be easy to work on. Not only because the Taliban targeted women’s rights and press freedom, but also because suicide is a taboo topic in Afghanistan. It is considered un-Islamic to kill yourself. This made it hard to get people talking about a relative who had died by suicide.

It turned out we were right — at times, investigating such a sensitive topic under Taliban rule seemed totally unfeasible. It took over eight months to complete our work. We faced enormous challenges in finding trustworthy sources who were willing to share such personal stories, ensuring the safety of the people we spoke to and worked with, and then fact-checking the information we obtained. 

Data of any kind is hard to find in Afghanistan. This was the case even before the Taliban took over. But before their takeover, journalists were allowed to request data of this kind from the Ministry of Health and they would share it if it was available. This was no longer an option under the Taliban.

So we took a more grassroots approach. We reached out to doctors and health workers in mental health clinics in 11 provincial capitals, starting in areas where we already had established relationships with sources through our journalism. 

Some of our sources said the Taliban had ordered them not to share any critical information with media outlets, such as the number of suicide cases, as it would cast their administration in a negative light. We offered them anonymity, but despite that it was hard for the sources to trust us under such high-stakes circumstances. Yet some of them, often those who knew us as journalists before the Taliban took over, took this risk and shared the information they had. 

We also interviewed sources we didn’t know before, and in these cases it took us quite some time to build trust. We had to break down suspicions on two fronts: we needed to get them to trust us as journalists who would protect their identities; while we needed to learn to trust that these sources themselves were not Taliban members or informants who could expose us to the authorities. 

One of the ways we tried to mitigate the risk of the latter was by asking our sources for comments on stories that were related to our topic of investigation, to get a sense of their perspective on such issues. We also consistently used pseudonyms for both our journalists and our sources. 

Once they trusted us and shared the information, we needed to fact-check the data with another source independently. This was harder to do and it took a while to be able to verify the information with a second source. However, we managed to do this by spending more time in finding and building trust with the new sources. 

Our investigation, in partnership with The Fuller Project and The Guardianwas published on Monday. It is our hope that the painstaking work done by our team to document women’s lives under the Taliban will make at least some difference – helping build a better, more-informed society that takes action in support of women’s rights in Afghanistan.

If you’d like to learn more about Zan Times or support their reporting, please click here.

Warning: This article contains references to suicide throughout.

First, her education was taken away. Then, a wedding was arranged – against her will – to her cousin, a heroin addict. Latifa* was left facing an unthinkable choice.

“I had two options: to marry a heroin addict and live a life of misery or take my own life,” said the 18-year-old in a telephone interview from her home in Ghor province in central Afghanistan.

With Latifa’s dreams of medical school dashed by the Taliban’s ban on secondary and university education for girls and her family insisting on the arranged marriage that had been six years in the making, the Afghan teenager saw only one option. 

“I chose the latter,” she said. She tried to kill herself last autumn by overdosing on prescription medicines.

Latifa’s suicide attempt is no one-off. As Afghan women see their hard-won freedoms to study, work and even to leave their homes wrenched away by the Taliban, growing numbers are choosing to take their own lives out of desperation and hopelessness, an investigation by Zan Times and The Fuller Project has found.

More than twice as many men die by suicide as women globally, according to the World Health Organization (WHO). Until 2019 — the last year for which official data is available – more men than women died by suicide in Afghanistan. But figures obtained from doctors at public hospitals and clinics around the country for this investigation suggest that women are now taking their own lives in far greater numbers than men, a global anomaly that underscores the impact of the Taliban’s draconian policies.

Women outnumbered men for both suicides and suicide attempts in nine of the 11 Afghan provinces for which Zan Times and The Fuller Project obtained data for the year to August 2022. The figures are by no means comprehensive – they cover only a third of Afghanistan’s 34 provinces and are likely only the visible tip of the iceberg in a society where suicide is seen as a source of shame and often covered up. But they do show a clear trend. In the 12 months that followed the Taliban takeover, women and girls accounted for the vast majority of both those who tried to take their own life, and deaths by suicide. 

“When I meet with Afghan women across the country, their consistent message is the impact that the growing restrictions are having on their psychological well-being. Afghanistan is in the midst of a mental health crisis precipitated by a women’s rights crisis,” said Alison Davidian, the country representative for UN Women, in emailed comments. 

“We are witnessing a moment where growing numbers of women and girls see death as preferable to living under the current circumstances, where they are stripped of  the agency to live their own lives.”

Loss of hope

Afghan activists, international aid agencies and United Nations experts say the high rate of female suicides in Afghanistan reflects not only a loss of freedom for women, but an increase in forced marriages and domestic abuse – and a loss of hope.

In July last year, Fawzia Koofi, former deputy speaker of the Afghan Parliament, told the U.N. Human Rights Council the situation had grown so desperate that “every day there is at least one or two women who commit suicide”. 

