The drive through snowy streets in the Afghan capital takes us through winding, narrow alleyways. It’s necessary to avoid the attention of the Taliban soldiers who man multiple checkpoints in Kabul.
In the car’s back seat is the leader of one of the most unlikely and bravest of rebel groups. Her diminutive size hides a giant of a personality. She’s already been warned a number of times by the Taliban who don’t agree with her activities.
But she’s unrepentant and more importantly, determined to continue – despite the dangers of risking the Taliban’s wrath.
“This is our life,” she tells us.
“It is our passion. We have to carry on.”
She’s already moved location after the Taliban told her if she didn’t stop, they’d shut her down. Now she leads us up a metal stairway to a small, hidden backroom where her fellow rebels are now gathering daily.
Inside, heads bowed, concentrating hard and wrapped in thick winter coats because there’s zero heating in mid-winter, is a small group of girls. These are some of the rebels taking on the Taliban – and all because they want to continue their art classes.
Drawings in art classes ‘a sin’
Many of them are drawing portraits of females – and that appears to be one of the points upsetting the Taliban, who have visited the art teacher and told her she needs to stop these classes.
“It’s because we’re drawing women whose faces aren’t covered, who aren’t wearing proper hijabs,” the teacher – who we’re keeping anonymous for her own safety – explains.
“And the Taliban believe that’s a big sin in Islam.”
She’s showing us a range of beautiful paintings and drawings of young women and girls. Among them is a portrait of the singer Billie Eilish.
She explains the Taliban don’t like depictions of Western celebrities because they don’t think they are suitable role models or people who should be celebrated.
This is just a small glimpse into how dramatically life has changed for women and girls in Afghanistan since the Taliban swept to power nearly six months ago.
Barred from work and education halted
Most women – apart from health workers and some government employees – have been barred from work. Millions have had their education halted and a series of restrictive measures have been brought in, ranging from instructing women to wear the hijab to insisting they can only travel long distances with a male relative escort.
A UN report by a group of human rights experts found the measures “taken together, constitute a collective punishment of women and girls, grounded on gender-based bias and harmful practices”.
There’s growing evidence the Taliban are going further – cracking down on the small protests being sporadically but persistently organised by women, demanding the restoration of their rights. The most recent demonstration in Kabul last Sunday showed a worrying escalation in Taliban tactics. It was broken up by soldiers using pepper spray and then followed up a few days ago by raids on the homes of the organisers.
A video was posted online by a young woman called Tamana Paryani as the Taliban are heard banging on her door. She films herself screaming: “Help me, help me! The Taliban are here”.
The video has been denounced as fake by the Taliban leadership who told international outlets it was a ruse to try to secure refugee status abroad.
Women taken away by Taliban or in hiding
But the Sky News team followed up the raids, talking to multiple witnesses outside Tamana’s home in Kabul who’d watched events unfold that night. They told us there were numerous armed Taliban wearing Special Forces uniforms who turned up outside Tamana’s home.
The raid lasted about twenty minutes, several witnesses told us, and a number of people heard Tamana and her three sisters screaming for help. The girls were spotted being taken away by armed men in military uniform and haven’t been seen since.
We tracked down several of the women who’d been at the demonstration including the family of one who is videoed, arm raised and leading the chants for improved female rights. She’s seen in other videos, talking into the camera and holding a photo collage of world leaders including the British Prime Minister Boris Johnson. The politicians have tape over their mouths to signify what the protestors feel is their silence over events in Afghanistan. The woman – who we are not identifying for her own safety – is now on the run and in hiding in fear of her life.
Her mother was at home with her grandchildren when she says about 20-30 armed Taliban soldiers turned up trying to find her daughter. They burst into the home, forcing their way past the door. She shows us bruises on her arm where she tried to hold the door shut.
“I was shocked when I saw lots of Taliban with guns and even carrying rockets inside my home,” she tells us. “They pointed their guns at all of us even the children… I was so scared.”
