Afghan Women Risk Lives to Protest Taliban Brutality and Harsh Restrictions

Taliban forces pepper sprayed a group of women’s rights protesters in Kabul—one of many violent acts waged against Afghans since the collapse of the government in August 2021.

Afghan women march as they chant slogans and hold banners during a women’s rights protest in Kabul on January 16, 2022. (Photo by Wakil KOHSAR / AFP via Getty Images)

The Taliban’s taking control of Afghanistan has led to humanitarian crisis in the country. Afghan citizens now face widespread hunger; extensive poverty; violence, including a cracking down on women’s rights; and a crippled economy, caused in part by the widespread dismissal of women from most workplaces and schools. “It’s the sheer levels of desperation that we’re seeing in people. The humanitarian situation seems to be going from bad to worse,” said Vicki Aiken, Afghanistan director of the International Rescue Committee.

In response to the desperate state of affairs in the region, Afghan women activists gathered in front of Kabul University on Sunday, Jan. 16 demanding the right to work and receive an education. The demonstrators also decried the fatal shooting of Zainab Abdullahi at a Taliban checkpoint and the disappearance of Herat women’s prison manager Alia Azizi—both of whom are Hazaras, a minority ethnic group that has been targeted by the Taliban—as well as the alleged torturing of women protesters in Mazar-e-Sharif, the fourth largest city in Afghanistan.

The protesters chanted “equality and justice” and carried banners that read “women’s rights, human rights.” The protest was soon ended by the Taliban fighters who harassed and ultimately pepper sprayed the women protesters.

“When we were near Kabul University, three Taliban vehicles came, and fighters from one of the vehicles used pepper spray on us,” said one woman, who asked not to be named for security reasons. “My right eye started to burn. I told one of them: ‘Shame on you,’ and then he pointed his gun at me.”

One of the women was taken to hospital after the spray caused an allergic reaction in her eyes and face. Journalists were also asked to leave the scene and a man’s mobile phone was taken by the Taliban because he was filming the demonstration.

Since the collapse of the Afghan government in August 2021, Taliban authorities have removed women and girls from public employment and public universities. Women are no longer allowed to pursue an education post elementary school.

Last week’s protest followed another earlier this month, in which a group of women took to streets of Kabul to rally against new restrictions imposed on them by the Ministry of Virtue and Vice after the Taliban installed posters in some parts of Kabul demanding women to wear burqa or niqab and not allowing women to travel long distances without a male guardian. Videos shared on social media also show that women are writing slogans on Kabul walls at night to show their refusal to obey and defiance toward Taliban’s forced restrictions.  

“I am a woman and I am mahram to myself,” said Shabana Shabdiz, one protester. Mahram refers to a close male family member, husband, father, brother, uncle, whom a woman is not obligated to cover up around.

“In this march, we ask for our rights to education and employment from the current rulers,” said Shahla Arifi, another protester. The women also urged the world not to remain silent about the Taliban especially when it comes to women and their basic human rights.

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