Parwana Ebrahimkhil
Photo: Parwana Ebrahimkhil

Exclusive Interview: Twenty-Seven Days in the Taliban Prison

Reference: Parwana Ibrahimkhel Najarabi, a woman activist protesting the Taliban regime, was arrested by the group in Kabul in early January 2022. Several other women’s rights activists, including Tamna Zaryab Pariyani, were arrested along with her. On the 25th of January 2022, Amnesty International reported their disappearance and said these two women were critical voices against the Taliban’s discriminatory policies against women’s rights in Afghanistan. A day later, Antonio Guterres, the United Nations Secretary-General, also expressed his concern about the kidnapping of women activists in Afghanistan and demanded their release. On the 11th of February, the Taliban released Parwana Ibrahimkhel and her companions. Parwana was then able to leave Afghanistan. In this interview, she has described in detail what he experienced in Taliban custody.

Shahabi: Where were you, and what were you doing on the day Kabul fell to the Taliban?

Ibrahimkhil: I was in Kabul. I was preparing for a press conference at the Intercontinental Hotel. Before the fall of Afghanistan to the Taliban, I was a civil activist. Precisely on the day of the fall of Kabul, at the Intercontinental Hotel, we had organized an event called “No to Forced Marriage” when one of our friends was contacted and informed that Kabul had fallen. The Taliban militant had reached Kota-e-Sangi (Kabul 5th Police District). Everyone panicked, and we ended the event. We all went to our homes to avoid any potential problems. Due to the uncertainty of the situation, we kept silent and remained in our homes. Finally, the demonstration program was planned by a group of women. The protest was coordinated by a few civil activists in a WhatsApp group, and I was also part of the group. The protest time, date and location were fixed for 10 am, 3rd September 2022, Fawara-e-Aab Circle [near Arg, Afghanistan presidential palace.]

[On the day of the protest], I covered my face because I was afraid of being caught by the Taliban. There were about twenty-five of us. Of course, some girls were still coming from Dashte-e-Barchi, and some were going to Arg. When I saw the Taliban militants approach with their guns, I returned home because I had not informed my family where I was going. I was worried that they would be unable to find me if something happened to me. The other girls finished the protest ten minutes later and returned home. Of course, I also informed my mother and family about our plans and was scolded by the family for being reckless. Only my mother supported women’s protests. She believed that if women’s voices were silenced, everything would fall into the hands of the Taliban and women would be forced to [completely] disappear from society. But my brother and other family members strongly opposed it because they were worried about the reactions of the Taliban and my safety. Regardless of torture or death, it is difficult for families to bear dishonor in a society like Afghanistan.

Shahabi: How did you find out that the protest was over?

Ibrahimkhil: My friends wrote on WhatsApp that our protest was over, and all girls returned home safely.

Shahabi: What did you do after the first protest and your family’s opposition [to your activities]? Did you continue to protest, or did you stay silent?

Ibrahimkhil: No, I did not stay silent. I could not bring myself to surrender. First, I removed all family members from my Facebook and Twitter pages so they could not find out about my activities. I got a job in one of the foreign news agencies; a private university also started its operation so I could resume my studies. But my biggest motivation [against the Taliban] was my father’s death at the hands of the Taliban forces, and the blinding of my brother in the suicide attack carried out by the Taliban in the shrine of Abul Fazl in 2011.

They had destroyed my childhood. They took my father from me and blinded my brother’s eyes. They [My father and brother] were my friends and companions in my teenage years. Despite these severe [Psychological] effects, the closing of schools for girls and banning women from working were issues that shook my conscience and did not let me stay aside [and do nothing]. 

Shahabi: What was your decision in the end?

Ibrahimkhil: I decided to continue protesting and fighting for women’s [rights] no matter what. The weather had turned cold, and we, in coordination with other girls, held a new meeting at the home of one of the protesting girls, the exact date of which, unfortunately, I do not remember. In that meeting, we all concluded that we should continue the protests and that the voices of our country’s women and girls should not be silenced. Our team gradually grew, and we continued the rally and conferences until one day in January [2022], when we were protesting near Kabul University, the Taliban militants surrounded us and warned us not to continue. Our main slogan was “Bread, Employment, Freedom,” and our specific demand was to know the whereabouts of the girls the Taliban arrested in Mazar-e-Sharif1and what happened to them. Where is Aaliyah Azizi2, and why are the Taliban not giving any information about her? And finally, we do not accept the mandatory hijab.

Shahabi: What happened after the Taliban militants surrounded you? 

