Human Rights

'We will not give up the fight': Afghan women defy restrictions

By Salaam Times and AFP

Afghan women chant slogans and hold banners during a women's rights protest in Kabul on January 16. [Wakil Kohsar/AFP]

Afghan women chant slogans and hold banners during a women's rights protest in Kabul on January 16. [Wakil Kohsar/AFP]

KABUL -- One after the other, quickly, carefully, keeping their heads down, a group of Afghan women step into a small Kabul apartment block -- risking their lives to resist restrictions placed against them.

They come together to plan their next stand, following the fall of the Afghan government in August.

At first, there were no more than 15 activists in this group, mostly women in their 20s who already knew each other.

Now there is a network of dozens of women -- once students, teachers or NGO workers, as well as housewives -- who have worked in secret to organise protests over the past six months.

Afghan women write placards on January 15 ahead of a women's rights protest in Kabul. [Rouba El Husseini/AFP]

Afghan women write placards on January 15 ahead of a women's rights protest in Kabul. [Rouba El Husseini/AFP]

"I asked myself why not join them instead of staying at home, depressed, thinking of all that we lost," a 20-year-old protester, who asked not to be named, told AFP.

They know such a challenge to the new authorities may cost them everything: four of their comrades were detained for weeks.

"After a long period of uncertainty about their whereabouts and safety, the four 'disappeared' Afghan women activists, as well as their relatives who also went missing, have all been released by the de facto authorities," the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) said on Twitter Sunday (February 13).

Despite the very real threats, the women are determined to battle on.

Lost jobs, schools closed

Since August, there has been enforced segregation in most workplaces, leading many employers to fire female staff, and women are barred from key public sector jobs.

Many girls' secondary schools have closed, and university curricula are being revised to reflect a hardline interpretation of Islam.

To counter the restrictions on learning, women are gathering in secret to read books together. At least one unemployed teacher is conducting a school for girls and boys in her basement.

Haunted by memories of the past, some Afghan women are too frightened to venture out or are pressured by their families to remain at home.

In some areas, women make up of 75% of psychiatric ward patients after losing their jobs and being confined.

For Shala, a mother of four who asked to use only her first name, a return to such female confinement is her biggest fear.

A former government employee, she lost her job and now she helps organise the resistance and sometimes sneaks out at night to paint graffiti slogans such as "Long Live Equality" across the walls of Kabul.

"I just want to be an example for young women, to show them that I will not give up the fight," she told AFP.

Shala says her husband supports what she is doing and her children are learning from her defiance -- at home they practise chants demanding education.

'All we can do is persevere'

AFP journalists attended two of the group's gatherings in January.

Despite the risk of being arrested or shunned by their families and society, more than 40 women came to one event.

At another meeting, a few women were fervently preparing for their next protest.

One activist designed a banner demanding justice, a cellphone in one hand and her pen in the other.

"These are our only weapons," she said.

A 24-year-old, who asked not to be named, helped brainstorm ideas for attracting the world's attention.

"It's dangerous, but we have no other way. We have to accept that our path is fraught with challenges," she insisted.

Like others, she stood up to her conservative family, including an uncle who threw away her books to keep her from learning.

"I don't want to let fear control me and prevent me from speaking and telling the truth," she said.

Allowing people to join their ranks is a meticulous process.

Hoda Khamosh, a published poet and former NGO worker who organised workshops to help empower women, is tasked with ensuring newcomers can be trusted.

One test she sets is to ask them to prepare banners or slogans at short notice -- she can sense passion for the cause from women who deliver quickly.

Other tests yield even clearer results.

Khamosh recounts the time they gave a potential activist a fake date and time for a demonstration.

Authorities turned up ahead of the supposed protest, and the activists cut off all contact with the woman suspected of tipping off officials.

A core group of the activists use a dedicated phone number to co-ordinate on the day of a protest. That number is later disconnected to ensure nobody is tracking it.

"We usually carry an extra scarf or an extra dress. When the demonstration is over, we change our clothes so we cannot be recognised," Khamosh explained.

She has changed her phone number several times, and her husband has received threats.

"We could still be harmed; it's exhausting," she said. "But all we can do is persevere."

Crackdown on dissent

In the past 20 years, a generation of women -- largely in major cities -- became business owners, earned Ph.D.'s and held government positions.

The battle to defend those gains requires defiance.

On protest days, women turn up in twos or threes, waiting outside shops as if they are ordinary shoppers, then at the last minute rush together: some 20 people chanting as they unfurl their banners.

Swiftly, and inevitably, armed fighters surround them -- sometimes holding them back, other times screaming and pointing guns to scare the women away.

One activist recalls slapping a fighter in the face, while another led protest chants despite a masked gunman pointing his weapon at her.

But it is becoming increasingly dangerous to protest.

