Women's rights activists march in Kabul against new face-covering order, despite threats and risk of imprisonment from Taliban
"You are all loose women for protesting against the burqa. Why don't you want to cover your bodies? You are not Muslims," a Taliban fighter yelled at Zoya* when she led a march of 20 women in Kabul on Tuesday. Zoya, 38, a women's rights activist and mother of five, was protesting against the controversial burqa decree issued by the Taliban last Saturday.
The decree says that women must cover their face in public, by wearing either the head-to-toe burqa, which has a grille for the face, or the niqab, which covers the face except for an opening for the eyes. Most women in Afghanistan wear a head covering but do not cover their face, though women in rural areas tend to dress more conservatively.
It's the latest addition to the raft of restrictions imposed by the Taliban since they took over Afghanistan last August. Women are barred from seeking employment, except in jobs that can only be filled by female employees (such as midwives, dressmakers and some administrative roles); and girls between grades 7-12 have been banned from going to secondary school.
The edict, issued by the Ministry for the Propagation of Virtue and Prevention of Vice, has alarmed not only the women of Afghanistan, but also the international community, which condemned the newest suppression of women's rights in the country. The UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) said it is "deeply concerned" by the move.
Zoya and other women activists mobilised as soon as they heard rumours about the new edict, one day before it was announced. As soon as the women started their demonstration in the capital, carrying placards that read 'No to obligatory burqa' and 'The burqa is not our hijab', they were confronted by Taliban fighters carrying guns.
"They screamed at us. They were pointing guns and threatened to attack some of the protestors. They called us loose women with no morals or character. You could translate that to the worst word you can use for women in English. That's what they said," explained a distraught Zoya.
"One of the Talibs turned towards a protester, who he knew was Pashtun, and asked why she was joining a protest with women like us, Tajiks, who are not Muslims. It was terrible. We were detained for two hours, questioned, threatened, and warned that if we continue, we will be imprisoned for these protests."
Samira*, 25, another women's rights activist, also demonstrated in Kabul against the new decree, on Monday. She explained what happened: "We can't just sit down and accept these restrictions imposed on us by the Taliban. They can't just suppress our voices. At 10am, I reached a park and spoke to the women there, and asked if they would join my protest against the Taliban. I was honestly surprised that they agreed, given the recent news of abductions and forced disappearances of women protestors. We stood together and demanded our rights."
Samira's life changed overnight when Kabul fell. Previously, she ran a successful clothing business in Kabul, alongside two male business partners. As soon as the Taliban took control of the city, it was announced that women must stop working and should be accompanied by mehrams (male relatives). "I had two men as business partners and we weren't allowed to work together anymore. I was forced to shut my enterprise. I was also setting up a little restaurant. They've made me change my life enough. I can't let them rule over my choices of clothing," said Samira.
Zoya worked for 18 years as a teacher, but lost her job when the Taliban closed schools for older girls. She wants to speak up for the rights of girls who are banned from classrooms and for the women of Afghanistan whose voices are being silenced. "We went back 20 years to the day the Taliban arrived here. My three daughters can't go to school. If I don't fight for them today, who else will?," asked Zoya. There are no restrictions on her two school-age sons.
Samira, Zoya and the dozens of other activists who protested unanimously reject the new rule. "We do not and will not wear a burqa. We already wear a hijab, which is our choice," said Zoya.
In a similarly defiant tone, Samira added: "You can't just make half of the population of the country disappear. We will defy these restrictions and only we women can choose what we want to wear. All I'm asking for is for the Taliban to change these rules and give us our freedom. For now, I won't wear it, even if they threaten to kill me."
Family support - including from men
As part of the new decree, the Taliban also announced that it will arrest male relatives of women who refuse to cover themselves from head to toe. Despite these threats, Zoya and Samira chose to stand against the Taliban. Zoya said: "My husband and male members of my family asked me to avoid these protests initially, but now they have decided to support my fight for women's rights. The men and women of Afghanistan have united in opposing this regime. We don't want them to rule us."
Seconding Zoya's stand, Samira added: "It's the same in my family too. My mother is worried for my safety and has asked me to avoid the protests. But at the end of the day, they're supportive of my choices and understand that if we don't unite against this rule, nothing will change in our beautiful motherland."
Women rights activists have faced threats ever since they marched on the streets, a few days after the Taliban first banned women from working. One of the most outspoken civil rights activists who led these protests is Hoda Khamosh, who represented Afghan women at talks on the humanitarian crisis in Oslo. In January 2022, sitting across from a table of Taliban officials, Khamosh stood up and demanded they call Kabul and release jailed protestors.
Speaking this week about the mandatory face veil decree, Khamosh said: "No one has recognised the Taliban as a government and all the promises they've made in international summits have not been kept yet. They're not only not stopping targeted killings, but are also trying to erase women from society. By imposing this rule they're trying to shut women within four walls. The Taliban are doing this because it was us women who stood against them. They believe women are slaves and aren't humans. They think we exist only to marry and have babies with. The Taliban don't think we're capable of doing anything else."
Khamosh's demands against the Taliban in Oslo were in response to forced killings, abductions and raids, which continue to grab headlines. Last September, female protestors and women's rights activists who protested against the ban on education and employment were beaten by the Taliban in Kabul and Herat.
However, these encounters and violent threats have failed to shake the will of Afghanistan's women. "If they think we will stop protesting after yesterday's verbal abuse, they're mistaken." said Zoya. "I am fighting for the future of my daughters and many others in our country. We plan to march again. Not only against the burqa decree, but also for education, hunger, poverty and employment rights."
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