Around two dozen women activists protested in front of the former Ministry of Women’s Affairs building in the city of Kabul on September 26, after its replacement with the Ministry of Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice. The latter existed during the previous Taliban reign, when it became a renowned symbol of arbitrary abuses, particularly against women and girls.
Weeks before, dozens of women marched in the Afghan capital on September 8, demanding the preservation of their rights and freedom a day after the Taliban unveiled a new hard-line, all-male interim government to rule Afghanistan.
Voicing anger at the absence of women in the new cabinet, the protesters chanted: “We want equal rights; we want women in government,” and held signs calling for “Freedom.”
Taliban fighters reportedly used whips and sticks against some demonstrators, then detained and brutally beat local journalists to break up the protest. This was yet another display of the radical Islamist group’s latest crackdown on dissent in Afghanistan.
Only two days before, a small crowd of women gathered in the northern city of Mazar-e-Sharif, holding placards, some of which read: “Women will not go backwards,” “Respect our human rights,” and “Give women rights or we will continue the fight.”
A number of women also took part in an earlier protest in Kabul on September 4, to claim their rights to work, educate themselves, and participate in society after the Taliban seized control of Afghanistan on August 17.
Taliban forces violently suppressed the peaceful march by running into the crowd and firing in the air. A video widely shared on social media showed one female protester with a head injury and blood running down her face.
“Women are not letting the Taliban snatch away their rights and achievements anymore.”
“Women are not letting the Taliban snatch away their rights and achievements anymore,” a local activist told Business Insider. “They are willing to fight and resist even if it’s lethal to them.”
Fighting to Preserve Basic Rights
Proving to be more than a couple of isolated occurrences, over the past month, several Afghan cities witnessed a wave of rare, female-led demonstrations. Indeed, defiant women are taking to the streets to insist that their rights and freedoms be protected following the Taliban takeover.
Soon after the extremist Islamist group retook Afghanistan, Taliban spokesperson Zabiullah Mujahid said at a news conference that women should stay home until further notice for their own safety, warning that fighters were “not trained” to treat women respectfully. Later, the Taliban leadership assured that they would allow women to work and pursue education. But since the hard-line movement regained power, they have sent mixed signals to girls and women.
In recent weeks, there have been several reported incidents of women being told not to come to work or leave their homes without male guardians, with many turned away from their workplaces. Videos have circulated on social media of Taliban militants painting over photographs of women posted outside shops, sparking fear that women are being erased from the public sphere once again.
Adding to the confusion and concerns, with the reopening of private universities across Afghanistan in early September, a higher education policy indicated that women would be able to attend college but they must study in gender-segregated classes. Moreover, female students now have to wear an abaya, a veil covering their whole body, as well as a niqab over their face which only shows their eyes.
The decree also requires universities to recruit female teachers for female students in separate classrooms from male students. However, because female teachers are in short supply in the country, many worry this will mean women will be unable to pursue higher education.
The current wave of protests against Taliban restrictions kicked off on September 2 in Herat, the largest city in the western part of Afghanistan. A group of Herati women decided to demonstrate publicly after trying to engage, in vain, with top Taliban officials to receive an explanation for their policies on the rights of women. They encouraged women across the country to launch similar rallies.
Since then, crowds of brave female protesters have been risking their lives and defying the Taliban’s oppressive rule, to reclaim their rights to education, employment, and security.
“Women are demonstrating simply because they want to study, work, and run their businesses, as they were able to do before,” Pashtana Durrani, Executive Director of LEARN – an NGO focussing on women’s education in Afghanistan – told Inside Arabia. “They don’t want some individuals they didn’t choose as their leaders to dictate and tell them they have to go back to square one,” she argued.
“Women are demonstrating simply because they want to study, work, and run their businesses, as they were able to do before.”
Presenting a gloomy picture of life under Taliban rule, one of the administrators of a Twitter account named From the Afghan Women denounced the unfairness of the restrictions. “Today my mom started a cleaning job in a house to feed her children. I lost my job as well since I was working for a local NGO. We are not asking for anything else, just being safe and being able to go to school and work,” she wrote in a tweet.