She tells us the Taliban confiscated her telephone when they found foreign numbers in her contacts. She’s been in communication with Afghan women who fled into exile when the previous government collapsed.
“I’ve been to the Ministry of Interior Investigations Unit and complained and asked them why they took my phone,” she says. “I told them I’ve done nothing wrong and asked them why did they do that?”
She says she got no answers.
Taliban: ‘We do not threaten women’
We were given a rare interview with one of the Taliban’s most senior spokesman. Abdul Qahar Balkhi is the spokesman for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. He is part of the Taliban delegation in Norway right now – meeting representatives from several Western countries – to discuss how to avert the impending humanitarian disaster unfolding in Afghanistan. We asked him about this week’s raids on female demonstrators’ homes.
“Our security do not approach women specifically,” he reassured us. “Because this is an Afghan society… we have a lot of respect for women, we do not threaten women… ever.”
When we showed him the video of Tamana pleading for help, he admitted the video was alarming.
“It is, of course distressing,” he said. “But the Ministry of Interior absolutely rejected it and called the video fake.”
“How is that fake?” I asked him. “If it’s fake, where is the young woman?”
“Maybe you can approach the Ministry of Interior and ask them how they came to that conclusion?” he replied.
But despite repeated calls to the Ministry of Interior and the Kabul Police Commander, we got no replies.
Abdul Qahar Balkhi went on: “As for what you rightly pointed out… of terrifying women and children, rousing them from their sleep in the dead of night, it happened for twenty years in Afghanistan… foreign forces would barge into homes, kill women and children, torture them and detain them, take them to Guantanamo and Bagram.”
The country’s not only hurting economically but is deeply psychologically scarred too from 20 years of what the Taliban and many others call “occupation by foreign forces”.
And history is hard to forget, especially when you’re in the teeth of an unfolding disaster, which many Afghans believe has been caused and stoked by the international community’s actions.
International community refuse to recognise Taliban
The collapse of the previous administration and the chaotic withdrawal of foreign troops after two decades prompted an immediate halting of the bulk of international aid. It led to the freezing of billions of dollars of overseas assets as well as a range of sanctions. It plunged an already fragile economy into virtual meltdown, exacerbating an already critical humanitarian crisis.
And the Taliban say nearly six months on no country has yet officially recognised their government as legitimate and argue they are part of the problem.
“The international community cannot condemn the Afghan people to collective punishment and starvation because they failed in their mission in Afghanistan,” the Taliban spokesman said.
“That has been our message and from our part if we hadn’t taken the measures that we have taken and mitigated the effects of this humanitarian catastrophe that is taking place here in Afghanistan, we would be in a far, far worse place at this moment.”
He went on to stress, in a wide-ranging interview: “It is the moral obligation of the international community to recognise the government that exists which is a reality. It is not going anywhere anytime soon and this government has shown that it is a responsible actor. The politicising of recognition is only endangering the lives of the common people.”
Norway talks controversial
The Norway talks have been controversial, with many in Afghanistan believing the international community should not bargain with the fighters who seized power. But the humanitarian crisis is critical and only getting worse.
The former prime minister Gordon Brown is one advocating for immediate assistance to the people of Afghanistan. He said on Sky’s Trevor Phillips on Sunday programme: “If we can’t get aid to people, they will die in front of our eyes. This is a humanitarian catastrophe.
“I don’t forget the sacrifices of our troops and part of the reason we were there was to protect the Afghan people and now we face a nightmare and it’s really a moral failure. When children are starving and no health provision, we have a duty to act.”
But others like the first Afghan woman to lead a political party – who spoke to us from exile in Britain – insisted any aid must be contingent on womens’ rights.
Fawzia Koofi said: “This is the best time for the world to think about how can they to pressurise the Taliban.
“Instead of giving them money, they need to pressurise them to listen to a political dialogue… the government needs to be diverse enough.”
Special correspondent Alex Crawford, cameraman Jake Britton, and producers Chris Cunningham and Mark Grant report from Kabul