Day 6·Q&A

Taliban's return could undo a generation of progress for Afghan women, says photojournalist

Despite making significant strides over the past two decades, photojournalist Lynsey Addario believes that women and girls are at risk of losing rights they've gained as the Taliban takes over Afghanistan.

'They send me voicemails, they send me tweets. They're crying, they're so scared': Lynsey Addario

Photojournalist Lynsey Addario has photographed women in Afghanistan over the past two decades. (Brendan McDermid/Reuters)

Despite making significant strides over the past two decades, photojournalist Lynsey Addario says that women and girls are at risk of losing the rights they've gained as the Taliban takes over Afghanistan.

The Taliban were defeated in 2001 following the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan — a response to the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. As a result, women and girls gained new rights in the country. They could go to school, vote, play sports and jobs. 

Under the Taliban's previous rule, women were largely confined to their homes and restricted from participating in many aspects of society.

The Taliban seized nearly all of Afghanistan in just over a week and swept into Kabul on Sunday after President Ashraf Ghani fled the country. On Tuesday, the Taliban vowed to respect women's rights within the norms of Islamic law but did not provide details, according to The Associated Press.

WATCH: University lecturer in Kabul urges a clear path for those who want out of the country

Humanitarian corridor to airport in Kabul needed, says university lecturer

4 months ago
2:27
A university lecturer in Kabul explains why he's chosen to stay in Afghanistan but urges a clear path for those who want out of the country. 2:27

Addario, who has photographed women in Afghanistan since 2000, says the Taliban's latest statements amount to a publicity tactic, as eyes turn to the crisis in that country. She's skeptical they will continue to respect women's rights going forward.

The photographer spoke with Day 6 guest host Faith Fundal about her experiences in Afghanistan and what she's doing to help women leave the country.

Here is part of their conversation.

You've spent decades documenting the stories of Afghanistan, and I wonder what goes through your mind this week as you watch the scenes there unfold?

It's been really heartbreaking to watch the scenes unfold. I first went to Afghanistan [21] years ago when it was under Taliban rule.

Those memories are really sort of oppressive. I mean, all forms of entertainment were illegal at the time. Women were forced under the burka and stuck inside their homes. Education for girls and women was illegal. Women couldn't work outside of the home except for a few doctors.

It was a very different time from what I then witnessed after the fall of the Taliban in 2001 and watched Afghan women really find their voice and define themselves.

In this still image taken from video, a group of women hold a street protest calling on the Taliban to protect their rights, in Kabul, Afghanistan, on August 17, 2021. (Shamshad News/Reuters)

Can you talk more about the photos that you took back then? How did they compare to the photos that you've taken in the past five years?

First of all, I was 26, so I wasn't a very good photographer. I had never worked in a situation like that, where photography was illegal under the Taliban — photography of any living thing.

And so working in those sort of terrifying conditions of always being scared I'd be caught, at that time, I was able to photograph secret girls' schools. So brave Afghan women and families who basically started schools in their basements or in rooms where there was not access to the outside, where you wouldn't be able to hear school going on from the street.

I photographed women's hospitals, so the few doctors and medical professionals who were working and also met with women who were stuck at home, who had been professional and who had been working before the Taliban.

Something that we're hearing now [is] the Taliban saying that they will still allow girls to go to school. And there are girls who have grown up going to school, who have been allowed to dream of a hopeful future and have careers. Many of them might not have memory of living under the Taliban. What do you think will happen to them?

I think the Taliban has gone to some sort of PR school. I think they know the right things to say right now while the international community is listening to them and watching them.

But I would take whatever the Taliban says with a grain of salt, because I think everything they're saying — they're saying we will allow girls and women to go to school, we will allow women and girls to work within the framework of Sharia law — anyone who is familiar with the Taliban knows that their interpretation of Sharia law is the most stringent.

And so maybe they would allow girls to go to school until they become women and then they should be at home. Or maybe they would allow girls to go to a separate school from boys and only learn the Qur'an.

In terms of working, what sorts of professions will they actually allow? Will it only be nurses and doctors in women's sections of a hospital or clinic, or will they actually allow women to work as police officers, as actresses, as TV presenters? I mean, everything they're saying is being modified by within Sharia law.

People hold placards during a demonstration in support of Afghan women and children following the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan, in Barcelona, Spain, on August 18, 2021. (Nacho Doce/Reuters)

Some of the folks who you work with as well were interpreters and others. What are you hearing from them this week? Are they still there?

They are terrified and yes, they're still there. And we are working very hard to try to get them out.

I've been working with Stephanie Sinclair, another photographer, along with National Geographic and the New York Times. And we're trying to talk to governments.

I've never done anything like this. I'm a journalist, I'm not a fundraiser or an activist, but these are people who risked their lives to work with us and I just don't think any of us could just leave them behind.

What sorts of conversations have you been having with them so far?

They send me voicemails, they send me tweets. They're crying, they're so scared. They heard the Taliban is going door to door asking for women who have worked with foreigners. They don't want to leave the house. They're scared for their lives.

Every other message is from an Afghan friend or their family members who have been resettled overseas and who can't sleep at night because all they can think about is will their family get killed.

Is there, do you think, any recourse for women in Afghanistan? Is there any way for them to fight to try and maintain their rights that they knew?

I don't know. I think they're terrified. If you look at the images coming out of Kabul — and Kabul is the most open place in Afghanistan — there are no women on the streets. Women are scared.

My recourse is to try and get out the women that I know and that I have worked with because I don't trust that in six months the Taliban will let them be doing what they want to be doing.

Who knew that the government would fall overnight, that the Taliban would be back in power and we'd be back where we were 20 years ago?


Written by Jason Vermes with files from The Associated Press. Produced by Laurie Allen. This Q&A was edited for length and clarity.

Hear full episodes of Day 6 on CBC Listen, our free audio streaming service.

now