Ibrahimkhil: They turned on the car alarms and then sprayed pepper sprays on our faces, and we closed our eyes and could not see anywhere. But at the same time, we continued chanting. When we insisted on continuing and did not want to disperse, they tried to disperse us by force, hitting us with rifle rods. We rushed towards a park at Dehmzang square and continued chanting there. The Taliban again warned that if we continued protesting, they would take all of us [to the police station]. At the same time, they tried to seize our phones, but we resisted. They insulted and accused us of being vile and dirty, leading society into prostitution and moral corruption. One of the Taliban [leaders] commanded his militants to shut the park gates so that they could arrest us. To avoid being arrested and imprisoned by the Taliban, we all escaped. When I got home, I noticed that General Mobeen (A renowned commander of the Taliban) was talking on Twitter Space and encouraging the Taliban forces to arrest the protesting girls because they insulted the Taliban and Islamic values. Exactly two days later, they arrested and imprisoned me.

Shahabi: How were you arrested? Where and by Whom?

Ibrahimkhel: It was late in the afternoon. My mother, my sister, her husband, and I visited a [family] doctor on our way home. The Taliban stopped our car near the 5th Police District. Masked soldiers and armored ranger vehicles surrounded our vehicle. They pulled my sister’s husband out of the car and hit him on the back with a gun rod, and he fell to the ground. My mother asked them who they were. What do they want from us? They said your daughter knows we are a group beheading people. 

My mother asked what they want from my daughter and what wrong has she done. One of them said, “your daughter knows her sin.” They asked for my phone, which I did not have with me; I had left it at home. But they took the cell phones of my mother, my sister, her husband, and even the tablet that the children were playing with. From their military vehicles, appearance, and uniforms, it was clear that they were the Taliban. No group except the Taliban had such military rangers and could block the entire street.

We thought they were kidnapping us, and we all started screaming. My sister’s children were also in the car, and we were like crying and shouting. The Taliban threatened us not to shout, or they will kill us all. After that, they led our car to the street’s shoulder and asked me to get out. My mother and sister started shouting and supplicating [the Taliban], “why are you taking our daughter, and for what crime are you taking her away?”; But they seemed to be completely oblivious to her cries. I got out of the car, and the Taliban led me to a red Toyota Corolla car and asked me to get in the car; I did so. There were four people in the car. The driver was an older man. A boy was sitting next to the driver seat, who looked less than eighteen years old, and two young men were sitting in the back seat on either side of me. When I got into the car, one of the young men called someone and said, “We caught the main culprit.” When the car started, I saw that Taliban forces blocked the entire street, the sidewalks left deserted, and not even a single person could be seen. 

Shahabi: What happened on the way? How did the Taliban treat you? What conversations were exchanged on the way?

Ibrahimkhil: To be honest, I was uncomfortable because I was sitting between the two Taliban militants. So, I protested. I said, ‘how do you call yourself a Muslim when you put me between two stranger men? Am I mahram3 to you? Has Islamic law given you this permission?’. After hearing my words, they stopped the car and swapped my place with the teenage boy sitting in the front seat.

Shahabi: What happened next? where did they take you? Did they verbally or physically abuse you? 

Ibrahimkhil: Yes. Unfortunately, I was tortured and verbally abused. When we arrived near the Bagh-e-Zanana (Women’s garden), they covered my eyes with a piece of cloth, so I could not see the road, and then they covered my face with a blanket and said no one should see my dirty face. They told me to keep my head down so that I could not see anywhere, so I could not see the road after that, and I did not understand where they were taking me.

Shahabi: When did they open your eyes again?

Ibrahimkhil: When they opened my eyes, I was in a room where the window glasses were painted with black spray, and the window was secured by thick steel bars. They had installed a closed-circuit camera inside the room. From there, I was transferred to a solitary cell and imprisoned there.

Shahabi: What happened to your brother-in-law (sister’s husband)? You said the Taliban took him out of the car and beat him.

Ibrahimkhil: Unfortunately, they also arrested him. I found this when I was in a solitary cell. I recognized him when I heard his voice during the torture and shouted at them (the Taliban) ‘why did you arrest him? Why are you torturing him?’. They said we did not torture him; you could see if you did not believe us. But when I saw him, his face was bruised. I protested ‘why you tortured him, yet you are lying’. With indifference, they replied this is a prison, not a guest house where we caress you. They had imprisoned him in a cell with ISIS prisoners. He had kept his eyes closed inside the cell so he could not see his cellmates. They had brutally tortured him during his entire time in prison.

Shahabi: Did you know about the situation of other protesting women? Did you know how many of them were arrested? And what about your family? Did they inform your family or not?

