Afghan women, undeterred by Taliban, secretly network for change
Female activists are secretly building support networks for marginalised women in Taliban-governed Afghanistan.
For months, Shamail Naseri has been moving house-to-house to evade arrest by Taliban authorities. Her crime: Raising her voice to protect Afghan women who have faced increasing marginalisation since the Taliban came to power in August 2021.
“The Taliban attempted twice to arrest me, but it was unsuccessful. I hid and switched off my phone, and they could not find me,” Naseri told Al Jazeera by phone from an undisclosed location in the capital Kabul.
The Taliban promised women’s rights and free speech when they stormed to power. But Afghanistan’s new rulers have gone back on their promises, imposing curbs on women’s movement, introducing dress codes for women, and shutting down high schools for girls – bringing back memories of their repressive rule in the 1990s.
Naseri, along with other women’s activists, has been actively involved in providing support to vulnerable Afghan women after the Taliban-led Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan government dissolved critical state support structures like the Ministry of Women’s Affairs and after key organisations, including the largest network of women’s shelters in the country, closed their doors.
Despite the threats to her safety, Naseri remains undeterred in her mission, and unlike all the other Afghanistan-based activists in this story, felt comfortable sharing her full name publicly.
“[These threats] will not stop me, and I will continue,” she said.
While women-led street protests in Afghanistan have attracted worldwide attention, behind the scenes, female activists have steadily been building support networks for marginalised women, creating grassroots organisations, documenting cases of gender-based violence, and opening safe spaces for women in various parts of the country.
Slowly making strides
Although women advocates are slowly making strides in organising themselves in Afghanistan, these efforts remain limited in scope and geography, and according to experts, are as of yet unable to fill the immense gap in women’s services in the country.
“At the moment this is a very big need for women, so we cannot just give up,” said Duniya, a Kabul-based coordinator with a local NGO in Afghanistan who asked not to be identified using her real name for security reasons. “We are at least trying to do something by taking some risk.”
The Taliban’s takeover of Afghanistan has led to a 28 percent decrease in women’s employment in the country, according to the United Nations, and rates of domestic violence, forced disappearances, torture of peaceful women protesters, and other forms of gender-based violence have risen sharply since the group’s return to power, according to Amnesty International and other human rights organisations.
Duniya’s organisation had established a grassroots network across 20 of Afghanistan’s 34 provinces that promoted democratic values, women’s rights, and solutions to gender-based violence over the past decade.
But during the past year, the group’s offices were shuttered, many members fled the country, and according to Duniya, several activists with whom her NGO was working on a temporary basis were arrested for months, although they have since been released.
As many international donors pulled out of Afghanistan and as United States sanctions against the Taliban government hampered humanitarian aid efforts, many foreign NGOs fled the country as well, in some cases even reportedly leaving behind their own staff.
But Afghan women inside and outside the country have come forward to fill the gap. In December 2021, Duniya’s NGO was able to reopen its doors and resume operations after negotiating with Taliban officials in 14 provinces.
“The Taliban said ‘OK, as long as you’re not doing some meetings against Islam, as long as you’re not encouraging or mobilising people against us, go ahead and continue your activities,” said Nargis Nehan, Afghanistan’s former acting Minister of Mines, Petroleum and Industries, who is currently based in Canada and serves as the lead researcher for VOICE, an NGO. Among other initiatives, Nehan has been helping to reconnect women activists in organisations like Duniya’s with international donors.
According to Duniya, organisers have been able to do this partially by framing their efforts in Islamic terms that make them appear more acceptable to the Taliban, but also by obscuring some activities the Taliban would likely find intolerable.
A new safe space for women
The Taliban has assured women’s rights within the ambit of Islamic law, initially promising that women would have the right to education and work. But the group later justified its action against women based on its interpretation of Islamic law.
One of these highly sensitive efforts is a new safe space for women in Paktia province in eastern Afghanistan where the group’s members have secretly been registering cases of gender-based violence since July. Duniya claimed local officials are unaware of the true nature of their work, and believe it is a generic counseling centre.
“Most of the activities that we are doing, most of them are hidden from the government,” she said about the space in Paktia, mentioning rights awareness trainings for women, gender-specific case resolution sessions, and more. “We are not letting them know about the exact content of the activities we are doing.”
Organisations in other parts of Afghanistan, such as in Herat, in the country’s west, are also continuing to work among local women through capacity building and public awareness efforts.
“Despite the security problems, I am still present in the scene and continue my work,” said Arezo, an activist who heads a network of women leaders in Herat and is also involved in a high school education project for 150 girls.
