Afghan women pay the heaviest price of all

A number of women protesters in Kabul. Dec. 2022. File photo.

Afghanistan’s hard-won achievements of the last two decades, especially women’s rights and freedom, are systematically being erased by the Taliban following the group’s take over in August 2021.

Within days of gaining control, the Taliban began removing women from public life. No women are in the Taliban cabinet, and they have been systematically banned from practicing their political, social, military, and cultural rights.

Thirty-three days after taking control of the country, the Taliban dissolved the ministry of women’s affairs and replaced it with the ministry for the propagation of virtue and the prevention of vice, an entity involved in implementing harsh orders against Afghan women.

The Taliban-run ministry started off by issuing an order for women to wear full hijab or the iconic blue burqa, and banned them from traveling without a male guardian. 

Then came a ban on women being able to visit parks, gyms, and public baths. The Taliban also barred teenage girls from schools, after Grade 6. But more was still to come. 

In December, the Taliban issued orders that all universities and higher education facilities may no longer enroll women, and just four days after that, the group informed NGOs, both local and international, that they may not employ women – thereby cementing their misogynist policies, as experts have said. 

The Taliban’s latest moves triggered global outrage, with international organizations and foreign governments, country leaders, and activists all calling for the bans issued in December to be reversed. 

Afghan women also spoke out and some staged protests. 

In this report, Amu takes a closer look at life for women under the Taliban; the group’s decisions that have wiped women from the face of Afghan society; as well as the protest action by women against the Taliban’s orders. 

Women protest

Afghan women marched in a number of cities from September 6 through to September 8 for the first time after the Taliban regained power.

These protests were spread throughout Kabul, Herat, Balkh, Bamiyan, Kapisa, Ghor, Baghlan, Badakhshan, Parwan, Kunduz, Takhar, and Nimroz provinces and were in support of women’s right to work and to education.

Hoda Khamosh, one of the Kabul protesters, said: “The campaign began from the Fawar-e-Aab square towards the Presidential Palace and when the voices became wider and louder, the Taliban resorted to suppression. They suppressed women’s protests with guns, warning shots, and spraying tear gas, and many journalists were also suppressed and beaten up.”

The Taliban’s measures resulted in women’s rights protests dying down from mid-September to October 2021. The only protests that took place in this time were sporadic demonstrations by teachers, healthcare workers, and other government staff over unpaid salaries.

In early 2022, protests in Kabul and northern provinces of Afghanistan again started up amid a deteriorating economy and further restrictions on women. 

This time the Taliban responded with tear gas and electric batons to disperse women’s protests, which was followed up by house-to-house searches by the Taliban.

Shahla, a pseudonym for a female protester who currently resides in Kabul and wished to remain anonymous, said that it was not easy for women to protest. 

“Women protests are staged at the risk of lives, because a protesting woman when they march on streets thinks she will not return home. She might tell herself that I will not return home again, or that I will get imprisoned, or might be killed, or arrested,” she said.

But the Taliban started to crack down on protesting women and after January 2022 protests, the group started arresting female demonstrators. 

Parwana Ibrahimkhel, a women’s rights protester, along with her sister’s husband, was detained on January 19 and released on February 11.

Another protester Tamanna Pariani and three of her sisters were arrested by the Taliban forces on January 19; they were taken from their home in Kabul and only released on February 12.

Another woman activist Mursal Ayar was also detained and taken from her home in Kabul on February 2. She was released ten days later.

Zahra Mohammadi, a women’s rights activist, was arrested at her health center on February 3, 2022 and was released eight days later.

Afghan women did not only raise their concerns through street protests, but their representative Hoda Khamosh raised the subject at a summit in Norway, in the presence of attending Taliban officials. 

Khomosh said that she raised her voice over the arrests of Afghan women, however, the Taliban denied the allegations.

“I could see the terror in their eyes and their behavior, I could see the oppression and the blood flowing in their eyes and the aggressiveness in their behavior that clearly showed how much they were willing to silence my voice, but when I reminded them of the crimes they had committed in Afghanistan in a short period, they denied this and this denial was shameful,” Khamosh said.

January and February 2022 were risky and full of danger for Afghan women protesters and their family members. Amu TV’s findings shows that 29 women and their family members were arrested by the Taliban on the 11th of February and were released again on the 28th of February.

Fears spread among male and female protesters following the detentions and protests significantly decreased.

Shahla said: “The Taliban used to show reactions while hearing women’s voices and used various methods to silence them, for example, they used to fire into the air and beat up women. They beat women so that they don’t dare to stand up anymore. You know that the Taliban made women prisoners, but could not ‘quieten women’s voices’ and women did not stop demanding their rights,” Shahla said.

Following the Taliban’s crackdown on the protests, Afghan women continued to protest from the safety of their houses.

Hoda Khamosh stated that despite the Taliban’s “brutality and terror” Afghan women spilled into the streets against the group, demanding their rights.

Protesters once again marched on the streets after the Taliban, on March 23, 2022, refused to reopen schools for girls above Grade 6. The Taliban suppressed the protests. 

Wazhma Frogh, an Afghan women’s rights activist, said that she witnessed how the Taliban suppressed and detained the protesters.

