Two days after the Taliban takeover on August 17, 2021, the group’s longtime spokesperson, Zabihullah Mujahid held the first press conference in Kabul, promising to respect women’s rights, among other things. He said, “Women would be allowed to work and study within the “framework of Islam” and without any discrimination. What followed was the effective ban on women’s and girls’ roles in society, with few exceptions, and the imposition of strict restrictions on their rights and freedom.
One month later in September, the Taliban banned girls’ education beyond sixth grade. Seven months later, the Taliban announced that girls could attend secondary education after schools reopened only for the Taliban to send girls back to their homes at the last minute when the ban was reversed. With dashed hopes, girls wept as they desperately returned home and since they are effectively barred from secondary education and above.
Since the September ban, the Taliban has imposed draconian rules and systematic gender discrimination to erase women and girls from public life, which, according to human rights reports, could account for crimes against humanity. The Taliban authorities have, according to UN Special Rapporteur to Afghanistan, Richard Bennett, imposed more than 50 repressive edicts between September 2021 and May 2023, barring women’s and girls’ rights to education, employment, mobility, appearance, civic participation, and impeding other freedoms.
The miserable situation of women in Afghanistan can’t be explained; it is horrible beyond words. The Taliban’s severe restrictions have significantly impacted women physically, psychologically, emotionally, financially, legally, and more. Even so, women no longer feel safe and secure in their private premises.
Mursal Mubashir, former employee of the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission (AIHRC)
She added that the Taliban’s violent campaign of arbitrary arrests, torture, and killing of former employees who served under the previous government and civilians has triggered waves of migration to other countries, which has split families. Moreover, the Taliban’s repressive rules and heightened pressures on family environments have compounded domestic violence against women by their frustrated husbands, resulting in further deprivation of women’s liberties.
Furthermore, the Taliban have committed war crimes and violated other international humanitarian laws against prisoners of war and civilians, including through extrajudicial executions, arbitrary arrests and detention, forced disappearances, torture and abuse, and other ill-treatment. Amnesty International campaigner, Samira Hamidi says that the Taliban has launched an extreme campaign and systematic policy against women to suppress them across the country.
While women and girls continue to face sustained violence, discrimination, and intimidation, the international community has failed to hold the Taliban accountable for the violation of fundamental human rights, including the right to freedom of expression and peaceful assembly.
From street protests to underground resistance
The relentless Taliban bans since the seizure of power nearly two years ago have drawn many women and girls to the last resort: holding peaceful assemblies to demand justice and equality. In the first months following the takeover, the number of street protests and group demonstrations, primarily in Kabul, was growing and diversifying until Taliban security forces turned to violent means to disperse protestors and detain and torture many, including journalists who were providing coverage. As protestors were pushed back and fear of retaliation heightened, protests gradually turned from streets to indoor and symbolic acts of disobedience and dissent. This led many women protestors to go to shelters and underground safe houses while several women protestor’s movements were also formed before and during this time. However, most of the shelters and safe houses were soon identified by Taliban intelligence, and hundreds of women were beaten, arrested, and imprisoned while others went into further hiding and on the constant run.
One of these women protestors is Laila who took an active part in most street protests against the Taliban ban. She says that the persistent crackdowns against women protestors have forced them to change their non-violent methods of protest and political opposition and adapt to new restrictive measures. In doing so, they have used diverse means such as art, dance, painting, and theater to show their opposition and resistance. For example, recently a group of women activists posted a video on social media dancing to a Pashto song as a form of protest while covered in Burqas. The activists are pseudonymized as Katrina, Rauwafa, Sofia, and Lisa. Through this display of resistance, these women activists tried to voice their opposition against the earlier remarks of Taliban’s leader Mullah Hibatullah Akhunzada who claimed that his policies have “reformed” the conditions for women for the good.
Sofia, one of the protestors in the video, says that she will resist against Taliban’s extreme restrictions using any means of resistance and opposition in a bid to change the status quo.
I danced in Burqa to oppose the forced dress code, Burqa, imposed by the Taliban and to draw attention to the plight of women under Taliban rule. It was not an act to seek asylum to safer countries, but rather a protest to reject the cruelty of Taliban rules and their meaningless rhetoric.
Lisa, another protestor in the video, who studied journalism at Kabul University, was working with a media outlet in the country before the Taliban’s restrictive measures radically changed the media landscape, particularly hitting hard women. Lisa lost her job and was mostly restricted at home. Her younger impaired sister, who studied at a private school for children with disabilities, was also confined to home since the Taliban ban on education.
Lisa and her sister are among the millions of girls who are left with an uncertain future as bans against girls and women remain intact. “We die every day. Taliban wants us to remain silent and passive in the face of all odds, but I must resist. And I will fight for the basic rights of women till my last breath. I prefer to die on the streets demanding justice rather than suffering from this miserable life.” Lisa lamented.