Latifa tried to end her life with cough medicine, caffeine tablets and sleeping pills bought from a pharmacy that did not ask for a prescription. Following the suicide attempt, she said she woke up in a hospital bed surrounded by her family and doctors, suffering from a burning sensation in her stomach and unable to open her eyes. 

She was informed that her cousin – a man seven years her senior – had disappeared after learning of her suicide attempt. There has been no further discussion of the marriage, but Latifa is still afraid that he might return at some point.

“If he comes back and my family tries to force me [into marriage] again, I will hang myself to make sure I don’t survive,” she said.

Afghanistan’s history of conflict, civil strife and poverty had given rise to a mental health crisis long before August 2021. 

A national survey on depressive and anxiety disorders published in the journal BMC Psychiatry in June 2021, two months before the Taliban takeover, found nearly half the population of 40 million was suffering from psychological distress.

Patients wait to see a doctor at the mental health ward in Herat’s hospital in January of 2023. (For Zan Times and The Fuller Project)

A 2019 report by Human Rights Watch said more than half of Afghans struggled with depression, anxiety, and post-traumatic stress, but that “fewer than 10 percent receive adequate psychosocial support from the state”.

It is difficult to know how much has changed since then. A 2022 survey by Gallup found that while “suffering is now universal among men and women” in Afghanistan, female respondents were more pessimistic about the future.

The Taliban does not release health data and all the data collected by Zan Times and The Fuller Project was provided over the phone by health workers speaking on condition of anonymity. One mental health worker in the western province of Herat who spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisals said the Taliban had barred health professionals from publishing or sharing statistics on suicide, which had previously been published regularly.

Spokespeople for the Taliban and did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

Herat had the most reported suicide attempts of the provinces for which data was obtained: 123, including 106 by women. There were 18 reported deaths, 15 of them women. Historically, the conservative region, which has a larger share of educated women, has recorded high levels of gender-based violence and female suicide attempts, according to the now-exiled Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission (AIHRC).

The Herat mental health worker said the province had always had a high suicide rate, but that staff were now overwhelmed. About 90 percent of the provincial hospital’s mental health patients were women who “are breaking down under the weight of the new restrictions,” they said.

“Patients do not get the hospitalization time and counselling they need,” the worker said. “Many times, we put two patients in one bed.”

Patients sleep in the mental health ward of Herat’s main hospital in January of 2023. (For Zan Times and The Fuller Project)

The worker cited domestic violence and forced or underage marriages among the drivers of suicide, saying stopping secondary schooling had meant girls were married earlier. Women often “paid the price” when families were struggling financially and men became abusive, the worker added.

Social stigma

Roya*, 31, was found hanged in her house in Herat city in May 2022.

Her younger brother, Mohammad*, who asked that his real name be withheld, said that Roya had spoken to their parents repeatedly about her husband’s abusive behaviour, which included frequent beatings. 

“But every time, my parents would persuade her to keep her family together,” Mohammad said. “One morning, we were informed that Roya had hung herself. We never thought it would get this far.”

The family told people she had died of an illness, fearing her suicide would bring shame if it became public, Mohammad explained.

Shaharzad Akbar, former chairperson of the AIHRC, said such behaviour is common due to the social stigma surrounding suicide.

“The rare instance when they willingly admit to suicide is when they don’t want any member of the family to be accused of murder,” said Akbar, who is now executive director of Rawadari, a new Afghan human rights organization.

The mental health of women and girls in particular is deteriorating, activists and aid agencies say, because the Taliban has systematically closed off nearly all avenues for female education – with girls unable to attend school past the age of 12 – and opportunities for women to work, earn an income, or exercise any autonomy.

According to the obtained figures, most of the attempted suicides and deaths involved women and girls who were educated – they had either been in school before the Taliban takeover or had school qualifications. Rat poison, which is easily accessible in Afghanistan, and hanging were the most common suicide methods.

Research published in August 2022 by Save the Children found that 26 percent of girls were showing signs of depression compared with 16 percent of boys.

Behishta Qaimy, project coordinator for Save the Children Afghanistan, said girls were increasingly despondent since being banned from attending school, recalling how one had told aid workers: “I am hopeless, I get angry quickly, I cry for myself, and when I go to bed, I have nightmares.”

While some organizations are still able to operate in Afghanistan, many have suspended operations after the Taliban barred women from working for national and international NGOs. As a result, 11.6 million women and girls are no longer receiving vital aid, UN Women has warned, and services for survivors of violence or to prevent sexual exploitation have shut down.

Nine in 10 women in Afghanistan suffer some form of domestic violence, according to the United Nations. Experts say modest progress in tackling the issue before the Taliban takeover has been wiped out.

“The mechanism to respond to domestic violence is totally eradicated; women have no choice but to bear the violence or kill themselves,” said Akbar. 

Warnings about female suicides are only intensifying as the Taliban tighten their grip on women’s and girls’ rights.

