KABUL -- Hundreds of Afghans with bold placards and loud microphones are spilling into the streets of major cities every day, directly challenging the militant Islamist group, the Taliban, which seized power in Afghanistan last month.
Leading the charge have been women, who are defying Taliban threats and violence to demand their rights, their representation in government, and their roles in the deeply religious and conservative country of 38 million.
The Taliban has inherited a country that has been transformed since the U.S.-led invasion in 2001, with millions of girls returning to school and women joining the workforce as reporters, judges, and ministers, though the biggest changes took place in urban areas.
During the Taliban’s repressive regime from 1996 to 2001, women were forced to cover themselves from head to toe, banned from working outside their homes, and required to be accompanied by a male relative if they went outside. Education was limited to pre-adolescent girls.
The message carried in the protests now, as seen on large posters carried by protesters, is “We are not the women of the 1990s.”
"Since the Taliban have returned, women don’t know whether they will be able to work or if they will still have their fundamental rights,” Samira, one of the organizers of the female-led protests in Kabul, told RFE/RL’s Radio Azadi.
“That's why we felt the need to start a protest movement to enable women to speak up for their rights and for what they have achieved over the last 20 years,” she added.
‘Sign Of Repression’
Since seizing control of Kabul on August 15, the Taliban has tried to project a more moderate image to convince Afghans and the international community that it has changed.
At its first press conference in Kabul, the Taliban vowed to protect women’s rights -- but within their own fundamentalist interpretation of Islamic Shari’a law.
The militants have not shown any signs that their views have changed since they first ruled Afghanistan two decades ago, and their actions thus far have betrayed their initial pledges.
The Taliban has already reimposed some of the same repressive laws and retrograde policies that defined its extremist former rule.
The Taliban formed a new, all-male government on September 7 that is 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.
The militants also abolished the Women’s Affairs Ministry and reestablished the feared Ministry for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice.
In the 1990s, that ministry was responsible for enforcing the Taliban's morality laws, including its strict dress code and gender segregation in society. The ministry’s dreaded police were notorious for publicly beating offenders, including women.
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.
Many girls’ schools have also remained shut across the country. At universities and colleges, the Taliban is enforcing a new dress code and separating men and women in what activists have described as practices alien to Afghan culture and a “clear sign of repression.”
Meanwhile, the Taliban has violently cracked down on the independent media, banned unsanctioned rallies, and detained, beaten, and killed former police officers, soldiers, and government officials.
The militants have also reportedly carried out reprisal killings, cut off communication lines, and imposed a humanitarian blockade in Panjshir Province, a vast valley north of Kabul that is the last pocket of resistance against the militants.
Educated And More Informed
As the Taliban rolls back freedoms and use brute force to crush dissent, Afghans have taken to the streets of a dozen cities and towns in recent weeks to vent their anger.
At the forefront of the nonviolent resistance to the Taliban have been young women and female activists.
“Afghan women are not going to accept a return to repression and discrimination,” said Samira Hamidi, a prominent Afghan women’s rights activist. “Today, Afghan women are more educated and informed about their rights.”
Scores of women in Kabul, the western city of Herat, and the northern city of Mazar-e Sharif have defied the Taliban’s ban on protests and its heavy-handed tactics. Smaller rallies have been held in the northern provinces of Parwan and Kapisa, the central provinces of Ghor and Daikundi, and the southwestern province of Nimroz.
Armed Taliban fighters have shot at and killed protesters, fired warning shots in the air, and have used rifle butts and whips to beat and disperse the women, most of whom had donned Islamic head scarves.
But that has not dissuaded women from returning to the streets demanding their right to education, work, and security.
Among them is Sadat, who was among the women who protested in Kabul on September 7.
"I saw a Talib beating one of our friends with a rifle butt,” she told Radio Azadi. “I tried to stop him from beating our friend and he started to beat me. They hit my head with a metal bar. I have five stitches on my head now. They beat women so badly!"
Written by Frud Bezhan in Prague with contributions from RFE/RL Radio Azadi correspondents in Afghanistan. Their names are being withheld for their safety.