Incredible though it may seem, six months have already passed since the Taliban swept back to power in Afghanistan. In the very first week after the fall of Kabul, Afghan women took to the streets to demand their hard-won rights be upheld. Now in the dead of winter, amid catastrophic food shortages and in an increasingly menacing atmosphere, women have renewed their protests, writing demands on the same city walls that their images were scrubbed from last August. They are also calling on their compatriots and supporters around the world to join them.
The spray-painted challenges to the Taliban are impossible to miss, emblazoned on the walls along public thoroughfares in Kabul, Baghlan, Parwan, Kunduz and Balkh provinces, to name a few. “Taliban! Stop the oppression”, one reads. “I am a woman, work and education are my right”, reads another. Still a third asserts “We do not recognize the Taliban government” while another communicates a simple demand from one half the Afghan population: “Bread, work, freedom.”
Facing pressure from the militants to return to a cloistered existence, this is one way women can keep catching the eyes of passersby. The majority of Afghan women want to study, want to work, want to live independently for the betterment of their country. The creeping oppression of women in Afghan public life is not being taken lightly by all.
The movement began at the grassroots level but is quickly taking on the contours of an organized campaign. One of those spearheading it is Hoda Khamoush, a women’s rights activist who told IranWire this was a simple way for women to ensure their voices were still heard. “The Taliban suppressed our protests every time we tried,” she said. “Many women were harmed in the course of that repression. So we’ve changed the way we fight; now we protest with slogans. The purpose is to draw the attention of society, and of the world, to the violation of women's rights."
Khamoush says activists in Germany, the Netherlands and France have also committed to spray-painting murals in their communities in support of the cause. Inside Afghanistan, she says, “We go out and paint as soon as it gets dark, when the crowds and the Taliban are off the streets. Of course, we’re always afraid of arrest and torture.” She points out that less than a year ago, the Afghan government would have commissioned and paid for real street art by women.
Women’s in-person marches are no longer a regular feature in Afghanistan’s major cities due to the violence they faced from the Taliban. They were also sometimes infiltrated and attacked by other women wearing the officially-sanctioned burqas, supported by the Taliban and its strongest military arm, the Badri Brigade.
Madineh Darvazi is another former marcher who has now resorted to spray-painting. Before the fall of Kabul she had openly worked in women’s rights activism for five years. How long the new movement will last is uncertain, though; Darvazi reports that the Taliban are “increasingly putting pressure” on women graffiti artists too. “A friend tells me the Ministry of Vice and Virtue has issued an arrest warrant for all those who protest.”
This, she says, is a sign their message is cutting through: “The women’s slogans are a signal of their growing movement against the Taliban. They have been effective. They have created fear in the hearts of the Taliban.”
This article was written by a citizen journalist in Herat.