A few days after the planning meeting attended by AFP, fighters used pepper spray on the demonstrators for the first time, angry as the group had painted a white burqa red to reject wearing the all-covering dress.

Two of the women who took part in the protests -- Tamana Zaryabi Paryani and Parwana Ibrahimkhel -- were later rounded up in a series of night raids on January 19, said activists.

Paryani and Ibrahimkhel were two of the four women released on Sunday.

Several women interviewed by AFP before the raids, who spoke of "non-stop threats", have since gone into hiding.

Starting from scratch

The women are learning to adapt quickly.

When they began the movement last September, demonstrations would end as soon as one of the participants was pushed or threatened.

Khamosh says they have now developed a system where two activists take care of the victim, allowing the others -- and the protest -- to continue.

Many of the female activists use high quality phones to take photos and videos to post on social media.

The content, often featuring them defiantly showing their faces, can then reach an international audience.

"These women ... had to create something from scratch," said Heather Barr of Human Rights Watch.

"There are a lot of very experienced woman activists who have been working in Afghanistan for many years ... but almost all of them left after August 15."

It is "almost certain" those involved with this new resistance will experience harm, Barr predicted.

A separate, smaller woman's group is now trying to focus on protest that avoids direct confrontation.

"When I am out on the streets, my heart and body shake," said Wahida Amiri.

The 33-year-old used to work as a librarian. Sharp and articulate, she is used to fighting for justice, having campaigned against corruption in the previous government.

Now that is no longer possible, she sometimes meets a small circle of friends in the safety of their homes, where they film of themselves holding candlelit vigils and raising banners demanding the right to education and work.

They write articles and attend debates on Clubhouse or Twitter, hoping social media will show the world their story.

"I have never worked as hard as I have in the past five months," she said.

Khamosh's biggest dream was to be Afghanistan's president, and it is difficult for her to accept that her political work is now limited.

"If we do not fight for our future today, Afghan history will repeat itself," the 26-year-old told AFP from her home.

"If we do not get our rights, we will end up stuck at home, between four walls," she said. "This is something we cannot tolerate."

Kabul's resistance is not alone. There have been small, scattered protests by women in other cities, including Bamiyan, Herat and Mazar-e-Sharif.

"We may not succeed. All we want is to keep the voice of justice raised high, and instead of five women, we want thousands to join us."

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Why should the Iranian Hoda Khamosh represent the mothers and sisters of Afghans? First of all, it is a fraud and deception that she has made a fake Afghan identity for herself. Secondly, a prostitute cannot represent the mothers and sisters of Afghans.


You must not disclose such actions. Yesterday, they arrested a network of women in Kabul, including those who were protesting. I think the Salaam Times's report may have played a role in it. In addition, Pakistan's intelligence agencies do not allow Afghans to have freedom of media and speech. I believe that these women were arrested with the help of Pakistani intelligence and forced to confess. God knows what will happen to the captured girls. :(


Thanks to them as they continue their struggle, but in the current situation, Afghans need unity, not actions involving a particular class's interest! If we call ourselves Afghans, we the men and women, young and old, and all others need to come out and raise our voices about what is going on in Kunar and in the border provinces of Afghanistan, where the missiles are coming from the Pakistani government. We have to tell the world with one voice that our compatriots are not safe there. Their property and lives are not secure. They were not prevented during the presidential era and now during the Emirate. Residents of Kunar province have reported recent rocket attacks by Pakistani militants in some parts of the province, killing and injuring locals, destroying their homes, and damaging their crops. The rockets, which numbered between 60 and 80, hit some areas in the Sarkano district of Kunar province on Wednesday, February 16. These attacks are not launched just now, but it has been years that Pakistan has been launching attacks on the border provinces of Afghanistan, which cause severe financial and personal hardship to our compatriots, killing family members, destroying farms, and killing livestock. People have been forced to leave their houses. Pakistanis cross the Afghan territory and cross the Durand Line. Such movements are not acceptable for any Afghan, so the word is that, the Afghans should get united against the aliens and forget about their internal differences; eithe


The struggle of women is commendable, but now Afghan women must stop such activities and protest against the evil policy of US President Joe Biden because Biden wants to distribute the wealth of Afghanistan entrusted to America among Americans. Wherever you see an American, don't greet him or say salaam to him. If he wants to talk to you, turn away from him. As a civilized Afghan, you should leave a meeting if an American arrives in your meeting. In short, make verbal, cultural, political boycott against Americans because Biden's order shows that these people are traitors because they betray the trust of Afghanistan. They are liars because they are violating the agreement with the Afghans. They have agreed to keep Afghanistan's money and gold, but now they are breaking their promise. To keep in mind is never to take armed action against anyone. The power of pen and words is stronger than the power of any weapon. Long live Afghanistan