By Shadi Khan Saif
KABUL, Aug 16 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - As the Taliban sweeps across Afghanistan, reports are emerging of women in newly captured territory being forced to marry fighters, publicly flogged, and forced to stay at home.
It took the Taliban just over a week to seize control of the country after a lightning sweep that ended in Kabul as government forces, trained for years and equipped by the United States and others at a cost of billions of dollars, melted away.
The insurgents' advance has fuelled concern of a return to the Taliban's 1996-2001 rule, when women could not work, girls were not allowed to attend school, and women had to cover their faces and be accompanied by a male relative outside their homes.
Fawzia Koofi, one of the few women involved in peace negotiations who was shot in the arm by the Taliban last year, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation what she is hearing on the ground and how she sees the future of women's rights in Afghanistan.
What's happening in Taliban-controlled areas?
In some provinces, cities are completely shut down except a few shops. In some provinces, they don't allow women to go to out without a male companion. I'm also receiving reports of women and girls being forced to marry.
Taliban fighters, unlike their political officers, are unfortunately behaving the same way they did when they were in power.
I receive calls from women at even at four in the morning from provinces that have fallen in the hands of Taliban, asking me difficult questions about what is going to happen or demanding transfer to a safer place.
We want the international community to help transfer them to safer areas or provide them with some level of protection.
Haven't the Taliban promised to respect women's rights to work and education in accordance with Islam?
Their leadership have been claiming this in our negotiations and they keep repeating the same things, but in practice we know that this is different. A lot of people are being killed.
If they really believe that they will not be the same Taliban of 20 years back, then they have to demonstrate that.
Their political office issues statements that don't make sense. There is no relevance of their statements to the situation on the ground.
In Herat, the female members of parliament, their houses were searched and their cars were taken away (when the Taliban took control on Thursday).
What should be done to protect women's rights in Afghanistan?
Not only women, but everybody. We are all living in a very chaotic situation in Afghanistan. Because of the war, there is no accountability. People are killed without any accountability — extrajudicial killings, trials without courts.
An immediate ceasefire is something we are urging, followed by a political settlement because a military solution is not the way forward.
Even if the Taliban control Kabul, so what? They think that will bring stability? Of course it will not.
What's your view on the withdrawal of foreign troops from Afghanistan?
The world must be very embarrassed actually. They must be embarrassed for what they did because it's not only the people of Afghanistan who will suffer, they will also suffer sooner or later.
Now they really have to use their political leverage to ensure that there is a peace process that would give a result.
If the international community really wants, it can change everything. Remember in 2001? They came and in a few months everything was okay.
How do you see the future for Afghan women?
Women are still doing their best. You have seen from across Afghanistan, every woman is on the media. They are trying to talk about what's happening to them, their communities.
We have always been optimistic. But of course, it's very difficult. It's life threatening in many places. Not only for me but for everybody.
I have never experienced a situation where thousands of people are leaving their villages, leaving their communities and coming to Kabul. I went to some of those (displaced people's) camps yesterday and people told me their houses were destroyed, about serious women's rights violations.
Women had no space to deliver babies and they were delivering on the way (to Kabul) with no medical assistance. There is a complete lawlessness environment, a vacuum of power. This I have never experienced.
These military extremist groups are not afraid of superpowers or B52 or B56 (American bombers), but they are afraid of women.
We will continue with our struggle. But it's becoming more and more difficult for women's rights defenders.
This interview has been shortened and edited for clarity, and was updated on Aug. 16 to include the Taliban's control of Kabul.
(Writing by Annie Banerji @anniebanerji, Editing by Katy Migiro; Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers the lives of people around the world who struggle to live freely or fairly. Visit http://news.trust.org)