When Taliban fighters moved to the city of Herat in western Afghanistan last month, one thing mattered more to some of them than the battle itself. As armed men clashed around the governor’s office, a group of activists went to Shogofa * ‘s workplace and ordered all the women to return home.
“They didn’t even take the whole town, but they came to our headquarters. The director called an emergency meeting and they told all the women to leave, ”she said.
As the main breadwinner of his widowed mother and disabled brother, losing his job is synonymous with misery. On Thursday, she therefore decided to publicly challenge the new Afghan leaders. With about 40 or 50 other women, she went to the seat of government in the city chanting: “No fear, we are united”.
“We were hoping we could tell the governor how hard we are struggling, but they left us there for a while and then took us out – we couldn’t even meet him,” she said.
Since the capture of Afghanistan, Taliban spokespersons and senior officials have pledged to respect women’s rights in the workplace and in education, albeit within an Islamic framework they refuse to define.
These promises sparked an international discussion about the evolution of the Taliban since they ruled the country with extreme and oppressive misogyny in the 1990s, barring women from almost all work and education.
There have been calls from abroad to give the group time to form a government and define its policy before pushing too hard on women’s rights. But there is growing evidence across Afghanistan that the biggest changes may be in messages rather than ideology.
The women demonstrating in Herat were fired two weeks ago; there are reports from elsewhere of gunmen ordering bank tellers to quit their jobs in Kandahar.
The Taliban have already asked most women to stay at home, claiming it is a temporary measure for “security reasons,” but the explanation bodes ill for Afghan women whose memories date back to the last time the group held power.
“We heard some of these explanations from 1996 to 2001 when the Taliban said the reason girls couldn’t study and women couldn’t work was because the security situation was not good. , and once the security situation improved, they could leave. back. Of course, that moment never came, ”said Heather Barr, associate director of the women’s rights division at Human Rights Watch.
“This indicates that even in the 1990s, the Taliban felt the need to cover up some of their misogyny. So it is not an entirely new communication strategy that they are currently pursuing and Afghan women can see it. “
Other crippling rules from this period that have unofficially resurfaced, according to testimonies from Afghan women, include the requirement of a male guardian, or mahram, to accompany them in all public spaces.
Bano, another protester in Herat, works in the health care sector, an area where the Taliban have specifically called on women to return to work, but says she has been ordered to return home to commute on her own.
Her husband, a soldier, has been missing for three years and with no adult sons or brothers nearby, she has no one to fill this role. “They said I had to stay home because I don’t have any mahram to accompany me to the entrance of the clinic, ”she told the Guardian by telephone.
She has been the sole breadwinner of three children since her husband’s disappearance and she is desperate. “I borrow money from my friends and family in town. We can’t go on like this. “
The women said they spoke on behalf of many others facing similar crises, but who were too scared to step out on the streets controlled by the Taliban.
“We were there as their representatives, many of them messaged us and shared our protest on social media,” Shogofa said. “We wanted to tell the world that Afghan women are really struggling. “
In education, too, there are clear signs that women will face widespread and damaging exclusion, even if the restrictions do not go as far as the outright ban of the 1990s.
The new Minister of Higher Education has said that women and men should be separated in universities, and the historical consequences of services promoted as “separate but equal” in a discriminatory system strongly suggest that women will be expelled or receive a lower quality education.
A new labyrinthine decree at private universities, seen by the Guardian, sets out a long list of prescriptive and possibly costly rules to keep students from even seeing their faces for years of study.
Women are to be transported in buses with covered windows and a curtain separating them from the presumably male driver. They must be confined to a “waiting room” before and between classes, and the decree even details a mandatory clothing color for students and teachers (black).
All new classes must be separated, and in current classes with fewer than 15 women, a “sharia wall” must be erected to separate students of different sexes. Ideally, teachers will also be separated by gender, under the new rules. “In the future, all universities should provide female teachers for women’s courses. They should also try to use older, well-trained teachers, ”the letter said.
Education officials were told at a meeting that women could never teach male students, although men may be able to teach women if there were no female lecturers available. a source told The Guardian.
Some women say they have already dropped out of school for fear of the Taliban’s new rules and their brutal past. “I don’t believe the Taliban. I am afraid of their periods and I am afraid of losing my life for no reason under their control, ”said one student, who lived in a hostel while studying in Kabul; she no longer thinks the taliban will allow it.
“I had a plan to speed up my studies and take more classes. I went to the gym after college. I was planning to start a small business for myself in Kabul, but it all disappeared within hours. Words cannot describe my current depression.
There are signs of a return to something disturbing akin to the uncompromising restrictions of the past in other areas of Afghan life. Beauty salons have been ordered to paint pictures of women, and the Taliban have announced a music ban, although it is not clear to what extent they plan to implement it.
Yet despite growing repression and the Taliban’s history of brutality, Afghan women say they are determined to keep fighting. Women in Kabul came out to protest on Friday, inspired in part, it was said, by the protests in Herat.
They called for a role in government, after the Taliban ruled out any woman holding cabinet positions. Taliban fighters tore up signs and attacked a male ally, but the women are still planning to go out again, according to Fatima, a small business manager who is too afraid to open since the Taliban takeover.
“We’ve been through war, and conflict too, why should we be completely removed from politics? “
* All names have been changed in this article to protect women.