- Women across Afghanistan have held rare protests demanding the right to work, study, and be included in government.
- Although the Taliban have promised to protect women’s rights, many fear women will be eradicated from public life.
- Insider spoke to women’s rights activists on the ground about the fight for equality.
- See more stories on Insider’s business page.
On Saturday in Kabul, Afghanistan, dozens of women took to the streets to demand their rights to work, be educated, and participate in society following the Taliban takeover.
This was the latest in a series of female-led protests in Kabul and Herat over the last few days, as defiant women in Afghanistan came out in droves to demand their rights and freedoms be protected.
“Women are not letting the Taliban snatch away their rights and achievements anymore,” women’s rights activist Maryam* told Insider.
“They are willing to fight and resist even if it’s lethal to them.”
Maryam lives in Kabul and is the executive director of Her Afghanistan, an organization that works to support the advancement of young Afghan women.
“The more the Taliban try to scare us, the more fearless we become,” she said.
Since the Taliban seized control of Afghanistan two weeks ago, many Afghan women have been living in uncertainty about the future.
Although the militant group has said women would be able to participate in society in accordance with sharia law, activists warn that their interpretation of Islamic law has historically been extreme.
During the Taliban’s previous rule in the 1990s, severe restrictions were placed on women’s lives, including banning them from all employment and prohibiting education for nearly all women.
“This is about the girls of Afghanistan and their futures,” Pashtana Durrani told Insider.
Durrani is the executive director of Learn Afghanistan, a non-profit organization that champions education and digital literacy, among other things.
“In a few weeks, the world might forget about Afghanistan, but we need to stand in solidarity,” she said.
“We need to keep pushing for the opening of all schools for girls and boys and for women to be able to work.”
Women were told to send their male relatives to work in their place
Although the Taliban have tried to portray themselves as reformed, many activists say their words do not match their actions on the ground.
“People say the Taliban have changed. Now they can speak better English than I do, with a very good accent. And they have very good PR,” Durrani said.
“Let’s not focus on what they say. Let’s focus on what they do,” she said.
Soon after they took over the country, Taliban spokesperson Zabiullah Mujahid said that women should not work for their own safety.
He warned that their fighters were “not trained” to treat women respectfully.
There have since been several reported incidents of women being turned away from their workplaces and told not to leave their homes without male escorts.
Durrani said that she knew of women working at a bank in Kandahar who had been told to send their male relatives to work in their place, despite them being unqualified for the jobs.
“So you’re telling me a man who studied literature should come and work instead of a woman who is a trained accountant,” Durrani said. “How does that even work?”
Videos have circulated on social media of Taliban fighters painting over photographs of women, sparking fear that women are being erased from Afghan society once again.
-Shabnam Nasimi (@NasimiShabnam) September 3, 2021
Durrani grew up in a family that championed education and believes it is the most important tool to help empower women in the country.
“Education can make you financially, intellectually, personally, socially independent. Women need to take charge of our lives. We need to be our own people as individuals,” Durrani said.
“I would hate to just be called someone’s daughter or someone’s mother. Not that that is a bad thing, but I want my own identity. I believe that that’s through education,” she said.
Last week, Abdul Baqi Haqqani, the acting minister for the Ministry of Higher Education, said that women could attend university but must be taught by female teachers in classrooms separate from male students.
Activists say that there are not enough female teachers in Afghanistan, especially at the highest levels, and many fear this will result in women being unable to pursue higher education.
“There is a huge lack of female professionals to assist men in the education sector, and it is almost impossible to train women to master at some fields,” Maryam said.
Maryam added that no women were involved in the meetings where these policies were decided.
Boys and girls in primary schools will continue to be educated separately, typically in the conservative country.
Schools are only open until 6th grade, and there is little clarity on when secondary schools will reopen.
Durrani said that the Taliban’s exclusion of women from work and education is illogical, as the country needs to use all the tax-paying workers it can get.
‘The Taliban foot soldiers are young teenage boys, probably emotional and hormonal’
Both Durrani and Maryam are currently hiding in Afghanistan, aware that their activism could make them targets.
Maryam told Insider that even before the Taliban takeover of the country, she regularly received threats because of her activism.
She now only leaves the house in a burqa to conceal her identity.
Durrani went into hiding when her hometown of Kandahar fell.
She has since been an outspoken fixture in international media, regularly speaking out about the importance of protecting women’s rights.
Durrani says that despite the Taliban’s promises of general amnesty for all Afghans, they have been openly carrying out revenge killings on people who have worked with foreign forces or opposed them.
“That’s the reason I’m in hiding because they don’t want to hear from someone with opposing views,” Durrani said.
“The Taliban foot soldiers are young teenage boys, probably emotional and hormonal, and I know that they would very much love to hit me at any minute,” Durrani said.
Both Maryam and Durrani will continue their advocacy and vow to hold the new regime accountable for their promises.
“Freedom to Afghan women is a matter of life and death,” Maryam said. “They haven’t lost hope.”
(*We have given pseudonyms to some of the women in Afghanistan to protect their identity)