As most Afghan women had been financially supporting their families, the lack of jobs and loss of income since the Taliban’s return to power has severely affected them, their families, and communities. Durrani, who’s long been an advocate for women and girls across Afghanistan, explained that in the rural parts of the country, where the bulk of the female population is concentrated, the vast majority of women have been left as single parents and the sole breadwinners after their male partners were either killed in the conflict or fled.
“If women have their right to work taken away, their families will definitely fall into poverty,” Durrani warned.
Durani also noted that a woman who is no longer economically independent becomes vulnerable to domestic violence or forced marriage, which will have severe physical, emotional, economic, and social repercussions in her life. Similarly, preventing girls from receiving an education makes them more likely to be pushed into child and early marriages that will in turn negatively impact future generations.
Female Political Participation
Besides fighting a battle for their basic rights, women have been calling for their participation at all levels in the new government, including leadership positions.
Despite top Taliban leaders promising an “inclusive” cabinet, women were not expected to get administrative posts of authority. In the process of forming the interim cabinet of ministers, the Taliban proposed that women could work in government institutions but not in higher-ranking positions.
Not only are there no women in the new Taliban administration, but the group also abolished the Women’s Affairs Ministry.
As suspected, not only are there no women in the new Taliban administration, but the group also abolished the Women’s Affairs Ministry.
In the wake of these blatantly biased moves, women have not hesitated to express their outrage at the male only formation in various cities across Afghanistan, as the newly appointed body was drawn exclusively from loyalist ranks, with established hardliners in all key posts.
“Their government doesn’t count us as citizens of this country even though we are half of the population. We don’t care if they beat us or even shoot us, we want to defend our rights,” one demonstrator said to The Wall Street Journal.
“No government can function without women being part of it,” Fawzia Koofi, the first female Deputy Speaker of Parliament in Afghanistan, recently tweeted.
In an interview with CNN, the former parliamentarian said the incredible bravery of women protesting for their rights will not end. “Afghanistan can’t fly with one wing,” she asserted, adding that the Taliban need to realize times have changed.
Refusing to Go Backwards
Regardless of the Taliban’s assurances of a more moderate form of Islamic rule, in light of the latest developments, many women remain skeptical and fear a significant rollback of the gains they have made over the last 20 years.
Under their previous rule (1996-2001), the Islamist militants enforced an extreme interpretation of Sharia, or Islamic law, placing severe restrictions on women’s lives. This included compelling them to wear burqas covering their bodies and faces fully, banning them from working outside their homes, prohibiting education for all women except pre-adolescent girls, and forbidding them to go out in public without a male member of their close family.
Today, although the Taliban have pledged women will be able to continue their education and work, they have also vowed to enforce their strict and extreme application of Sharia law again, showing that their views have not changed. Instead, the radical group has reimposed some of the same repressive laws and backward policies that defined its first rule.
The radical group has reimposed some of the same repressive laws and backward policies that defined its first rule.
Nonetheless, women and girls are resolved to carry on their fight, refusing the idea of returning to the past. Among them are many young women and female activists who did not live under the former Taliban regime.
“Women’s journey to reach where they are now has not been an easy one. There is no way they will go back, but only forward. This is more than half of Afghanistan’s population. The Taliban must accept this fact, and the world must support it,” a social media campaign titled “My Red Line” posted on Twitter.
Indeed, the ban on protests and heavy-handed crack downs by the Taliban have not dissuaded women from returning to the streets and demanding to participate in public life.
“I strongly believe that these protests . . . are the very beginning steps to confront [the Taliban], to make them understand that we exist here and we will not keep silent,” Afghanistan’s Youth Representative to the UN Shkula Zadran said on CNN.
Afghan women activists are raising their voices while the world is watching. They want to make their case at a crucial moment, while they multiply their calls on the international community not to grant the Taliban official recognition. They are afraid that the radical group would further clamp down on women’s rights once the global attention has moved away.