KABUL -- For nearly 20 years, women's shelters were a sanctuary for hundreds of Afghan girls and women trying to escape domestic abuse, sexual violence, and forced marriages.
Now, since the Taliban seized power in Afghanistan last month, dozens of safe houses across Afghanistan have shut down -- cutting off a vital escape route for victims of domestic abuse.
Afghanistan's new Taliban-led government has yet to specify its policy on women's shelters. But because the Taliban had previously branded women's safe houses as "brothels," activists fear the militant Islamist group will ban them.
Since capturing Kabul on August 15, the Taliban has reimposed some of the same repressive policies against women that had defined its brutal rule from 1996 to 2001.
The new Taliban regime has already curtailed girls' education, denied many women the right to work, abolished the Women's Affairs Ministry, and revived its dreaded morality police.
During the Taliban's lightning capture of Afghan cities during the summer, many women's shelters started to close their doors for fear of retribution. In many cases, shelter employees burned sensitive documents and fled along with the women they were sheltering.
'Fear For Their Safety'
The head of one women's shelter in Kabul, who spoke to RFE/RL on condition of anonymity, said she faced an agonizing choice when the Taliban entered Kabul: remain open and expose her employees and clients to possible Taliban reprisals or close and send women back to their abusive families.
"At the request of the women, we handed them over to their families," she said. "We received written assurances from their families that they would not mistreat them again. We had no confidence in the Taliban. So, we were forced to shut down the shelter."
Activists fear the girls and women who return to their families could become victims of so-called "honor killings" -- the murder of women for allegedly dishonoring the family, such as running away from home.
"Women and girls being forced to flee from shelters back to their families will often be walking right back into the violence they needed to escape," said Heather Barr, associate director of women's rights at Human Rights Watch.
"We should fear for their safety and their lives, as they have gone back to their abusers at a time when all restraints on violence against women have disappeared," Barr said.
While many safe houses have ceased operations, a few shelters have opted to remain open. But they do not accept new cases and are keeping a low profile in a bid to ensure the safety of their clients.
One that has remained open is a women's shelter in Kabul that houses five women, some with young children. Many have been there for years and say they are unable to return to their homes and families for fear of becoming victims of honor killings.
"The women who live here have nowhere else to go," said the head of the shelter, who spoke to RFE/RL on condition of anonymity. "That's why we have remained open. I will never allow them to become homeless."
The shelter director said armed Taliban fighters have already searched the offices of the safe house several times. The militants confiscated vehicles and private property. But she said they did not physically harm anyone.
Even before the Taliban stormed their way back into power in Afghanistan, women's shelters faced fierce criticism in the deeply conservative and patriarchal country.
Domestic abuse is routine. Forced marriages are the norm and the female suicide rate in Afghanistan remains among the highest in the world -- despite progress made for women's rights in Afghanistan since the U.S.-led invasion in late 2001.
In the past, religious figures attempted to bring the shelters under government control. Many of them were independently run and funded by a mix of private donors, international organizations, and foreign governments.
The exact number of women's shelters in Afghanistan before the Taliban takeover is unclear. But activists estimate there were at least 30 safe houses in about half of the country's 34 provinces.
Many of the shelters were established after 2001 and worked despite routine death threats and assassination attempts by the Taliban.
Some of the shelters, particularly outside Kabul, operated entirely offline. They did not have digital footprints and used code names.
"Many safe houses have suspended their operations now, but they might continue their operations later," said an employee of one foreign NGO that operates in Afghanistan.
Next time, "they will want less outside involvement, which could attract the attention of authorities," she told RFE/RL on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue.
Rolling Back Rights
Since regaining power, the Taliban has tried to project a more moderate image to convince Afghans and the international community that it has changed.
Under the Taliban's repressive regime in the 1990s, women were forced to cover themselves from head to toe, banned from working outside their homes, and required to be accompanied by a male relative if they went outside. Education was limited to pre-adolescent girls.
At its first press conference since seizing control of Kabul, the Taliban vowed they would protect women's rights within their own fundamentalist interpretation of Islamic Shari'a law.
But the militants have not shown any signs that their views have changed since they ruled Afghanistan two decades ago. Their actions thus far have betrayed their initial pledges.
The Taliban has formed a new, all-male government dominated by hard-line veterans. It does not include any women, even in secondary roles.
The Taliban has said that women are not suited to serve in the new Taliban-led government.
The militants also abolished the Women's Affairs Ministry and reestablished the feared Ministry for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice.
In the 1990s, that vice ministry was responsible for enforcing the Taliban's laws on morality -- including its strict dress code and gender segregation in society. The ministry's dreaded police were notorious for publicly beating offenders, including women.
The Taliban has advised women to largely remain indoors for their own safety. The militants have also ordered tens of thousands of former female government workers not to return to their jobs -- even as their male colleagues have returned to work.
On September 19, the interim mayor of Kabul told female employees in the city government to stay home, with work only allowed for those who cannot be replaced by men.
Afghan girls have been banned from returning to secondary school. The Taliban-led government has ordered only boys and male teachers to return to the classroom.
The Taliban has imposed a new dress code and gender segregation at universities and colleges. Activists describe that as a "clear sign of repression."
The militants have also violently dispersed female protesters who were demanding their right to work and receive an education.
The Taliban has repeatedly suggested that its decisions on women are temporary, in an apparent attempt to stave off international criticism, even as they issue hard-line decrees.