Threatened and beaten, Afghan women defy the Taliban with demonstrations

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KABUL, Afghanistan – On a cruel January morning, Khujasta Elham struggled through a snowstorm to sign her name on a government register.

Before the Taliban took power in August, Ms Elham was director of women’s programs for the Afghan Civil Service Commission. But she and most other female government workers were prevented from returning to work by the Taliban’s new Islamic emirate.

Now Ms Elham, who says she hasn’t been paid since August, is required to log into her old work site once a month – a fiction that allows the Taliban to deny firing government workers. The grim routine also diminishes any hope for Ms Elham of ever returning to work.

The dismissal of female workers is one of many indignities that have prompted small groups of women like Ms Elham to take to the streets in protest, risking beatings or arrest. Armed Taliban pointed their guns at protesters, sprayed them with pepper spray, and called them “whores” and “puppets of the West,” Human Rights Watch said. Carrying signs and raising their fists, the women resisted persistent attempts to cut them out of public life.

Protests rarely last long. Taliban law enforcement brutalized women, beat them and sprayed them with chemical irritants, activists say. Ms Elham and others say they have received threatening phone calls from intelligence officers warning them to remain silent or face unspecified ‘consequences’.

‘He asked me if I knew they had prisons for people like me,’ Ms Elham said of a Taliban intelligence officer who ordered her to put down protests she helped spark. to organise.

As the Taliban continue to demand humanitarian aid and diplomatic recognition, the United States and other countries and international bodies have insisted that Afghanistan’s new leaders reverse their limits on women’s rights. The issue is one of the main talking points this week as Taliban delegates began meeting with international officials in Oslo, Norway.

One of the most dramatic consequences of the Taliban takeover was the rapid reversal of gains made by women for two decades after the US-led invasion that toppled the previous Taliban government in 2001. Women attended schools and universities and served in parliament and government. They served in the military, police, and as lawyers and judges.

Women once made up at least a quarter of the government workforce. But the Taliban have only allowed a handful of women medical workers and educators to keep their government jobs.

Most Afghan girls beyond grade six have not been to school since August. In September, the Taliban turned the Ministry of Women’s Affairs building into offices for the Religious Morality Police. Last month, the Taliban banned women from taking long journeys without a male relative and from using public transport without a hijab, a type of headscarf.

The Taliban also targeted activists protesting the restrictions. To avoid arrest, Ms Elham and other protesters say they rotate between shelters and only communicate through encrypted phone apps.

Rokhshana Rezai, 27, a prominent activist, said she once dressed as a man to pass Taliban checkpoints after receiving threatening calls from Taliban officials. But she continued to attend the protests. Video of a recent protest shows her defiantly walking away from a Talib who grabbed her by the arm and tried to drag her away.

“We are more and more afraid,” Ms Rezai said. “They are not going to respect our rights and our dignity.”

Taliban officials said prior permission was needed to stage a protest. But when the women asked for permission, Ms. Rezai said, “They don’t allow it, and they never will.

On January 19, three days after women protested the hijab directive, two female activists were arrested at gunpoint from homes in Kabul, said Zarifa Yaqoobi, 28, leader of a group called the Afghan Powerful Women’s Movement. Ms Yaqoobi said the women’s family members told her that the women had been taken away at night by armed men.

Ms Yaqoobi said family members identified the activists as Tamana Zaryab Paryani and Parwana Ebrahim Khel. She said three of Ms Paryani’s sisters were also missing. The New York Times attempted to speak directly to the families without success.

Video posted on social media shows Ms Paryani screaming for help and shouting that the Taliban were knocking on her door. The Taliban have publicly denied any involvement in the detention of Ms Paryani and others.

Qari Saeed Khosty, a spokesman for the Interior Ministry, said Ms Paryani’s video was fabricated “to create a case” intended to attract international attention.

“They are liars, and I don’t want to talk about them,” Gen. Mubeen Khan, police spokesman in Kabul, said of media reports of the disappearances. In a follow-up call, he told The Times: “Anyone who disturbs the public must be arrested. Orders have been issued to all security forces to arrest them and bring them to justice.

The crackdown on women’s protests in Afghanistan has raised concerns among human rights organizations. Human Rights Watch said it represented “an alarming and unlawful escalation in efforts to suppress peaceful protest and freedom of expression in Afghanistan.” The United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan has called on the Taliban to provide information on missing women.

Women’s rights activists and human rights groups have also called on the Taliban to provide information on the disappearance of Alia Azizi, a prison official in the western city of Herat. Ms. Azizi never came home from work on October 2.

Heather Barr, deputy women’s rights director at Human Rights Watch, said the “extremely quiet response” from the international community, coupled with a crackdown on Afghan media, had emboldened the Taliban.

“It is a sign that the Taliban believe that these protests must now be completely stopped, no matter how brutal it takes,” she said.

The disappearance of the two activists was mentioned by an Afghan activist during a conference which opened on Sunday in Oslo between the Taliban and representatives of the United States and European countries, reported the Associated Press.

For the Taliban, the conference provides a platform to present their new Islamic emirate as less oppressive than the Taliban government of the 1990s. For the United States and European nations, the meeting provides an opportunity to confront Taliban leaders face to face to demand improved human rights, inclusive government, women’s rights and other reforms.

Afghans critical of the conference protested outside the Foreign Ministry in Oslo, saying the Taliban should not be given an international platform.

On January 23, Monisa Mubariz, co-founder of the Afghan Powerful Women’s Movement, and Ms. Yaqoobi held a brief clandestine press conference at a private home inside a fortified compound. They asked the small group of journalists present not to broadcast the event live for fear of alerting the Taliban.

Under the Taliban, Ms Mubariz told reporters: “Women have been deprived of the right to work and participate in political and economic life. They are constantly suppressed, illegally punished, insulted and humiliated.

Such public criticism has only heightened the risk of retaliation from the Taliban, Yaqoobi acknowledged. “That’s why we have to operate in secret,” she said. “But we will never stop raising our voices.”

A few days before the press conference, Ms. Mubariz spoke in the family section of a cafe, reserved for women to separate them from the men. Before the Taliban takeover, several cafes in Kabul allowed women to sit and socialize with men – an understated symbol of progress that slowly eroded under the Taliban.

Ms Mubariz said her parents and friends had pleaded with her to stop her protests – or at least wear a bulletproof vest to protect herself. She wiped away tears as she described the overwhelming sense of loss she felt since losing her job and seeing women’s rights stripped away.

For Ms. Rezai, the Taliban’s threats and repression have eroded her once boundless faith in Afghanistan’s future.

“Whatever goals, freedoms, wishes, dreams, choices, education and jobs women once had are gone,” she said. “I feel angry – my body is soulless and all our dreams are nothing now.”

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