Ibrahimkhil: They arrested and took me to prison on Wednesday. I knew nothing about the other girls during my first days in jail. I did not have a phone, nor did the Taliban allow phone calls. For this reason, I had no information about my family or protesting friends. Around twenty-five days since I was arrested, one of the Taliban called my family and asked me to talk to them and let them know I was with the Taliban and that I should have assured them that the Taliban treated me well and that I had not been tortured.

A strange feeling came over me, and I started crying. The Taliban prison officer ordered me not to cry because my family would find out they tortured me. He ordered that I must speak in a manner to look comfortable and normal and ask my family to prepare a guarantee for my release. I heard my mother’s voice on the other side of the phone line, and how could I say how I felt at that moment? She said, ‘where are you, my daughter? Where did they take you? I know that the Taliban took you that day. I replied, ‘Mother, I am fine; please do not worry about me. I thought I might never have the chance to see my mother again, so I wanted to tell her at least what was in my heart. With a trembling voice, I said: I miss you and love you very much, Mother. Then my mother started crying and told my daughter, I know they are watching you, and they have forced you to say that you were fine.

Then my brother, who is blind, took the phone. He said: ‘Parwana! You are a hero to us, and we are proud of you. I could not stop crying. When the prison officer saw me crying, he hung up the phone and said, ‘it is enough; you have heard from your family, do not call them anymore. I must take the phone away before anyone finds out. Then he left the cell.

Five minutes later, they knocked on the door. It was dinner time, so I thought they must have brought food. When I opened the door, a masked Talib ran towards me, and I screamed. Two others were standing at the entrance of my cell. One of the masked men played the ritual music they played during their suicide attacks and beheading. One of the Taliban standing near the cell’s door said to the masked man who attacked me: “shoot her two bullets in the head!” I screamed and thought it was over and that it was time to die. I kept my head down so as not to see how I would be shot, which is when two hard blows hit my head. I screamed again, and the masked Talib said: “shut your mouth, or I will shoot in your mouth.” I was terrified and closed my eyes when suddenly I heard another girl screaming. When I opened my eyes, I saw they had left my cell.

One hour later, one of the prosecutors came to my cell, and when he saw that I was holding my head in my hands and my eyes went red, he asked what had happened to me. I said: “This is not the way of humanity and Islam that you are torturing us like this. We were supposed to be freed”. He replied: “Who said you would be released?”. I said, ‘since the investigation is over, you do not have any more questions for us. Why should we not be released? Instead, you keep torturing us every day. He said, ‘who tortured you?’. I mentioned the details of the Talib soldier who threatened to shoot me twice because I did not know his name. This happened on day twenty-two; it was the last time they tutored me. 

Before Friday, a young Talib came to my room and said: ‘how are you?’. I replied: “I am not OK, and I am in pain. Can you bring me some medicine?”. I asked him to give me some pain reliever or at least one paracetamol to ease my pain. He said, “Your condition should have been worse than this. It should be enough that you are still alive.” After that, he went to the cell where my brother-in-law was imprisoned and asked him: “What is your relationship with this girl?”. He said I am their son-in-law. In a rough and severe tone, The Talib man said: “get up, go tell this girl to perform ablution that we want to carry out her sentence. She should be stoned”.

I asked why I should be stoned. He said, do you want a reason from us? What have you not done with this [small] height and [ugly] face? The protests like those you organized cause people to die of hunger. I responded, “Just do not kill me like Farkhonda.4” All the time, I was thinking about how the stones would hit me, and I wished I had a helmet so that the rocks would not hit my head. This was part of the mental torture of the Taliban; the nightmares will remain with me forever.

Shahabi: You said you asked for medicine to relieve the pain. Did they bring you pain relievers?

Ibrahimkhil: Yes, they did. One day, one of the Taliban came to the cell and said, “Why would you not pray?”. I said: “I cannot because I have an excuse.” Since he did not understand Farsi (Dari) and asked for a reason, I responded: “I do not want to explain; I said an excuse is an excuse.” He went and brought one of the prosecutors with him and told him to see what she was saying and why she is not praying. The prosecutor then asked why you do not pray. I said I had an excuse; he shook his head and said, “Oh, I got it. You have a female excuse (referring to menstrual period), so if you need anything, tell me, and I will prepare it for you.” I said pain medication and something that would help me these days. I meant sanitary pads, but shame (due to cultural shame or taboo of talking about women’s menstrual period) prevented me from saying it clearly. He understood and said Ok. They brought me a pain reliever and sanitary pads a few hours later.

On day 13th, they reversed the lock of my cell and turned the side open with a key to the outside and the side without a lock and key to the inside. I protested and said why are you doing this? They said it was an order. This made me unable to sleep for a moment due to fear since they could come inside without knocking after turning the lock outside and having the key, and I was alone in the room. Everything was possible, and I could do nothing.

