Afghan women take to the streets to defy Taliban

Many are stepping out of their homes as an act of rebellion

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It has taken only three days to completely transform the lives of women in Kabul.

The mere act of stepping out of their homes has become an almost insurmountable challenge, they told The National.

Since the Taliban captured the Afghan capital on Sunday, many women in the country have retreated indoors, fearing the wrath of the fundamentalist group.

But many defiant women are stepping out of their homes as an act of rebellion.

We should not give up. Let us see who tries to stop us. How many women will they kill?
Female activist in Kabul

“We cannot let them imprison us again, we have to make a stand now,” said Maryam, a Kabul resident aged 24. Her name has been changed to protect her identity.

The Taliban, who control the majority of Afghanistan, are known to repress women’s freedoms. During their regime in the 1990s and in areas they continued to control after 2001, they imposed strict rules limiting women’s presence in public spaces.

Women were not allowed to go to school or work. They were forbidden to leave homes without a male guardian and, even when they did go out, had to dress in a full hijab.

However, after the Taliban’s fall in 2001 at the hands of a US-led coalition, Afghan women were empowered and built a strong presence in social and political spheres.

“It has been like hell for me. I can’t get over the shock," Maryam, a social activist and a vocal critic of the militant group, said of its return to power.

“I have worked in provinces where the Taliban had control in the past and had experienced to some degree how they treat women,” she said.

She added that she was recently in one of the northern provinces that fell to the Taliban last month.

Who are the Taliban leaders?

Who are the Taliban leaders?

“I left when things got worse and came to Kabul. I did not expect that this would happen in Kabul,” she said.

But Maryam and her colleagues are determined not to allow the Taliban to lock them up as they did before. In small groups on social media platforms, the women gather to discuss the crisis.

They exchange notes on conditions in various parts of the city, and then agree on a plan to step outside. “Girls, let's come out and walk the street,” Maryam tells the others.

“We should not give up. Let us see who tries to stop us. How many women will they kill?” she says.

Others share advice on how to be safe when out and about. “Cover yourself, and record everything when you are outside,” they say. “If we stand together they have to accept us.”

But with the extremist group's return to power, many Afghan women fear they will be targeted for their mere identity, not just by the Taliban but also by the more conservative elements in society.

“I have heard from friends that their fathers and brothers are restricting their movement, some out of concern for their safety, but many are using this opportunity to suppress the women,” Maryam told The National.

The end of 'vibrant Kabul'

Maryam did step out of her house on Tuesday after days of fear and anxiety. Outside, she saw a very different Kabul than the one she had last seen when she rushed home on Saturday.

“The streets were empty and many shops, particularly cafes and restaurants, were still shut. There were Taliban fighters everywhere,” she recalled. There were a few women like her without a male escort but in the traditional Afghan burqa on the streets, she said.

“It was not the vibrant Kabul we know.”

In the Taliban's first press conference on Tuesday, spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid told the media that they were committed to providing women with their rights, based on Islam.

“Women can work in the health sector and other sectors where they are needed,” he said.

However, in many provinces there have been reports that the Taliban have already forbidden women from leaving their homes. Women in Herat reported being sent back from their workplaces, told their services were no longer needed.

In Kabul, Maryam was able to walk the street for only 15 to 20 minutes. “I walked past the Taliban, head held high. They didn’t do anything but I know it is because right now they know all eyes are on them so they won’t beat women on the street right now to save their image in the international media,” she said.

“But there is no guarantee that they will give us our rights in the future. If anything, once the lens moves away from Kabul, they will target us."

But many are not giving up without a fight, in some cases, literally.

Reports from Nangarhar province on Tuesday claimed that an Afghan woman in Jalalabad city had been killed by Taliban gunmen following an argument.

One local journalist in Jalalabad told The National on condition of anonymity that when they enquired about the killing, they were told by the Taliban fighters that she was killed accidentally.

“They said that this girl was kidnapped by thieves, and was escaping her captors, but the Taliban mistook her as a hostile woman and shot her,” they said.

However, the source added that local witnesses gave a different account.

“The woman was travelling in an auto rickshaw and got into an argument with a Taliban fighter, I saw it with my own eyes, and he shot her,” they told the journalist. The source added that the Taliban would not allow any local people to remove her body from the area.

“I don’t know what they fought about or why they killed her, but all she did was raise her voice,” they said.

Maryam, who is encouraging women to get out, is cautious about her own safety. “I talk to my friends and we are terrified. We are all still in shock. An evil has taken over our city and we will not even be recognised as human,” she said.

Updated: August 19, 2021, 4:35 AM