Every recent morning, when Marzia Babakarkhail wakes up, she has found her phone full of desperate text messages and voice notes from friends in Afghanistan.
“As a human being, it’s not easy,” Babakarkhail said. “It’s really hard to cope with.”
Babakarkhail, a former judge in a country that had largely confined women to their homes, has lived in the United Kingdom since 2008, seeking refuge after Taliban militants tried to kill her twice because of her work advocating for women.
The first attempt on her life was made a day after the group last seized control of her home province, Baghlan, in 1997.
Decades have passed since, but Babakarkhail believes the Taliban of today will rule and operate in the way they did in the 1990s, persecuting women for going to work or trying to get an education.
“People are worried, and I have no hope — not just for women, but for the new generation and [all of] Afghanistan,” she said.
One of the audio messages Babakarkhail has received is from a prominent female politician in the country, whom she requested not be named out of fears for her safety. She played the message to Yahoo News during a video interview. Over a grainy line that breaks up every few seconds, the woman could be heard sobbing and whispering between breaths: “I’m scared, I can’t do this anymore.”
Babakarkhail said she’s been receiving dozens of such desperate pleas from women activists on a daily basis since the Islamic militant group seized the capital, Kabul, and declared victory on Aug. 15. In a publicity blitz, the Taliban has vaguely promised to respect women’s rights, but activists like Babakarkhail are not convinced.
“The movement that women [were working on] in Afghanistan was brilliant,” she said, “but suddenly we just lost everything overnight. It’s not easy to say, it’s difficult to accept.”
Many of her friends are trying to leave the country, she said, recounting her own experiences of escaping from the militants some 20 years ago.
“I think it was the worst day of my life,” Babakarkhail, who was born in Pul-e-Khumri, in the north of the country, said.
A large car carrying nine Taliban militants armed with guns pulled up outside her home, she said. They broke down the door, screaming, and began searching every corner of the house.
She managed to hide behind a door outside the building for five hours, barefoot, trying to remain silent as she sat in the dirt.
“They slapped my mother in front of everybody,” Babakarkhail said, recalling the incident. “They put my entire family in a dangerous place.”
The militants were desperate to find her, because she was a family court judge and had set up a school and shelter for refugees — activities that Taliban fighters deemed unacceptable.
Babakarkhail thought that when she qualified as a judge, “life would be perfect.” She was one of very few female judges in the 1990s.
But life in the court was controlled by restrictive legislation that prevented her from fairly making decisions on cases, she said. So she set up a group in 1994 to help women and change attitudes in the country.
The organization provided training for women and helped rehabilitate women fleeing from arranged marriages and domestic abuse. It also made Babakarkhail a target for the Taliban.
During their previous regime in Afghanistan, between 1996 and 2001, the Taliban introduced harsh rules and punishments under their strict interpretation of Sharia, or Islamic law. The law acts as the fundamental religious moral code of Islam and sets out holistic rules that apply to all areas of life, including religious obligations, daily routines and personal beliefs.
The restrictions forced women to wear burqas and prohibited most girls from going to school. Unaccompanied women venturing into public places could be beaten.
The day after militants ransacked her house, Babakarkhail and her family managed to flee to neighboring Pakistan, where she lived for several years, before returning in 2007, years after Taliban militants lost control of the country.
She began working again in Kabul. Then her mother was admitted to the hospital, and as she started to visit her regularly, she began to feel in danger once again.
“During that time I received letters that said, ‘I will kill you tomorrow,’” Babakarkhail said.
Her mother told her she must flee, so she packed her belongings in a small briefcase that she used for her work. She was walking down a street near the hospital when a car traveling at high speed hit her.
“They left me for dead,” Babakarkhail said. “I was in hospital for six months. My teeth were broken, my gums, my back, my legs. [The Taliban] tried to attack me twice. Sometimes I’m asking myself, what did I do wrong?”
After her recovery, Babakarkhail remained in Kabul, but she continued to receive death threats from the militants, so she applied for asylum in the United Kingdom, which she was granted in 2008.
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