Afghan women driven to risk Taliban’s wrath by dressing as men

'I had to speak up' says single mother who decided to fight back after rules imposed by Afghanistan’s new rulers made life impossible

Women in Kabul dress as men earlier this month to protest against restrictive rules imposed by the Taliban

Dressed in a loose-fitting shirt and trousers, the traditional attire of men in Afghanistan, Rabia Balkhi navigated the streets of Kabul discreetly, her face covered with a mask at all times and her head down to avoid eye contact.

Divorced and raising a child alone, the 29-year-old was forced to dress as a man to escape attention from the Taliban, the hardline Islamist group who imposed severe restrictions on women after they seized power in August.

“Being a woman in Afghanistan is difficult, but it is worse for a single mother. And since the Taliban takeover, it has become harder,” Rabia said.

Now in hiding with her daughter, she spoke to The National on condition of anonymity, asking to use the name of a renowned female poet from Afghan history instead.

Rabia Balkhi walks down a street in Kabul dressed in traditional Afghan men's clothing.

“When the Taliban took over my city, my ex-husband asked them to hand over my child to him. They began to threaten me and wanted to forcefully marry me off again, so I came to Kabul,” she said.

Rabia used to work in the offices of NGOs until the Taliban takeover. In Kabul, she survived on her savings and financial and food assistance collected from aid organisations.

Life became even more difficult in late December when the Taliban barred women from leaving home without a mahram – a male guardian.

“I lived alone, taking care of myself and my child. I was scared when I saw the Taliban were telling taxi drivers to not accept women travelling alone,” she said, referring to videos circulated online this month showing the extremists stopping motorists in Kabul to enforce their new rules, including mandatory beards for men.

Pushed to the limit, Rabia decided to protest. On New Year’s Day she asked a friend to take photos of her dressed in her men’s clothes and holding up a sign that read, “I am a woman. I don’t have a mahram”, and posted them online.

“At first, I could only think how I was responsible for my kid, and if something happened to me it would hurt my child. But then I thought of the many women like me who did not have a mahram and could not speak up,” she said.

“I could no longer remain silent. So I decided to join the revolution,” she said, referring to the many other women who have staged protests against the Taliban regime since last year.

Rabia’s photos went viral within hours and other women joined her online protest by posting similar photos of themselves in male attire.

Afghan women pose for a photo in men's clothing in a form of protest started by Rabia Balkhi to oppose restrictions imposed on women by Afghanistan's Taliban rulers.

“We want to show the Taliban that they can not prevent us from doing what is our right by imposing restrictions,” one of the protesters, who asked to be identified by the pseudonym Lily Hamidi, told The National.

“These rules are very difficult for all women, but especially women who do not have a mahram. What are they supposed to do?

“Even women who have mahrams cannot accept this and depend on a man who might not be available 24 hours a day to do her work,” she said.

“We don’t want to be limited this way, and I don’t want the Taliban to govern my clothes. I do not accept the obligatory burqa."

Rabia was identified by the Taliban and was arrested at her home days after her photos went viral. Some of the other women who joined her protest, including Lily, are no longer contactable.

“They held me for two hours, questioning me about other protesters, and even slapped me several times. They eventually let me go, and I picked up my daughter and went into hiding,” Rabia said.

“I’ve lost everything – my job, my home and my country. But when faced with such ludicrous rules, I had no option,” she said.

“I held the poster so the world would know the situation Afghan women are in, forced to give up their very identity. I did it knowing full well the risks it would put me in, because I had to speak up.”

Updated: January 25, 2022, 6:40 AM