In May, U.N. experts including the Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Afghanistan, Richard Bennett, said after a visit to the country that they were “alarmed about widespread mental health issues and accounts of escalating suicides among women and girls”.

Some see these actions as the only remaining form of defiance possible for women in a country where dissent and protests are punished.

“We cannot reduce the message of women who commit these very ostentatious forms of suicide to simple act of despair,” said Julie Billaud, an anthropology professor at The Geneva Graduate Institute and the author of Kabul Carnival, a book about gender politics in post-war Afghanistan.

“The despair is settling in. Perhaps [suicide] is the last attempt by those who have left no power to say something and be heard.”

* Names have been changed to protect interviewees.

This story was a collaboration with Zan Times, a female-led news organization that covers human rights in Afghanistan.

As soon as the Taliban took over Afghanistan in August 2021 they placed restrictions on women’s right to work. Then they closed girls’ secondary schools, depriving teenage girls of their right to an education. In December, they banned women from attending universities and working for non-governmental organizations. 

The consequences for Afghan women have been devastating. Yet they continue to resist, despite the immense dangers.

Ahead of International Women’s Day, Zan Times spoke to three Afghan women for The Fuller Project about their struggle. Here are their stories, told in their words, translated and edited for clarity. All three appear under pseudonyms. 

Sara, 26, lost her job when the Taliban banned women from working for NGOs. She lives alone in Kabul and was the sole breadwinner for her parents and siblings. 

August 15, 2021 was a black day for me. I was at work in Kabul when the managers dismissed everyone, saying the situation was bad and we should go home as soon as possible. 

I returned to my small rented room. The walls echoed with the sounds of fear. I closed the windows and drew the curtains. I wanted someone by my side to comfort me and tell me that everything would be ok, but my body was trembling from fear. 

I went back to the office a week after the Taliban took over Afghanistan. My clothing became a subject of discussion, although I wore the hijab and only my eyes were visible. I stayed because I really needed the job and the salary. 

On December 24, 2022, the Taliban banned women from working at non-governmental organizations and my managers announced I was laid off until further notice. I’m still in Kabul, but my money is running out. I am looking for a job because I have to pay the rent for my room in Kabul, but no one hires women anymore.

Every night, I pray that I will find work again so I can pay my expenses and rent. Yesterday, I bought bread. As I pay the bakery monthly, I get only enough to eat bread once a day. For the last three days, I’ve eaten just bread and tea. All I have left are two onions and a little oil. I don’t know how long I can endure like this.

Raha, a 22-year-old student from Badakhshan in northeast Afghanistan who staged a protest after being barred from entering her university. 

The Taliban gunmen at the entrance refused to allow us into the university because we were wearing colorful winter coats over our black hijabs. Only those who were completely dressed in black were allowed in. We got angry and we pounded on the gates, demanding that they be opened. Then a Taliban soldier opened a gate and began beating the girls who were standing there. He whipped their legs, backs, shoulders, and even their heads. It [beatings] only ended when the university president came to the entrance and told the gathered students to accept whatever the Taliban said. 

When we got inside, Taliban agents insulted us and the women students of the literature and journalism department decided to protest. By the time we poured out onto the street to march on the Taliban governor’s office, there were more than 70 of us. 

The Taliban followed us in pick-up trucks, whipping protesters. When we arrived at the last intersection before the governor’s office, the Taliban gunmen in the trucks pointed their weapons at us, saying, “You can’t continue anymore. Stop! If you continue, we will kill you.” 

[Afterwards] we were afraid that they would come after us so we decided to separate and go to relatives’ homes. The next day, the Taliban announced they would close the university if students protested again. So we stopped. Finally, on December 20, 2022, they closed universities across Afghanistan. 

Mahtab, 23, a student in Kandahar in southern Afghanistan, was finishing her bachelor’s degree when she learned that the Taliban had barred women from higher education.

I felt sick, telling myself that the news must be a lie, and perhaps someone had published a fake announcement. But in a WhatsApp group on my phone, I saw that students were sharing the announcement.

Tears welled in my eyes as I read the messages. I’m from Daikundi province and had been so happy when I was accepted to Kandahar University. My family and relatives were against the idea of me traveling to a distant province, but I had a strong will to study and I made it clear that I could not miss this opportunity – I wanted to become a lawyer.

Life was a struggle for my family. My father could hardly feed our family of seven. Every time I went home and saw my father going to work with his wooden wheelbarrow, hawking from morning to night, I vowed to study harder so I could find a good job after university and get my family out of this situation. 

Now, despite all my hard work, I didn’t get a diploma. While the boys had a magnificent graduation ceremony in the presence of 16 Taliban ministers, I collected my belongings and returned to Daikundi. 

I studied to build the future, but in the end I had nothing. I don’t even have hope now. Every day we witness the burning of our dreams and rights. This is no place for women and girls to live.

Get our groundbreaking reporting on women

Get The Fuller Project in your inbox weekly
Get The Fuller Project in your inbox weekly