In the evening of the same day, when I was praying, I suddenly felt shortness of breath and severe weakness. I knocked on the door. The guard came and asked what had happened. I said that I was extremely sick. The guard went and brought someone with him. Talib man said what happened? I said I could not breathe. There was a young man in prison who was called the doctor. The prison officer brought the young doctor and asked him to check what had happened to me. The doctor said, have you eaten anything? I had taken all the pain relievers left in front of me out of worry and thinking about stoning and another horrible thing that may happen to me. It may seem silly now, but in those circumstances, I saw suicide as better than getting stoned publicly. When the young doctor saw my despair and crying, he also cried and said, “Dear Sister, I’m only working here for the sake of my livelihood. Forgive me; I cannot do anything for you.” The doctor asked the Talib prison officer to take me to the hospital for treatment, but he rejected it and said it was impossible. There he (the young doctor) had to inject a serum and give me some medicine. 

Shahabi: You were arrested for disrespecting the headscarf (Hijab)?

Ibrahimkhil: Yes. It was the main reason for our arrest since we were accused of setting fire to a headscarf and disrespecting the Hijab. It is as if we are receiving money and support from the Westerners to revolt against the IslamicEmirate. When they arrested me, one of the Taliban militants slapped me hard in the car and shouted at me: “You shameless lowlife, how did you stomp on a Hijab?”

Shahabi: How many days were you in Taliban custody? Have you had access to the bathroom, clean clothes, hygiene items, and enough food during this time?

Ibrahimkhil: I have been in the Taliban prison for twenty-seven days. They brought me food, but sometimes they said I no longer had an appetite to eat. I had no other cloth except those I wore when they arrested me. But I had access to a bathroom, and they allowed me to take a bath.

Shahabi: Can you tell us a little about the recording of forced confession videos? What was the story of these videos? How and when was the video recorded?

Ibrahimkhil: They took me into the interrogation room during my last days of prison. Three or four Taliban were sitting in the room. They told me that I must say whatever they wanted; otherwise, they would torture me, and then they threw the whip before me to threaten me. I really could not stand the torture anymore. They had written whatever they wanted on paper so that I would not forget and say everything in front of the mobile camera. They recorded my video with a cell phone.

Shahabi: What were the things they wrote on the paper that they wanted you to say?

Ibrahimkhel: They wanted to say that we were deceived by the Western Countries and the international community and received money from the European Union and UNAMA. They forced me to state that I would not go anywhere from Afghanistan; if I did, I would accept any punishment that the Islamic Emirate would decide. The exact words I repeated in the video were also written on paper, and they took my fingerprint in a written guaranty letter and seized my ID card. 

Shahabi: What happened after recording your forced confessions? Did you go back to solitary confinement, or they released you? 

Ibrahimkhel: After they took a confession and a written guaranty letter, they said they would release me. They called my brother and asked for a [property] document to bail me out, so my brother could take me with him. My brother also brought the shop license from one of our relatives. Two of the Taliban interrogators took me to the Shahid intersection; they received the bail-out document and handed entrusted me to the relative who brought the guarantee document. 

Shahabi: How many times were you physically tortured while in prison? What was the Taliban’s pretext for beating you?

Ibrahimkhel: I was beaten several times. They wanted me to give the address and location of the other girls. But every time they asked, I said I did not know where they were, which made the Taliban angry and they beat me, saying I was lying. Their humiliation and verbal insults hurt me more than their physical torture. Every time they entered the cell, they directed me to turn my back to them so they would not see my “dirty face.” Or they accused us of being westernized puppets and prostitutes. There was physical and mental torture, along with insults and humiliation. They struck me on the face; I could not swallow my saliva. They beat me with an electric shock and gun rod. 

In one incident, the girls threw a headscarf to the ground as a protest against the mandatory hijab. This became a huge justification for the Taliban to assault and insult us. While they repeatedly told me that we know that I am not a Muslim but a Christian, in several incidents, they also told me they would not let me live and would carry my death sentence. 

I was disappointed and was sure I would not leave prison alive. But my biggest concern was my mother and how difficult it would be for her to bear my death. My mother was told she should not expect me to return alive; she would never see me again. This was my great concern. I knew they would stone me or kill me with a bullet. But more than my own life, I was thinking about my mother, whose husband was killed and her son blinded both by the Taliban, and now it was her daughter’s turn.

Shahabi: What is your opinion of the Taliban who denounced your protest as a provocation by external factors and a project to flee the country? 

