Photo by HOSHANG HASHIMI / AFP
The Afghan women are seen carrying signs and heard chanting slogans. They’re standing next to a road in Kabul, with busy traffic and honking cars. Some Taliban men are watching them from behind.
“Women’s rights are equal to men,” the women say.
In the background, one of the men appears to spot the person shooting the video. He raises his rifle and approaches the camera. Then the camera pans to the ground, as the person filming runs away. From across the road, the camera refocuses upward towards the protest. By this time, the protesters are dispersed and no longer chanting. The man with a gun has done his job.
In another video, women are heard screaming and coughing, their hands covering their mouths in an attempt not to inhale any more tear gas.
Around them are armed men in fatigues, clutching their rifles. Other men stand idly by, watching.
“We want our rights!,” a woman screams in between fits of coughs.
The third video is quieter. It simply shows a woman wearing a black hijab, looking forlorn, sitting on a chair. There is blood dripping from the top of the right side of her head down to her cheek.
Shot over the weekend, the videos paint a picture of a protest mounted by Afghan women before they were violently stopped by the Taliban with their rifles and tear gas.
Ever since the Taliban took control of Kabul on August 15, women in the country have been concerned about their rights under the Islamic fundamentalist group.
On Friday, September 3, the first round of protests resulted in the person filming the demonstration getting beaten up. When the women returned on Saturday, in bigger numbers, it was no longer just those with cameras who were targeted.
“On the first day of the protests, the number of women was less, probably due to fear,” Sharbat, a 30-year-old protester told VICE World News. She estimated about 20 attendees. That number, she said, more than doubled to around 50 the next day. “The number increased and more women found the guts to join us. On the second day, they [the Taliban] were more violent and even used tear gas on us.”
The women attempted to march to the presidential palace but were prevented by the Taliban.
“They broke our cameras, deleted our photos, and claimed that the protesters wanted to enter a prohibited vicinity while we were on the road but we did not enter any prohibited area,” she added.
Sharbat said they were beaten with rifle butts and sticks, and dispersed with tear gas.
“Some were bleeding. We took them to the hospital and they are well now, but they are emotionally hurt and sustained mental pain that cannot be forgotten until death,” she said.
Tamra, 26, who also attended the protests, said the Taliban had pointed their rifles towards them, but did not shoot. She knew that taking to the street would be a huge risk. The Taliban after all was “bloodthirsty,” she said, the same group that “killed and massacred our compatriots, and oppressed innocent women and children,” but even then, she said she came to the protests in Kabul even if it could cost her her life.
“The violation of our rights, our elimination and being ignored in society caused us to put aside our fear. Even if we are killed, we must raise our voice for justice,” she said.
The Taliban maintains the protests got out of control. Enamullah Samangani, a member of Taliban's Cultural Commission, said in an interview that the incident was a “minor issue,” and reiterated that “it's not in our policy to hurt women.” In previous statements, Samangani has insisted that Afghan women have no reason to be afraid and that their rights will be respected, as the group attempts to show Afghans and the international community that they are less extreme than they were when they last ruled Afghanistan 20 years ago.
He said that “what happened was a misunderstanding and we will look into this.”
It had all started on WhatsApp.
Three weeks ago, Afghan women – academic, doctors, economists, activists – started to exchange messages of doubts, fear, and worry as they hid in their homes when the Taliban overthrew the U.S.-backed Afghan government. First, they were hopeful. The Taliban vowed that under their rule, women would still be allowed to participate as normal in society.
But soon, the optimism waned, as reports started to trickle in of women being turned away from their workplaces. On the streets, images of women were erased, and women were told to go home. Their fears stem from the history of oppression when the Taliban ruled in the 90s. Since the Taliban were overthrown in 2001, women made exponential progress as they were able to attend school, earn degrees, and work in various fields including in government. The Taliban’s return to power is raising fears that women’s achievements from the last two decades will be erased.
So, when discussions about the new government took place and not a single woman was present, the WhatsApp messages became more and more distressed.
On Friday, the women finally mounted a protest.
“We decided that silence and hiding in the home is not the solution,” Tamra, who used to work for a French-funded company said. “We wanted to raise our voices against injustice and their willingness to waste and forget half of society. These injustices and forgetting of women led us to protest.”
The women had hoped they would be able to speak to a Taliban representative. Their demands, Tamra said, are simple: just basic citizenship rights. Like men, they want to maintain their right to work; education; freedom; political, social, economic, cultural participation; and presence in the cabinet and high government positions.
The protests from the weekend follow at least three other earlier all-women’s protests across Afghanistan in the capital and Herat, since the Taliban took power. The most recent demonstrations were the only ones reported to have resulted in violence, reflective of the mixed messages the Taliban have been sending regarding women over the past weeks.
“Our protest was a civil protest. The Taliban claimed they are changed and will allow women their rights, and we wanted to see whether the Taliban would keep their promises,” said Sharbat, who was a former government employee. “But we witnessed the Taliban have not changed.”
The violence appears to have left a mark.
As reality sinks in of what life could be under the Taliban, Sharbat said they “won’t let our voices remain unheard,” but said they “will continue our fight through social networks and media.” She also pleaded for more support both domestically and internationally.
“We request our Afghan men also to join us. Unfortunately not only did the men not help us, but they even stood against us on social media and insulted us with bad words,” she said.
She also asked world leaders not to recognise the Taliban as a legitimate government until the group has recognised their rights. “The Taliban show they behave well with people only to attract financial aid, to unfreeze their money and receive foreign help, but we can see they are not changed and they are still against women which we proved in our protest.”
Tamra said this support is a matter of life or death for “the oppressed and forgotten women of Afghanistan.”
“If you do not support us, the Taliban will not respond to our demands,” she said. “Sooner or later, they will shoot us.”
Names have been changed for their protection.
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