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‘I fought so hard for my rights’

Afghan women organize protests in Kabul, following the undemocratic takeover of the state apparatus by the Taliban.

It didn’t take long for the Taliban to strip women and girls of basic rights after the repressive regime took over Afghanistan. The group is now recognized as a legitimate government by the US and international community, after the US and its allies withdrew from Afghanistan, as a result of the so-called peace process.

Stripped of their rights to democracy overnight, Afghans now have a government they did not vote for. Women have been left with no right to an independent future based on their own terms. Secondary schools have been re-opened, but only for boys. Teachers are not allowed to go to work, the Ministry of Women’s Affairs has been expunged, and UNICEF suggests that 2 million children are at risk of starvation. Having lived under the Taliban regime from 1996 to 2011, these were the fears that Afghans had dreaded and warned Joe Biden’s US administration about, along with its international allies. However, their requests and concerns were unheeded.

While only 30 per cent of women can read in Afghanistan, the right to education brought hope for a better future and changed the social status of many. For many women, what has happened feels like a betrayal and some have taken to the streets in protest, including 25-year-old Sorya Karimi.

Karimi first held a one-person protest in August, standing outside a police station in Kabul. She shared photos on social media and more women said they wanted to join her and they formed an impromptu campaign group. The next protest had around 10 people; the following one, on 8 September, was made up of 80 women.

‘I had no intention to organize a protest,’ Karimi said. ‘I spoke to my friends and decided I didn’t want to remain silent about what we had lost in terms of women’s rights. I crafted a banner and stood with it outside the police station. At first I was all alone, but suddenly I saw many women were joining me.

‘Participating in a demonstration, while the Taliban has taken control of the country, is like being ready to be killed at any moment to be never returned back home‘. We have accepted losing our lives through fighting and taking back what is ours.

‘We are not the people we used to be. We don’t have an identity. We can’t choose how to dress. We can’t speak up like before. I fought so hard for my rights but today I can’t even walk on the street. I have to cover my face. I can’t go to work. I can’t study anymore. I had to fight back.’

The September protest was met with violence, as Karimi describes: ‘There were many national journalists who covered the protests. We saw that the Taliban tried to arrest the male journalists. We [young women protesters] formed a circle and tried to resist their arrests, but we couldn't. Since the Taliban is not allowed to physically touch us because we are women, they retaliated by whipping us and injuring many of us. We soon dispersed from the place. We were stopped from expressing our demands even though we were not armed.’

As a result of the protest Karimi is now in hiding, fearing for her life: ‘The representative of my local Guzar Assembly informed me that the Taliban had visited him with a picture of me from the protests, asking him to say whether I reside in the locality.

We have been advocating for 10 years to prevent today from happening

‘The Taliban has announced that demonstrations are illegal and they will arrest anyone protesting. That is why for the moment we decided to stop but we are not going to be silent. We have our plans for the future. We continue our activism through writing, and speaking with people.’

Despite the repugnant and repulsive attacks against them, Afghan girls and women have long been at the forefront of resisting offences against democracy and freedom. Afghan women negotiated anti-violence legislations such as the Elimination of Violence Against Women (EVAW) law, United Nations Security Council Resolution 1325, saved lives by working in the health sector as doctors and nurses, and ran the economy by working in farms and factories.

In the last two years, deadly attacks have gripped Afghanistan’s capital city. In May 2020, a brutal massacre carried out by gunmen at a maternity ward killed 24 people – including 16 mothers. In November 2020, at least 22 people were killed at Kabul University after attackers opened fire. On 8 May this year an all-girls school was bombed in western Kabul leaving at least 90 people dead. There have been hundreds of people injured in these attacks and Afghans have been left traumatized.

Now several reports predict that, after the Taliban takeover, Afghanistan is on the brink of famine. The situation is going to get worse with an economic crisis looming overhead. Half of the population of Afghanistan need humanitarian assistance.

Stopping women from working will have a devastating impact on their families, as Karimi explains: ‘There are lots of female-headed households since there have been many years of war where we lost male members of the family. How are they going to feed their family?’ We have to work and earn money to feed our families”

When asked about the future, Karimi responded: ‘I want to make this point clear that when we demonstrate for women’s participation in the government, we do not mean that the Taliban should bring in women covered with black niqabs supporting the Taliban – we don’t want this to happen. We want women whom we feel can represent us and our values.’

Recently, a group of approximately 300 Afghan women wearing black niqabs and burqas (full covering veils from head to toe) staged a protest pledging commitment to the new Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan (the Taliban) and its hard-line policies on gender segregation. The move was largely criticized by other Afghan women who felt this action did not represent the views of the majority. Samira Hamidi, an Amnesty International campaigner from Afghanistan, currently based in Sri Lanka explained: ‘The Taliban need to acknowledge women are half of the population. They have been an important actor. They need to stop accusing women of being the puppets of the West. If women were politically engaged, it was because they wanted to be.’

The idea that the Taliban version 2.0 is better than version 1.0 is far fetched and there is no reason for any optimism that the Taliban will change their policies and promote women’s rights, especially when women have been their prime targets. Harmful practices such as baadal (child and exchange marriage) and baad (giving away girls to settle disputes) will likely to flourish under the guise of Sharia Law.

While Karimi remains in hiding, many girls and women are continuing to take to the streets to defy fundamentalism and extremism.

‘Afghan women are not the same as they were in 1990,’ says Hamidi. ‘Afghanistan was a broken country when the Taliban took over. Now, women have education. They are more aware of their rights. It’s very courageous of them to go in front of a group who can simply shoot you. Women are saying enough is enough.

‘Under this regime I see nothing else for women but darkness, terror, extreme violence. Though I hope for better that is why we are still standing and trying. I don’t know why the international community is silent. Do they want to walk on our dead bodies?’

The political gains negotiated by Afghan women in the past two decades cannot be sustained unless the international community jointly addresses fundamentalism and gives it support to introduce secular democracy in Afghanistan. We must ensure that the Taliban is not recognized as a legitimate government.

‘Afghan women’s own struggle have not received much recognition,’ says Hamidi. ‘We were pushing for laws, providing technical support, convincing the government why the EVAW law should be adapted.

‘I am shattered. I question myself was it worth it? Was the 20 years old struggle worth it? Our struggles were sold. We have been advocating for 10 years to prevent today from happening. We wanted inclusive peace.

‘They [international donors] should conditionlize their support saying you have to have specific rights for Afghan women such as women inclusion, participation, decision making roles.’

It is clear from that the Taliban hasn’t changed. However, Afghan women have and it seems like they will continue to fight for the gains they have made in the past decades.

The women in this piece have explicitly said they want their names published.


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