Afghan women have not only had to cope with an accumulative loss of their rights since the Taliban returned to power in August 2021, those who dare to protest and demand freedom run the risk of punishment from fundamentalists. In the case of Mahboba, a 23-year-old former university student who demonstrated in Kabul on March 7, the punishment, she says, took the shape of being run over along with two other protestors. She ended up in hospital with injuries to her leg.
It was the eve of International Women’s Day and, after a harsh winter, a group of Afghan women took to the streets to protest. Mahboba – her last name is omitted for security reasons – took photos and videos of the protesting women with a small handheld video camera, given that the Taliban appeared to be allowing the small group to demonstrate, as she explains via WhatsApp from Kabul. But as she was leaving the scene, a Taliban car “veered off the main road” and targeted her and two other demonstrators, she claims. “The other women started shouting and asked the Taliban who were there to go after the vehicle, but they just smiled and said that it had already left and that no one would be able to stop it.”
The UN Special Reporter on human rights in Afghanistan, Richard Bennett, presented a report in February in which he wrote not only about the successive restrictions imposed on Afghan women, such as the study ban from age 12 and an additional ban on working in administrative posts, banks and NGOs, but also about the embargo on protests and the “excessive use of force,” used to disperse any taking part in a protest rally, including beatings and warning shots. The document claimed that Afghan demonstrators – “often women” – are subjected to “threats, intimidation, arrest and ill-treatment” while in custody. The UN reporter cited the case of Zarifa Yaqubi, an Afghan woman released on December 12 after 40 days of detention in solitary confinement with no charge ever being brought against her.
Faced with the risks of protesting in public, many Afghan women have chosen to protest indoors or in their own backyards, and then post images and videos on social media. However, the group Mahboba describes as “brave women” decided to “celebrate Women’s Day” in the streets and claim their “right to education, work and freedom,” she says. The protest was called by the Afghan Women’s Movement for Justice, she adds. Until December 20, the date Afghan fundamentalists banned women from studying at university, Mahboba was doing a law degree at an Afghan university she prefers not to specify. And before the arrival of the Taliban, she was also working as a teacher. When the Islamists took over, she lost her job.
The demonstration, involving around 20 women, “lasted between 20 and 30 minutes and the Taliban did not react,” explains Mahboba, who attributes their inertia to the fact that the protest took place “in front of the United Nations delegation” in Kabul. The incident with the car occurred at the end of the event, when she was on her way to the cab that was waiting to take her home.
Mahboba believes that the attack was a deliberate act and that the Taliban who ran her over wanted to kill her, not only for demonstrating, but also to prevent her from spreading the images she had captured on her camera, she says. When the car hit her, her camera lens broke: “They don’t want the world to know that Afghan women are demonstrating against them,” she says. “These protests show the weakness of the Taliban, who don’t know what to do with women beyond taking away their jobs, education and freedom and forcing them to stay at home. The fact they don’t have a better plan for the country is a weakness.”
She managed to get home in the cab, but when she tried to get out, she could not walk. After a night of “unbearable” pain, her family took her to the hospital, where there was “no X-ray machine and no orthopedist.” Mahboba then had to consult a private doctor. The doctor took an X-ray and informed her that she had two tears in her muscle and that her leg below the knee “was badly damaged,” although there were no bone fractures. According to Mahboba, the other two young women who were hit got off with scratches and bruises.
Mahboba is from the Hazara ethnic minority that represents around 20% of the population, and is mostly Shiite in a predominantly Sunni country, leading to centuries-long persecution. With the country being run by the Taliban, the vast majority of whom are Sunnis and belong to the Pashtun ethnic group, little has changed for the Hazara.
Mahboba’s demonstration was not the only women’s protest last week in Afghanistan. On March 6, a video on social media showed a group of female university students reading books while sitting on the ground next to a wall, allegedly at Kabul University, in a bid to urge the Taliban to reverse the ban on women studying. Other women in various cities across the country organized March 8 protests inside their homes, or in their backyards, which they then broadcast on social media. In one of them, the women warn the fundamentalists that Afghan women will not remain silent.
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