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‘Safe Spaces’: After Taliban Crackdown, Afghan Women Take Their Protests Home

Women protest inside a private home on October 30. The protests are part of a campaign by women activists to press the Taliban for their right to work, get an education, and participate in public life.  

Arifa Fatimi was among the hundreds of Afghan women who spilled into the streets of Kabul following the Taliban’s forcible takeover of Afghanistan in August.

For weeks, the women staged almost daily protests to demand their rights, representation in government, and roles in the deeply religious and conservative country of 38 million.

But following the Taliban’s violent crackdown on the protests and its ban on unsanctioned rallies, the street rallies waned. Yet the women have continued to protest -- this time from the relative safety of their homes.

“Rising threats eventually forced us to adopt an alternative way to protest,” Fatimi, a women’s rights activist, told RFE/RL. “So, we turned to safe spaces from where we have kept raising our voices.”

Afghan Women Move Protests To Social Media To Evade Violent Taliban Response
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Fatimi said she initially braved the Taliban's threats and violence, including the group's use of tear gas and warning gunshots to disperse the crowds.

But she stopped marching on the streets after she and several other protesters were detained and held for several hours by the feared Badri Brigade, the Taliban’s special forces, after a rally in late October.

Since then, Fatimi and other female protesters have staged around 20 rallies, all from inside their homes. The protests often include a small group of women holding placards and taking turns to speak on camera. The women record the events on their smartphones and share them with journalists and on their social media accounts.

The latest protest was held in Kabul on December 5, during which women insisted that a recent Taliban decree on women's rights was inadequate.

The December 3 decree called for the enforcement of certain women's rights that are already enshrined in Islamic law, and it failed to mention key areas of concern for rights groups and Western governments, including the right to education and employment.

‘Sign Of Repression’

Since regaining power, the Taliban has tried to project a more moderate image to convince the international community that it has changed.

But the militant group has reimposed some of the same repressive laws and retrograde policies that defined its rule from 1996 to 2001, when it banned girls from attending school and women from working outside their homes.

In September, the Taliban formed an all-male government that was made up exclusively of senior militants. It did not include any women, even in secondary roles. The Taliban said women were not suited to serve in the cabinet.

Activists and teachers protest inside a classroom in Kabul on October 20.
Activists and teachers protest inside a classroom in Kabul on October 20.

The militants also abolished the Women’s Affairs Ministry and reestablished the feared Ministry for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice.

The Taliban has advised women to largely remain indoors for their own safety. The militants have also ordered tens of thousands of former female government workers not to return to work even as their male colleagues went back.

The hard-line group has allowed girls in grades one through six to attend school. But girls' secondary school education has been restricted to only a handful of the country’s 34 provinces.

Afghan women have been permitted to study at some private universities and colleges. But the Taliban has enforced a new dress code and separated men and women in what activists have described as practices alien to Afghan culture and a “clear sign of repression.”

‘Dark Future’

Wahida Amiri, a female rights activist and protester, has credited the rallies with forcing the Taliban to make some concessions regarding female education.

But she said the Taliban’s refusal to budge on girls’ secondary school education, employment, and participation in politics will continue to feed the protests.

“We do not have any economic freedom and have lost the right to grow, prosper, and get an education,” Wahida Amiri, a female rights activist and protester, told RFE/RL.

“[The Taliban] is obsessed with confining women to the four walls of their homes,” she said. “I don’t know what kind of dark future is in store for us with them.”

Amiri vowed that she and other women would continue their protests, even if they had to hold them in private.

“We realized we could organize effective protests inside our homes by writing out our demands and slogan on cue cards and quietly gathering in the privacy of our homes,” she said.

Afghan women protesting on the streets of Kabul on September 3.
Afghan women protesting on the streets of Kabul on September 3.

She said one of their first indoor protests was inside a classroom on October 20 when they joined female teachers who were reluctant to march on the streets.

Some Taliban leaders have described the women’s protests as an international conspiracy against their regime.

The militants have gone to great lengths to root out the protests, including raiding private residences.

Naeema Asadi, another female activist and protester, said women were forced to abandon their street marches after the Taliban obtained a list of the protesters in October.

“A large number of women wanted to participate in our protests, but they could not go on the streets because they feared the Taliban,” she told RFE/RL.

“All our protests were accompanied by intense fear,” she said. “We turned to holding protests at home, so our voices are not silenced.”