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'Nothing Left To Lose': Afghan Women Refuse To Be Silenced In Face Of Taliban Violence, Restrictions

Afghan women protest on October 1 against the attack on students in Kabul the day before.

A deadly suicide bombing that killed dozens of Afghan girls and women last week has triggered some of the largest and most sustained protests against Taliban rule since the militant group seized power last year.

At least 52 people, mostly female students, were killed on September 30 when a suicide bomber struck a Kabul education center as hundreds of women and girls were taking practice exams. No group has claimed responsibility for the attack.

Since then, scores of women have taken to the streets of major cities to protest the Taliban government's restrictions on women and its inability to protect ethnic and religious minorities. Many of the victims of the Kabul suicide attack were from the mainly Shi'ite Hazara community.

Women Demand Their Rights After Deadly Bombing In Kabul
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Defying the Taliban's ban on unsanctioned rallies, women have held rallies in the cities of Kabul, Herat, Mazar-e Sharif, and Ghazni and the provinces of Bamiyan and Kapisa.

Many of the protesters have been female university students, who have chanted slogans and held placards reading, "Education is our right" and "Stop Hazara genocide."

The Taliban has responded to the protests with brute force, detaining, beating, and threatening female demonstrators.

"The Taliban grabbed the girls and dragged and beat them with the butts of their guns," said Nahid, a female protester in the western city of Herat who did not reveal her real name for fear of retribution. "I still have bruises on my back from the beating I endured."

She told RFE/RL's Radio Azadi that armed Taliban fighters attempted to disperse the October 2 protest in Herat by firing into the air.

"Bullets were raining everywhere," she recalled. "They detained and severely tortured some of the men who had helped us."

"We did not have any weapons," said another female protester in Herat who did not want to reveal her name. "We were just chanting. But the Taliban beat us and used abusive language."

On October 3, videos on social media showed the Taliban locking female students in Balkh University in the northern city of Mazar-e Sharif in their dormitories to prevent them from protesting.

Dozens of female students from the Al-Biruni University in Kapisa Province, northeast of Kabul, protested on October 4.

Activists say Afghan women are refusing to be silenced even in the face of mounting Taliban violence and repression.

Since the militant group returned to power in August 2021, it has imposed a raft of restrictions on women, including on their appearance, access to work and education, and freedom of movement. The rules are reminiscent of the Taliban's first stint in power in the 1990s, when the group deprived women of their most basic rights.

In recent months, women who have protested for their freedoms have bene detained, tortured, and even forced to confess for their so-called "crimes." The Taliban has sought to portray the women as foreign-sponsored agitators.

Maryam Baryalay, the head of the Organization for Social Research Analysis, a research organization formerly based in Kabul, says that the Taliban is wrong in assuming it can silence the voices of women. "The Taliban's war against the women of Afghanistan is a lost war and a lost cause," she said. "Afghan women are well aware of the righteousness of their cause, which is why their protests will not cease," she said.

Heather Barr, associate director of the women's rights division at Human Rights Watch, says the Taliban's violent clampdown on women rights activists has become more brutal in recent months. She adds that the Taliban is using pepper spray and electrical devices for crowd control and abducting and detaining women.

"Even though the risks of protesting are extremely frightening, they have lost so much, so there is nothing left to lose," Barr said. "Some of them feel that if they die expressing themselves, then that is a choice they are prepared to make."

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    RFE/RL's Radio Azadi

    RFE/RL's Radio Azadi is one of the most popular and trusted media outlets in Afghanistan. Nearly half of the country's adult audience accesses Azadi's reporting on a weekly basis.

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    Abubakar Siddique

    Abubakar Siddique, a journalist for RFE/RL's Radio Azadi, specializes in the coverage of Afghanistan and Pakistan. He is the author of The Pashtun Question: The Unresolved Key To The Future Of Pakistan And Afghanistan.