On Thursday, September 2, a large group of Afghan women gathered in the city of Herat to hold their first demonstration under the Taliban. The participants held up placards and expressed their demands: security, and the upholding of women’s rights to study and work in all fields. One sign read: "Don’t be afraid! We are all together".
Then on Friday a group of Afghan women in Kabul held their own rallies in support of the same cause, demanding the Taliban honor the principle of gender equality. In a video posted on Twitter by women’s rights activist group Bidarzani, several Taliban fighters can be seen engaging the group and trying to disrupt the protest.
Afghanistan is going through turbulent days. As Taliban officials have said, the group sees its version of "Islamic law" as the foundational principle of the new government. In practice this means restricting all aspects of public life, especially for women. Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid has now confirmed women will have no place in the new cabinet.
In Kabul and Herat, women have taken to the streets to defend the fruits of two decades of relative freedom. Despite now living in fear and panic, they left their homes and shouted egalitarian slogans aimed at the new rulers of their country. Although many Afghans have fled in recent weeks, many more have remained and are already taking part in resistance. The women in Herat women gathered in front of the governor's office to shout their demands. The Taliban could not stop the crowd and simply watched from the sidelines.
Speaking to IranWire, the organizers of the Herat event stressed this rally was showing the “true” face of Afghan women who would never allow the Taliban to impose its will on them. Farkhunda Haqyar told IranWire she was “disregarding” the Taliban’s presence entirely and wanted to see educated Afghan women get back into work. "I advise the Taliban to abandon their anti-feminist views,” she said. “This group will never be able to govern without the participation of women. At the beginning of the Islamic Emirate, the Taliban claimed to respect women's rights, but now, a few weeks later, the presence of women is going ignored.”
The Taliban has already held several large conferences in Kandahar province in southern Afghanistan and Kabul without any women present. During their previous rule, the Taliban excluded women from all spheres of public life and deprived them of their most basic rights, including education and employment. Recent events have sparked fears of a return to that “Dark Age”.
In Kabul, the protesters also demanded the Taliban recognise women’s right to education and work. One of the participants, Maryam, told IranWire she was working in a government office in the city when the Taliban swept in. She hasn’t been allowed back: “The Taliban should not obstruct our work and education. No one has the right to do that. Taliban officials need to understand that the Afghan woman has changed. Now, no one can force her."
Women being turned away from their workplaces has been happening just at a time when many were the sole breadwinners for their families. Their being prevented from working could place entire households under threat. Masoumeh, another participant in the Herat rally, used to work in the Agriculture Department before the fall of Kabul. Since then she, too, has been out of a job. "During this time, I’ve been borrowing money from my relatives to feed my five children," she told IranWire. "If the Taliban don’t allow me to keep working, my children will go hungry. I will stand up to the Taliban to the last to restore the legitimate rights of Afghan women. Our protests will continue until we return to school and work."
Maulvi Shira Ahmad Ammar, the Taliban's deputy governor in Herat, told IranWire after the protests that women would be allowed back into public and private offices in the coming days: "The Taliban will never deprive women of the right to education and work”. But the Afghan public, and especially women, are sceptical. The Taliban has already rowed back on one promise regarding women’s rights, and this week also tried to block women from working in Herat Industrial Town. The governor also insisted there was no problem with women working in this zone.
In recent weeks, the Taliban have enacted various laws ahead of the reopening of Afghan universities, including gender segregation in academic spaces, to the chagrin of many students. One Herat University told IranWire that at their institution, “there was a shortage of teachers and classrooms, even before the fall of the government. If the Taliban separate the boys' and girls' classes, we’ll need even more teachers and resources. And the buildings and classrooms need to be repaired. The Taliban do not have the budget for this, especially after paying teachers’ salaries.” Unsurprisingly, the Taliban has told Herat University professors that their salaries will be reduced to less than $100 a month. Professors previously earned between $300 and $700 a month.
Women's confrontation with the Taliban on the streets of Afghanistan comes at a time when many have living memory of Taliban violence. But two decades of liberation from the shackles of extremism, and the growth of the media and education system, seem to have empowered many to resist and defend their gains. Women's rallies and demonstrations have been widely welcomed by social media users, who have shared countless messages of resistance and hope.