Afghan women stage rare protests, braving Taliban reprisals

As handfuls gather on International Women’s Day, UN rights rapporteur calls for release of detained rights activists.

Taliban security personnel stand guard as an Afghan burqa-clad woman walks along a street at a market in the Baharak district of Badakhshan province
Taliban security personnel stand guard as an Afghan woman walks along a street at a market in the Baharak district of Badakhshan province, on on February 26, 2024 [File: Wakil Kohsar/AFP]

Small groups of Afghan women have gathered in private spaces to demand that harsh restrictions on their freedoms be lifted, despite recent Taliban crackdowns on protests that have seen activists detained.

The demonstrations were staged in different locations, including the provinces of Takhar and Balkh, as the world celebrated International Women’s Day on Friday, according to the activists from the Purple Saturdays group – an organisation formed to raise awareness and oppose restrictions on women’s freedoms.

In northern Takhar province, seven women held papers obscuring their faces, reading “Rights, Justice, Freedom”.

“Our silence and fear is the biggest weapon of the Taliban,” a demonstrator whose face was covered said in a video.

In Balkh province, several women also held up signs saying “Don’t give the Taliban a chance” in front of a banner reading “Save Afghanistan Women”.

About 20 women gathered at an event organised by the Afghanistan Association of the Blind in northern Mazar-i-Sharif city on Thursday. “It is very painful that a woman has no value in our society today. She cannot use any of her rights,” said one attendee.

On Friday, Richard Bennett, the United Nations special rapporteur for human rights in Afghanistan, called on the Taliban government “to immediately and unconditionally release all those who have been arbitrarily detained for defending human rights, especially the rights of women and girls”.

Women have protested sporadically against rules handed down by the Taliban authorities, but often in small groups and indoors out of fear of reprisals, after several activists were detained for months.

‘Poverty and isolation’

Since surging back to power in August 2021, Taliban authorities have imposed numerous restrictions on women and girls, ordering women to cover up when leaving home, stopping girls and women from attending high school or university, and banning them from public spaces with laws the UN has labelled “gender apartheid”.

They also barred them from working for the UN or NGOs, and most female government employees were dismissed from their jobs or paid to stay at home.

Taliban authorities have repeatedly dismissed international criticism as propaganda. On Friday, spokesperson Zabihullah Mujahid said the Taliban government was committed to women’s rights within the framework of Islam, according to an interview with Tolo News.

Marking International Women’s Day, the UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA), urged the Taliban government to lift restrictions on women and girls, saying not doing so risked “further pushing the country into deeper poverty and isolation”.

According to UNAMA, more than 12 million Afghan women are in need of humanitarian assistance. The mission raised fears over recent crackdown on non-compliance with the Islamic dress code, which was “pushing women into even greater isolation due to fear of arbitrary arrest”.

Alison Davidian, special representative for UN Women in Afghanistan, said the plight of Afghan women and girls was “a global fight and a battle for women’s rights everywhere”.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies