Women Speaking Out
The Afghan women speaking out despite increasing pressure to remain silent
17 Feb 2022
Since the first days of the Taliban takeover, women in Afghanistan have protested against their rule. Activists have taken to the streets and to social media to protest against the Taliban’s restrictions on women and girls' rights to education, work, and public and political participation.
Afghan Witness (AW) records show that the first women-led protest was on August 17, 2021, in Kabul. Despite the threats and the Taliban's quasi-ban on the protests, women marched the streets and, in some cases, opted for indoor demonstrations. Since the protests began, female activists have been met with harsh measures from the Taliban - both on the ground and online.
On January 19, two women protesters were reportedly taken away by the Taliban. In a video circulated on social media, one of the protesters, Tamana Zaryab Paryani, desperately pleaded for help and stated that the Taliban had raided her house. Soon after this, reports emerged that the Taliban had detained Tamana, her three sisters, and another fellow protester, Parwana Ibrahimkhil. The Taliban publicly denied any involvement in the detentions of female activists - including in an interview with the BBC - going as far as accusing Paryani of staging the incident. The disappearance of the activists sparked an outcry from domestic and international campaign groups, as well as statements from international organisations, including the UN.
The four women protesters, allegedly detained and later freed by the Taliban, left to right: Dr. Zahra Mohammadi, Parwana Ibrahimkhil, Mursal Ayar and Tamana Zaryab Paryani
On February 11, almost three weeks after their alleged detention, reports emerged that the Taliban had released Parwana Ibrahimki, Mursal Ayar, and Zahra Mohammadi. A day later, it was reported that Tamana Paryani and her three sisters had also been released. There has been no official confirmation from the Taliban - who denied any arrest had taken place - and no comment from the activists or their families.
Prior to the reported release of the activists, AW spoke to women protesters and civil society activists to understand how the community was responding to the disappearances. Due to privacy and security concerns, AW is not revealing the names and identities of the activists.
Harassment of family members and fellow activists
Women's rights activists told AW that the number of detained and disappeared women activists is higher than the number published in the media. They added that the families of the incarcerated and disappeared women have avoided sharing their names and details with the media mainly due to fear of further torture of the detainees by the Taliban. One of the activists told AW that the Taliban had warned the families that if they raised the issue with the media, the detainees would suffer the consequences. In a similar vein, social stigma and shaming around women being jailed and potentially being sexually harassed and abused have also silenced the families.
Activists told AW that, since the detentions of the women protesters, the Taliban have harassed their fellow activists through the detainees' cell phone contacts and messages. Many women protesters have gone into hiding, while some have managed to flee the country. One of the women activists told AW that she had to change her whereabouts and SIM card as she had received threatening messages from unknown numbers. She feared the Taliban had tracked her phone.
According to the activists, families were given no hints about the detainees' whereabouts. One of the activists told AW that families had not talked to or met the detainees despite several attempts. The Taliban pressured them not to raise the issue further in the media.
Civil society and women's rights activists have expressed concern about the conditions inside the detention centres and the absence of female police. The activists shared their concerns about detainees' lack of access to basic human needs, such as water and food, and their vulnerability to sexual harassment and abuse inside the prisons.
The response from civil society
Members of civil society and women's rights activists - most of whom are now in exile - have advocated the release of the women protesters and detainees in numerous ways. They launched online campaigns, such as #FreeOurSisters on Twitter, and have issued statements condemning the detention of the female protesters and demanding their immediate release.
Further to that, organisations have been forming groups and coordination mechanisms to support women's and human rights activists in Afghanistan. For instance, six Afghan and international non-governmental organisations launched a new Afghanistan Human Rights Coordination Mechanism in late January to protect and support the country’s human rights defenders and civil society.
The women activists who also run civil society organisations in Afghanistan told AW that their colleagues on the ground have had meetings with Taliban officials and demanded the release of the women protesters. They, however, expressed their dismay and anger over the Taliban's denial and stern opposition to civil activism and freedom of speech.
Afghan women protesting against the Taliban’s restriction on women’s rights to education, work, and public and political participation.
On the other side, efforts are underway to evacuate as many activists as possible to a safer place outside of Afghanistan. The activists who talked to AW did not share specific details of the measures due to security concerns, but mentioned they have placed some women in safe houses and are coordinating with their broader networks to get them out of the country. They said they needed further financial support to rescue the women in danger as some of the activists had left their homes with only a few pieces of clothing.
In the meantime, women protesters are now evaluating their performance over the past six months; they are identifying their weaknesses and strengths. One of the protesters told AW that the recent detentions of the women activists has damaged their morale. However, she said they would not give up.