Ibrahimkhil: Look! I was not part of any project. I had my own reasons. I could not see the suffering and deprivation of my fellow human beings. No one promised me anything, and I do not think exiting the country is worth the suffering, humiliation, and torture we endured. The injuries and tortures I suffered in the Taliban prison are still with me. I still have nightmares; I scream and wake up. My hands hurt, and I could not hold anything with my left hand. My head hurts and I always have a vague fear and anxiety. Does that mean we wanted to go out at this price? This is ridiculous.

Shahabi: When you came out of prison, you spoke to Tolo TV on the phone. Didn’t the Taliban refrain you from talking to the media? 

Ibrahimkhil: Of course, they threatened that after my release, I had no right to talk to the media about my experience in prison; otherwise, my guarantor and I would both be arrested. Of course, the BBC published news of my release, and Tolo contacted me after that. They just wanted me to confirm my release so they could publish it in their news bulletin. The next day, my relatives, who had learned about my release, visited me. 

Around 10 o’clock in the morning, I received a call to my personal number. My cellphone was with my brother. He brought my cell phone and said: “Parwana! Someone from Emirate (the Taliban) wants to speak to you. I was surprised because I did not share my number with the Taliban. They had my brother-in-law’s number. Anyway, I picked up the phone. An unknown man said: “I am Masih from Rakha, Panjshir province. I am a member of the Islamic Emirate and follow you on Facebook. Some of the Taliban will visit you at your home, and you have to say that you were not involved in the case of burning the Hijab and confirm that Westerners influence you to chant Death to the Emirate.” 

I responded: “If your Ministry of Interior released me, why should I answer your demands? I would share this matter with the prosecutor then you can visit me”. He said: “Are you serious?” I said: “Yes!”. He continued: “Ok! We’ll see you.” 

At 12:00 pm, two White Toyota Corollas with armed men in military uniforms came to the door. I needed to confirm whether those men and the person who called me were members of the Taliban or other groups who had their own accounts with the Taliban. We had to change our house two times to avoid further harm. 

Shahabi: Did someone threaten you with rape while you were in prison?

Ibrahimkhil: No. Whenever they entered the room, they asked me to turn my back and would not make my voice “honied and melodious” because I was not their mahram. According to them (the Taliban), we were morally corrupt and indecent girls, and they considered us dirty.

Shahabi: How did you manage to leave the country? Because you said you did not have a passport and the Taliban had confiscated your ID card.

Ibrahimkhil: Around the first days of the new (lunar) year. I was talking to one of my friends. He asked me whether I wanted to stay in Afghanistan. I said that I have not fought to get out of Afghanistan and had no intention of doing so. But he said your life is in danger; to fight the Taliban in the future, first, you have to survive. He had some contact with an international organization and said they are ready to help you. With their support and paying money [ to the department issuing ID card], I solved my ID card problem and got a passport. 

I went from Kabul to the Pakistan border with my face covered in Hijab. There, the Taliban border soldiers asked me to remove my Hijab so they could see my face. Eventually, I was identified; they arrested me and said I was not allowed to travel out of the country. But the organization that helped my evacuation convinced the Taliban to let me leave the country by paying money. I managed to cross the Torkham border and entered Pakistan territory. There, I was in a safe house for a while, and finally, I left Pakistan for Europe.

Shahabi: As we wrap up this conversation, what is your message to the Taliban and their supporters?

Ibrahimkhil: Since childhood, all the sufferings I have endured until today were because of the Taliban. Until the end of my life, I will not forget the pain of losing my father, my brother’s blinding at the hand of the Taliban and the torture and nightmares I endured in the Taliban prison. I will not forget the severed head of Tabassum and those students massacred at Kabul University. For those who support the Taliban, I feel pity for their ignorance and I want to let them all know that my peers and my fight will continue against the Taliban and their supporters till the end. We will never stay silent.

1 Several women activists disappeared in September and October 2022 in Mazar-e-Sharif, Balkh province. Later, their dead bodies were found in various locations around the city in November.

2 Alia Azizi had been working as a police officer with the former Afghan government for 17 years and as the head of the women’s prison in Herat since 2019 until the Taliban takeover in August 2021. She has been missing since October 2021 and is feared to have forcibly disappeared by the Taliban. 

3 In Islam jurisprudence, a Mahram is an immediate family member like a parent, spouse, sibling, or child. 

4 Farkhunda Malikzada was a 27-year-old woman who was publicly lynched by a mob in Kabul, the capital of Afghanistan, on 19 March 2015. A large crowd formed in the streets around her, claiming that she had burned the Quran, and for that, her accusers announced that she must be sent to Hell right away. (Wikipedia)