BBC World Service, January 28, 2022
Afghan women living under Taliban fighting for their rights six months after insurgent takeover
Protesters told the BBC’s Yalda Hakim they had been threatened and pepper-sprayed in a new documentary
By Yalda Hakim
Sheila Dost holds back tears as she tells me about the day she brought her two young children to demonstrate against Taliban restrictions on girls’ education.
“I asked my children to put on burial shrouds and told them we may get killed today but we have to accept that because if it means it’ll bring some kind of change, then it’ll be worth it.”
Before the Taliban seized control of Afghanistan in August, the mother of three was a teacher at a secondary school. But like millions of other female government workers, Sheila was ordered to stop going to work by the Taliban’s new “Islamic Emirate”.
She now sits at home, alongside her 12-year-old daughter, Mursal, who has been banned from attending school.
Sheila was 10 when the Taliban first came to power in the 1990s and says she doesn’t want her daughter to be deprived of an education like she was.
“I had so many hopes for my daughter’s future and for the future of my students. I can’t look them in the eyes now because I feel I’ve betrayed them. I always told them to have big dreams but that was a lie.”
Sheila says she refuses to be erased from public life and will continue to fight for the rights of Afghan girls and women.
“We can’t just breathe, we have to live. We must now either live a dignified life or die for our country and for our basic human rights.”
It is this steely determination that gives Sheila and a small band of women the courage to take to the streets protesting – risking beatings, arrest, or worse.
Some of the female protesters I’ve spoken to tell me they’ve had Taliban gunmen point weapons at them, pepper spray them and shout insults.
In the past week, there have been disturbing reports that two female activists, Tamana Paryani and Parwana Ibrahimkhel, have been abducted by the Taliban. The Taliban deny they were behind the detention of the women, whose whereabouts and well-being are unknown.
Their disappearance has sent a chill across Afghan civil society. One activist, Marzia, says she continues to receive threatening phone calls and now has no choice but to move from safe house to safe house.
“Of course the Taliban won’t admit they’ve taken our friends. They’ve told us there will be consequences if we don’t stop our protests.”
The fearless young woman, who would only communicate with me via an encrypted phone app, says she won’t stop demonstrating until Tamana and Parwana are released.
Female activists like Marzia remain defiant and are supported by the older generation of Afghan women who understand all too well the Taliban’s history of oppression.
Mahbooba Seraj’s name has become synonymous with the spirit of the Afghan people. On the day Kabul fell to the Taliban, she didn’t head to the airport, she went straight to work.
The 73-year-old, who was forced to flee the country in 1978 following the Communist takeover – living in Manhattan for some time – returned to the country after the 2001 US-led invasion. This time, despite the risks, she wasn’t going anywhere.
“All of our achievements from the past 20 years, have been reversed,” she told me.
Meeting the activist and seeing the spark in her eyes gave me hope and a realisation that the civil society that had blossomed in Afghanistan over the past 20 years was not dead.
“Many have left the country and I don’t blame them. The situation is not good but there are still many extraordinary women who are here and we will keep fighting, we won’t give up,” she said.
When the Taliban swept to power almost six months ago, they promised that they would protect the rights of women “within the framework of Islamic law”. But many women tell me any hope they had that life would be different under Taliban 2.0 was quickly dashed.
Nothing symbolised the disappearance of women’s rights in Afghanistan more than the shutting down of the Women’s Ministry and the return of the dreaded Ministry for Vice and Virtue, tasked with enforcing the Taliban’s extreme interpretation of Islam.
From girls effectively being banned from secondary school to freedom of movement prevented for women without a male chaperone – women’s lives are now being severely restricted as the Taliban moves to tighten their grip.
But despite the intimidation and dangers they face, many Afghan women, particularly the urban and educated, say they are unwilling to accept these new restrictions on their freedoms and will continue to fight.
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