“I must be a symbol for others. Having a common pain brings us closer to each other.”
‘Women’s rights are guaranteed’
Mufti Abdul Mateen Qani, the Taliban government’s spokesperson and adviser for policy at the Ministry of Information and Culture, denied that there were any problems with women’s rights and their right to organise socially in the country.
“Women are active in all ministries, organisations and sectors,” he told Al Jazeera, despite the fact that even though women working for the Afghan state have not formally been fired, they have been barred from entering workplaces and have had their pay slashed.
“They live according to their wishes in Afghanistan, and there is no shortage or deficiency in securing their rights.”
When asked about why the Taliban dismantled the Ministry of Women’s Affairs and instead set up the Ministry for the Propagation of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice in its place, Qani stated that “there is no need” for a ministry dedicated to women because “in Afghanistan, women’s rights are guaranteed”.
Earlier this month, the Ministry for the Propagation of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice banned women from gyms and parks after accusing them of violating gender segregation and dress code rules.
Duniya and other women’s activists say they avoid organising sessions by women-led civil society organisations publicly, and instead plan their meetings and conferences in secret.
She said that thankfully, her NGO has been able to raise some funds through grants and with the help of several international donors who were a part of its external network before the Taliban’s return to power and have been able to continue providing support for Duniya’s NGO afterward.
But Naseri and other activists continue to face funding issues as international aid and support dried up in the wake of the US sanctions following the Taliban’s return to power.
Several women organisers said that on top of security issues, they are forced to work without any kind of budget to support even the most basic of initiatives, and often have to scrape by with only the bare essentials.
In addition to her presence at past demonstrations, Naseri runs an NGO that is registering economically vulnerable women with international charity organisations and gathering funds from international organisations to provide free classes to financially disadvantaged men and women in rural Afghan provinces like Bamiyan, Daykundi, Ghazni, and others.
Her NGO was recently involved in an initiative to house women demonstrators who were expelled from universities after staging protests against the pattern of violence against ethnic Hazara and threats to women’s education following a suicide attack in a Hazara neighbourhood of Kabul that left 19 dead in September.
‘Afghan women are together now’
Sahar, an activist based in Kabul, participated in the recent protests demanding safety and security for women in the wake of the September attack targeting women students.
She fled from Daykundi province in central Afghanistan fearing a threat to her life. She was involved there in efforts to promote education for women and children for years. She still lives underground due to fear of arrest after she was nearly discovered by Taliban authorities in Kabul.
“We are all in danger and our lives are in danger,” Sahar said. “We live secretly.”
Nevertheless, she remains actively involved with the Afghan Women’s Participation Network, a movement that has organised community-building efforts and demonstrations against restrictions on women’s employment and the removal of women from government posts.
Sahar says the group provides a wide range of services to women like support for victims of gender-based violence, counseling, and personalised, needs-based guidance, and includes members from a wide swathe of social groups and professions.
“In this network there are people from all walks of life — psychology doctors, gynaecology doctors, paediatricians, even people who are transgender,” Sahar said. “Everyone works together equally in line for each other.”
Zaman Sultani, a South Asia researcher with Amnesty International, stated that despite the presence of local organisations and safe spaces for women in the country, the government’s restrictions mean that the structures that exist are far from sufficient.
“Some civil society organisations are still in Afghanistan; they are working,” Sultani said. “But their capacity is in no way [adequate] to respond to the situation on the ground. It may exist a little here and there, but the ground reality requires much more than what is available.”
Zahra Joya fled Afghanistan when the Taliban took over, and is now based in London. She has founded Rukhshana Media, which documents the stories of Afghan women facing abuse at the hands of both the government and the men in their lives.
Joya detailed growing reports of such violence in the public and private spheres from Afghan women with whom she is constantly in touch.
“As we are in touch with ordinary women, they are sending me messages, they are calling me,” she said about reports she is receiving from women about rampant gender-based violence.
Her media outlet has been in contact with people like a woman who was beaten by Taliban guards while trying to cross the Afghanistan-Iran border for not wearing a head covering they deemed appropriate. The outlet has also covered the high-profile case of Elaha Dilawarzai, a woman who was forced into marriage with a high-ranking Taliban member who raped and tortured her.
For Joya, the work she and her colleagues in Afghanistan are doing to support women is part of a commitment she feels duty-bound to honour.
“Before, in the first rule of the Taliban, our mothers, our sisters, all of them accepted the Taliban, and they didn’t resist against the Taliban,” Joya said.
But this time, she added, things are different.
“Afghan women are together now,” she said. “We will do our responsibility for the next generation of girls in Afghanistan.”