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Afghan women protesting against the all-male government holding up messages in Arabic and English. at a demonstration in Kabul, September 3.
Women are at the forefront of protests in Afghanistan’s cities. EPA-EFE/stringer

Afghanistan: women are at the forefront of protests against the Taliban

Despite what they insisted as they swept through Afghanistan, the Taliban appear to have remained largely the same since the days they ruled the roost in the 1990s. But Afghan society has changed tremendously since they were ousted by the US-led invasion in 2001. This is shown by the level of civil resistance observed in the past few weeks, a resistance that has been primarily spearheaded by women.

Such resistance, particularly at a critical time when the Taliban are under the gaze of the international community, is testing the militant group’s claim and ability to govern “fairly” in a changed society. Over the past 20 years, a generation of Afghans has grown up in a country becoming increasingly well-connected to the rest of the world. This generation has led a lifestyle significantly different from what previous generations experienced.

Thanks to the development of a vibrant and independent news media, political and social awareness among the general public, particularly young people, has increased significantly. Politicians being critiqued for their policies and held accountable by the media had become normal. Freedom of association enabled the formation of formal and informal organisations centred on interests ranging from arts and music to religion and politics.

It was, in brief, a new Afghanistan – one that an insurgent group such as the Taliban may struggle to rule.

Read more: Afghanistan: who's who in the Taliban's 'inclusive' new administration

The fact that instead of taking up arms, ordinary people are resorting to civil resistance speaks volumes about the changing nature of Afghan society. Afghans who have experienced violence and bloodshed for more than four decades understand more than anyone else that campaigns of nonviolent resistance might be an effective way forward.

Social science research shows that civil disobedience in various forms – protests, boycotts, rallies, strikes and non-violent demonstrations can isolate a regime from its people, undermining its legitimacy and source of power. The recent protests in Herat, Kabul, Mazar-e Sharif and other cities in Afghanistan point to a deeply rooted civil society, that – despite the exodus of thousands of educated Afghans as the Taliban closed in on Kabul – appears to have remained strong.

Since the Taliban took control of Kabul on August 17 2021, more than 100,000 Afghans have been airlifted from Kabul airport by the US, UK, Canada, Germany, Qatar and a number of other countries. Many more, including human rights activists, journalists, lawyers, doctors and engineers, have left seeking refuge in neighbouring countries, primarily in Pakistan and Iran.

There were concerns that with the flight of this social capital, the prospect of civil resistance against the Taliban would diminish. But the recent protests have shown that civil resistance remains strong, including among thousands – particularly women – who have the most to lose under the Taliban government.

Afghan women have come a long way

When in power from 1996-2001, the Taliban infamously banned girls from schools and women from workplaces. They prevented women from leaving their homes without being accompanied by male members of the family. They imposed a strict dress code on women and men, and enforced these restrictions by resorting to fear and violence.

Two decades later – and back in power – the Taliban did not expect widespread resistance spearheaded by Afghan women. But they have played a crucial role in the recent protests, even spearheading some that were later joined by men.

Rows of seated women wearing black niqabs and holding white Taliban flags.
Female university students at a rally in support of the Taliban government’s segregation measures. EPA-EFE/stringer

Women gathered in front of the Pakistan embassy in Kabul on September 7 to protest the alleged Pakistani drones bombarding Panjshir Valley in support of the Taliban. This protest was joined by men and spread throughout Kabul city. Women in Herat started anti-Taliban protests in the city in support of their right to work.

Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid has said that many in the movement do not know how to deal with women, hence women should remain at home. But the lack of a strategy to address protests has not prevented the Taliban from violently clamping down on protesters, firing in the air, confiscating journalists’ cameras and equipment and, in some instances, detaining and beating reporters and photographers.

Those joining the demonstrations do so despite fearing for their lives. I contacted a female friend in Kabul who had been protesting against the Taliban’s and in favour of women’s rights. She told me: “I fear for my life. However, I cannot stay quiet and do nothing.”

Mujahid expressed fears about demonstrators causing “trouble” during a delicate time. Subsequently, the Taliban has imposed new restrictions on rallies and protests. A statement published by the Taliban announced that permits from the Ministry of Justice would need to be obtained at least 24 hours prior to a demonstration.

As the level of grievance and discontent grows, you can expect more pushback against the Taliban from the Afghan population. Meanwhile public services such as healthcare are on the verge of collapsing, the economy is crumbling, the currency has depreciated significantly since the fall of Kabul and the prices of essential goods have skyrocketed. Unemployment has increased significantly.

The Taliban may well find out – sooner rather than later – that clamping down on the media and detaining and brutalising protesters is no longer a viable solution and could lead to a backlash.

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