KABUL — Nasreen Sultani, the principal of the Sardar-e-Kabuli Girls High School in Kabul, has spent years fighting for the rights of Afghan girls, but said she now lives in constant fear for the safety of her students.
"I am very sad. When I see all these girls, I get really upset now," she told NBC News last week, her eyes welling up with tears.
"I tried, but we couldn't manage to make sure that women get out of this miserable situation," added Sultani, who has led the school for a decade after a major U.S. Agency for International Development restoration project allowed it to reopen.
Her despair will only have grown Sunday after Afghan President Ashraf Ghani fled the country, leaving the Taliban to seize control of the country.
She said she had been threatened by the Taliban in the past. Members of the hard-line Islamic militant group had told her “about the color of the car they might blow up," she said. "'You all might die,' they told us."
She added that she had tried “to keep the girls motivated for their good and motivate them to study."
Taliban fighters swept through Afghanistan, seizing control of the country at a speed that took international observers and Afghans aback. On Sunday, exclusive video put out by Al Jazeera appeared to show extraordinary images of armed Taliban fighters inside the presidential palace.
The start of the offensive came after U.S. forces and other international troops began to withdraw in May. The Taliban’s rapid progress has nonetheless surprised some U.S. defense officials.
Sultani is one of many Afghan women in leadership roles who say they fear a return to Taliban rule will also spell a return to its austere and harsh interpretation of Islam, which long severely restricted women's rights until the U.S.-led toppling of the regime in 2001.
Under the Taliban's former regime, girls were blocked from attending school, while women were largely barred from appearing in public without full body coverings and male escorts.
Those who violated the Taliban's rules faced flogging in public and execution.
This time around, the Taliban have claimed that they would write laws to ensure that women would be able to participate in public life if they took power in Afghanistan.
“The purpose would be enabling women to contribute to the country in a peaceful and protected environment,” Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid said in May.
Fawzia Koofi, a women's rights activist, former lawmaker and member of the Afghan delegation that was working to negotiate peace with the Taliban before the U.S. military's withdrawal, said women felt “betrayed.”
"Women in Afghanistan are the most at danger or most at-risk population of the country," she said, adding that the “criminals” the Taliban had freed from prisons to swell their ranks now also posed a threat, along with "those who [have been] upset with women becoming powerful in the last 20 years."
The future for women in Afghanistan appears "dark," she said.
Already, women in cities that have fallen under Taliban control "are like prisoners in [their] home," according to a provincial government official in Afghanistan.
"They can't go outside," added the official, who requested anonymity because of fears over safety.
Elsewhere, women expressed fears of a future with "no right to education, no right to teach, no right to work" in a letter shared with NBC News by the office of Rohgul Khairzad, the deputy governor of Nimroz province.
Khairzad’s office said the letter was written Monday by a group of women in Zaranj, Nimroz’s provincial capital and the first to fall to the Taliban after U.S. forces began pulling out of the country.
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"The Taliban, during the previous regime, showed that they would never allow women to study and work while Islam allowed them to do so, even under Islam," the letter said. "Men are entitled to the same rights in every period of time."
"We are awake with thousands of fears and fears until dawn," it added, before calling on "the world community" to step in. "Please stop the Taliban. Respect women and girls."
The letter also expressed fears that women and girls could be forced to marry members of the militant group.
Mujahid, the Taliban spokesman, dismissed the letter as “rubbish and baseless propaganda” and denied that women would be forced into marriages.
“This is not even thinkable in our system, no matter how powerful you are,” he said.
However, both Koofi and the provincial official said they had received reports that women were being made to "marry by force." NBC News has not been able to verify the reports.
While she said she did not believe the practice was widespread, Koofi said that did not mean misconduct was not happening, adding that it was likely that the Taliban’s political office was “disconnected with their military fighters.”
She said she feared women would be “targeted” under Taliban rule. The militant group was “not afraid of the world’s superpowers,” she said, but it was “afraid of women.”
Bill O'Reilly, Kelly Cobiella and Ahmed Mengli reported from Kabul, Mushtaq Yusufzai from Peshawar, Pakistan, and Chantal Da Silva from London.