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Taliban now control areas where women sought refuge from abuse

The Taliban took power and the sole woman's shelter in northern Afghanistan was closed. Twenty women, who fled domestic horrors such as abuse by their husbands and families, or forced into early marriages with old men, were left behind.

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Taliban now control areas where women sought refuge from abuse

The Taliban soon arrived at the shelter in Pul-e-Kumri.

They offered the women two options. One, they could return to their abusive families, some of which had threatened them with murder, or one, they could go with the Taliban. Salima, one of the women who was recalled, asked that only her first name be used.

Many of the women returned home because they feared the Taliban more than their families. Salima claimed that she knew at least one person who had been killed in the past, most likely by an angry relative.

Salima made the decision to go with the Taliban. Although she didn't know what the Taliban would do, Salima knew that there was no other place to go after fleeing her drug-addict husband. She now finds herself in prison, but she is safe and protected.

Taliban rule or no, Afghan women are subject to archaic codes that make them accountable for their families' honor. For marrying the man they choose, they can be executed. They often marry at puberty. It is considered shameful to flee an abusive husband. Many women are being held in jail for "morality crimes" such as adultery and running away from their husbands, even though these are not crimes under the Afghan penal codes.

Over the past 20 years, activists have set up numerous women's shelters in Afghanistan. Even before the Taliban took over, many conservative Afghans, including government officials, looked at them suspiciously as shelters that aid women and girls in defying their families or commit "moral crimes."

Women's shelters are one example of many social changes that have become more common in the last 20 years, or were not even there when the Taliban took power in 1996. These include everything from social media and internet to women judges and businesswomen. The Taliban have taken over Kabul and are now in control. However, the Taliban leadership is sometimes uncertain, and the Taliban fighters on ground are deciding how to handle the changes.

Salima and Razia were taken to Kabul together with Razia, a woman who had been living in the shelter for nearly a year after fleeing from a predatory brother.

The Taliban took them to Pul-e-Charkhi, Afghanistan's main prison. According to Mullah Abdullah Akhund, the prison administrator, the Taliban liberated all inmates from Kabul when they took control of the city.

The Associated Press had rare access to the prison women. There are now six women in the prison, including Salima Razia and Razia.

The women's prison is reached via a massive steel gate. The walls are 20 feet high and have barbed wire rolls strung on top. The women can freely move inside with their children. Salima's five-year-old daughter Maria, and Mohammad (6 years old), spend the majority of their time in a large, spacious, carpeted area. They have a large red teddy bear, a few toys and no school.

Salima said, "We pray and read the Quran most of the day."

Salima stated that she doesn't know what the future holds but that for now, without any money, she feels secure here.

Mujdha, another prisoner, stated that she wants her freedom. Her family had refused to allow her to marry her boyfriend, so she was pregnant by him. She fled. She said, "I told them that I would never remain with him." Her family reported her to Taliban who arrested her and her boyfriend.

Mujdha was arrested 15 days after giving birth to a child in prison. She has not seen her boyfriend, who is in prison elsewhere, and she has not yet met his infant daughter.

She said, "I want to go, but they tell me I can't."

Akhund stated that a court would decide whether she should be charged and added, "It's wrong that she divorced her husband." She does not have the right."

The Taliban's response has been varied to women's shelters since they took power. Suraya Pakzad from Herat, who was a woman's rights activist and opened many shelters, stated that several were closed in Herat's western city.

Friday's text message from a hiding place said that Pakzad was facing threats from all sides, including the Taliban and the families of the women who sought refuge in her shelters.

Pakzad and others pressed for participation in negotiations between the U.S-backed government and the Taliban. They wanted to guarantee women's rights in any final agreement. They are now scrambling to ensure their safety.

Pakzad was also included in an arrest warrant issued by Herat's Taliban police chief for Pakzad and seven other journalists and activists from western Afghanistan. The warrant charges the eight with "spreading propaganda about the Islamic Emirate" as well as Pakzad with "involvement in Western countries to promote prostitution."

Mahboba Suraj who manages a shelter for 30 Afghan women, claimed that the Taliban had visited the shelter and conducted an investigation. The Taliban then allowed the women to remain unharmed. She claimed that she was visited by senior officials and other departments of the Taliban government.

"The highest ups were the best. They are there to protect us, and they also understand that their people have problems," she stated.

She said that "they want protection for us" at the moment. Thank God, that is what I believe. "I believe it."

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