“I also know that there are millions of women in Afghanistan and they are not just a few that get arrested or become silenced,” Frogh. 

Women went to the streets again after a deadly suicide attack hit Kaaj educational center in the Dasht-e-Barchi area of Kabul in late September in which dozens of students mostly girls were killed and wounded. 

According to the UN, the Taliban responded to the protest harshly, “fired into the air, journalists were not allowed to cover the protest, two of the protesters were wounded, and the cellphones of many protesters were broken [by the Taliban].”

Wazhma Frogh, meanwhile, stated that the Taliban’s move to ban women from working was the most devastating move against Afghan women.

“They (women) have lost their jobs and they were the breadwinners of their families, these women played a very important role in the family. The Taliban decision has fueled the economic poverty that is destroying Afghanistan, which is already experiencing a humanitarian crisis,” she added.

Frogh stated that Afghan women suffer from depression and the Taliban’s restrictions have affected their mental well-being. 

“After all these restrictions were imposed on women, women now suffer mental and psychological issues because they have been deprived of all opportunities,” she added. 

“We fight alone”

Maryam, a pseudonym for another female protester who lives in Kabul, strongly criticized men for being apathetic regarding the situation. 

“We fight alone and we know that we will win despite all the problems, but we complain to men that they did not show their courage even for one day and did not join us in our battle,” she said.

Maryam said: “One day, during one of our protests, I asked a man who was on the same road to join us in chanting but believe me, that man ran away and said that he did not want to be killed.”

Maryam also blamed the international community for neglecting women’s issues in Afghanistan. She said that the international community acts as if they are not aware of “our problems. If the international community really put the necessary pressure on the Taliban, Afghan women would not be in this situation.”

Work and university dreams

Less than two weeks ago, the Taliban issued another two orders – crushing the few dreams that young Afghan women had. First they banned them from getting a university education and secondly they banned NGOs from employing women. 

This however caused a worldwide outcry.

Mitra, who had just been accepted at Kabul University’s faculty of literature, told Amu TV that she had been so happy about passing her university entrance exam. 

“Believe me, when I was sleeping at night, I dreamed that I was going to the university. I was waiting a lot and counting the days until when our lessons would start.”

Her excitement however, was short-lived and when the Taliban’s decision was announced, she said she burst into tears. 

“I thought I was dreaming when I heard the news. I went to read the news several times, I called my friends, hoping they would tell me it was not true, but unfortunately, it was true. I cried with all my family members. There is nothing I can do and I am still crying and it hurts me. All my dreams were crushed,” Mitra said.

Taliban’s acting higher education minister Neda Mohammad Nadim, however, stated that female students failed to abide by Islamic hijab law, adding: “The full hijab was not observed by female students, men and women were mixed, and female students studied in certain fields that were not good for their honor and dignity.”

The teachings of Islam have encouraged men and women to acquire education, and according to a hadith from the Prophet of Islam, education is considered “obligatory” for men and women.

A cleric, who wished to remain anonymous due to Taliban threats, told Amu TV that the Taliban ban contradicts Islamic teachings. 

“There is not any verse of the Quran that Allah has said that the pursuit of knowledge is forbidden for women, so on what basis did the Taliban give this order? I don’t understand, I only understand that this is against Islam,” he said.

Amu TV has raised the question of why religious scholars cannot enter into a dialogue with the Taliban about this issue. The cleric replied: “They (Taliban) don’t value our words. If we enter into a conflict with them, we have no choice unless they kill us.” 

This comes as religious scholars from around the world have condemned the Taliban’s decision and stated that the Taliban’s move was against Islamic teachings. 

Grand Imam of Al-Azhar Ahmed El-Tayeb was among religious scholars who said that the Taliban’s university ban on women contradicts the Islamic Sharia’s call for men and women to seek education “from cradle to grave.” 

The Taliban’s decision also sparked an outcry from the international community. UN Special Rapporteur Richard Bennett said in a tweet: “To all Afghan women and girls faced with such extreme violations of your rights, I and others stand beside you, pledging to do all we can as your allies. We believe in your right to work and learn as equal human beings. Please don’t give up. We will not.”

Denouncing the Taliban’s move, a number of international aid organizations suspended their operations in Afghanistan. The organizations stated that without female aid workers they cannot deliver life-saving services to millions of Afghans. 

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken also warned that there would be “costs” if the Taliban do not reverse their decision. 

Foreign ministries of 12 countries as well as the United Nations and European Union envoys in a joint statement called on the Taliban to lift the ban on women employees at non-governmental organizations, saying the decision puts at risk millions of lives in Afghanistan.

Shahla, who still fights for women’s rights in Kabul, told Amu TV that she will never give up on efforts for justice.

“Even if they destroy a group [of women], destroy a movement, destroy a number [of people], make them prisoners, detain them, insult them, humiliate them, women will not stop their struggle under any circumstances, and maybe this struggle will remain a legacy for future generations,” she added. 

Afghan women have borne the brunt of the fallout since the Taliban’s takeover as they are not really allowed to work, have no access to education and at this stage, very little hope for their future.