Despite the Taliban’s relentless restrictions to intimidate and suppress women protestors, women activists are endeavoring various creative ways and artistic expressions to raise their concerns and plight, particularly online. In recent year, activists have opened exclusive online schools, underground classes, and libraries to help girls and women as the Taliban’s refusal to budge on women’s rights continue to grow. In many ways, these “courageous” and “creative” efforts have challenged some of Taliban policies, as women continue to tap into their non-violent methods and soft approaches despite mounting pressures. These forms of protests are, however, fraught with difficulties.
Underground and online education doesn’t meet most of the needs of students because it is not widespread, lacks necessary support, and comes with risk. It feels like we endure a life of a criminal since we are in constant fear of being discovered, detained, or tortured. It’s very difficult to live such a miserable life and bear such immense limitations only to receive an education which is our basic human right. These restrictions must be lifted so we can resume our normal lives.
Irna, a protestor and education activist, asserted.
Detention and Torture
50-year-old Laila, who teaches at a private school in Kabul, says that the Taliban are using every violent means to suppress and intimidate women protestors, often labeling them “prostitutes”, “Western spies” or those “seeking asylum to foreign countries.” She told that the Taliban have not shunned arrest, torture, and oppressed women since their return to power. She lamented that Taliban fighters beat her brutally after detaining her amid a protest in the Taimani area of Kabul. As a result of severe beatings, Laila’s cervical spine was damaged, and she could hardly move her head.
Moreover, Laila believes that the Taliban has intensified and diversified its violent tactics of targeting women protestors with harassment and abuse, arbitrary arrest and detention, and surveillance. She said, “Dr. Zahra Haqparast was detained from her clinic while I was speaking with her on the phone to prepare a joint statement on the oppression of women that we were supposed to present in an international meeting. Following her arrest, I received several threatening calls from unknown numbers. I broke all my sim cards and immediately went into hiding at a friend’s place. Later, I found that Taliban agents had stormed my home and searched my workplace to find information about my whereabouts.”
This woman protestor added that she left Kabul when her in-laws tried to put her on home arrest. “When I returned to my home after several days, my neighbors and local cleric came to visit me, urging me to quit protesting to avoid troubles with the Taliban. I attempted to abandon my home and flee illegally through the Spin Boldak border town into Pakistan, but I was caught by my in-laws who later locked me in a barn in their home where I was deprived of seeing my children or using a phone to speak to my friends. I was kept there for eight months and, when they were somehow assured that I might have stopped thinking of joining protests, I managed to escape there with my children.”
In Kabul, Laila stated that she is living in a deteriorating condition and the situation is far worse for her children. “The Taliban have put severe pressure on families, asking them to prevent their girls and women from attending protests. These mounting pressures have significantly affected women to organize street protests and thus the number of street protests has dramatically declined. Even women protesting and resisting underground are affected. Nevertheless, this doesn’t mean that we would surrender or we would escape the country. We will not yield to Taliban’s demands against women.”
On November 3, 2022, the Taliban detained Zarifa Yaqubi and four of her male colleagues during a press conference in Western Kabul, and on January 7, 2023, arrested Sultan Ali Ziayee, head of Ray of Hope Organization, from his colleague’s home. Women protestors are concerned that the increasing Taliban pressures and restrictions hinder their ability to hold street protests in larger cities and their creative methods of protests are not resonated well in the mainstream media.
When street protests and marches were violently suppressed, many women protestors went underground to raise their voices and show resistance. The Taliban eventually penetrated these undergrounds, curtailing potential chances for women to gather in large numbers. Additionally, the media didn’t cover most of these indoor protests. For example, Al Jazeera doesn’t recognize underground and symbolic protests so to cover them. For BBC and tens of other outlets, most of these forms of protests are not important. These frustrated protestors had to take matters into their own hands and produce visual content to disseminate information and report their protests to the public.
Mariam Maroof Arwin, a woman protestor
Mursal Mubashir, a former employee of AIHRC, says that women have been deprived of their fundamental human rights under Taliban rule. She believes that women’s protests should therefore continue and should be taken seriously. She stated, “Even if a single woman is protesting indoors, it should be taken seriously because they are not facing a civic group who would allow them peaceful assembly on the streets. They are protesting vis-à-vis a terrorist group that encourages suicide bombers and who views women as slaves and spoils of war. Even if the number of women’s protests has decreased, it is still encouraging and promising. This in no way should mean that women will yield to the oppression and brutality of the Taliban regime. Human rights reports on the dire situation of women protestors detained, tortured, and sexually assaulted in Taliban detentions testify how these women are facing extreme pressures.”
Mubashir emphasized that the international community not only left women on their own by turning a blind eye to their plight, but they have soared their suffering by engaging with the Taliban. She said that the earlier remarks of UN Deputy Amina Mohammad who said they “could find baby steps” to recognize the Taliban signals that the dire situation of women in Afghanistan is not a major concern for the international community.
Following the mass protests in September 2021, the Taliban started to prohibit street protests unless permission is granted by the group for organizing such protests. The statement said that people should avoid holding protests and demonstrations without the prior permission of the group’s Ministry of Justice or face the consequences. In the aftermath of this official notice, many women protestors were detained and imprisoned, thus preventing many more to hold street protests in large numbers.
Extreme Mental Pressure
Batool Haidari, an expert psychologist, has expressed deep concerns over the worsening situation of women, including women protestors, as a result of severe Taliban restrictions. Haidari says that aside from physical violence, the Taliban have used various forms of psychological pressure to suppress women protestors, which has exacerbated the mental health conditions of these women.
These severe forms have fostered mental health pressures, and domestic and social violence which have caused most women to think that their families, not the Taliban, are the reasons for their miseries. This is mainly because most families, fearful of Taliban retribution, do not support their girls protesting on the streets and in some cases have compounded pressures on the female members of their homes to prevent them from participation.
Samira Hamidi also believes that most families have tried to prevent female members to participate in street protests and have carried out restrictive measures to limit their access to these assemblies because they fear being detained or tortured by the Taliban.
In a meeting on May 7, 2022, Zabihullah Mujahid said that women should not be seen in public spaces wearing makeup, rather they are obliged to Islamic hijab and warned of serious actions against those who would forbid it. Mohammad Khalid Hannafi, Taliban’s minister of vice and virtue, called it an “obligatory rule of Sharia law” and warned that men would face punishment – three-day imprisonment and termination of employment – if their wives failed to obey this rule.
Some of the women who had experienced punishment in Taliban prisons confirmed that they were only released after their families signed guarantees with the Taliban authorities. Many women protestors were also put under home arrest. These women were restricted from protesting because of the safety of their family members who had guaranteed their release.
Haidari highlighted that women protestors are also facing pressures and restrictions from their family members because of “honor” and “social reputation” issues while reports indicate that these pressures often lead to forced marriages. Haidari added that this has set negative examples for other women and girls who fear that they might go through similar experiences if they participated in protests.
Moreover, this expert psychologist noted that the mental health conditions of women protestors are further worsened when they see some women activists “lobbying” for the Taliban on their behalf on the international stage. “These events sadly exacerbate the psychological and emotional conditions of women protestors, leading to hopelessness and frustration. This is one of the main reasons that many women choose to setback from resistance and opposition and some even go on to whitewash the dire situation under Taliban rule.»
Struggle for Unity
Other than physical and mental pressures from the Taliban, many believe that a lack of unity and cohesion among women and a lack of public spaces for meaningful dialogue are also the reasons behind the decline in women’s protests and lack of motivation for social resistance.
Mariam Maroof Arwin, one of the women protestors, said, “Unfortunately, women protestors lack cohesion and a united front. There is not only a wide communication gap between women leaders who served in the last two decades and women protestors on the ground who are resisting on the frontlines, but also a sense of opportunism when some of these leaders try to exploit the cause for their benefits or to lobby for the Taliban. Moreover, the impetus for protests has been abating due to the Taliban’s extreme restrictions. And women who were forced to go underground has fewer effective means of communication with outside for security and safety reasons. Consequently, these factors have led many to view underground protests as not effective and even unrealistic. Thus, silence is prevailing.”
However, Zholia Parsi believes that many women protestor movements and coalitions maintain great layers of unity and communication and often take collective actions through consultations. “It is only the women leaders whom women protestors don’t maintain unity with because these leaders are trying to engage with the Taliban for their benefits similar to what they were doing under the republican government.”
Sosan Hamidi, who worked with human rights groups, believes that a major shortfall of the women protestor’s movements during the nearly two years is that it was “spontaneous” and “without an effective leadership”. She said that the widespread and systematic crackdown by the Taliban radially affected these movements and thus contributed to their decline.
Tarannum Saeedi, another woman protestor, views the efforts of women protestors as reasonable, saying that these protestors have drawn the attention of the international community toward the plight of women under Taliban rule. She believes that one of the main reasons for the lack of international motivation to recognize the Taliban regime is owed to these protests. However, she added that it is not enough. “The road to resistance and eventual justice is long since many countries still are interested to engage with the Taliban.”
Arwin, on the other hand, emphasized the inclusivity and diversity of these protests. She said, “Unless we don’t witness positive changes in the situation of women in the country, women should continue with their protests, including through educational means. These protests should fill the existing gaps that have provided opportunities for Taliban lobbyists. Protests should continue wisely, coordinated, and with a united front in a bid to shrink protestors’ risks in the face of unyielding restrictions.”