Women in Afghanistan who object to what the Taliban have said and done since returning to power are finding it harder to protest, now that impromptu demonstrations have been banned and previous rallies were broken up by gunfire and beatings.
Resistance within families and concerns over sharing information over social media that could identify people involved are also acting as deterrents, according to six female protesters Reuters spoke to across the country.
Sporadic demonstrations by women demanding that the Taliban respect their civil freedoms have been captured on social media, as have the sometimes violent responses, drawing the world’s attention to issues of equality and human rights.
The last time the Taliban ruled in the 1990s, they banned women from work and girls from school, allowed women to leave their homes only when accompanied by a male relative and insisted that women wore all-enveloping burqas.
Those who broke the rules were sometimes whipped in public by the Islamist militants’ “moral police”.
This time the Taliban are promising greater freedom for women, including in education and employment, in accordance with their interpretation of Islamic law.
Yet older girls are still not back at school, there are no women in senior positions in the new government, the Women’s Ministry in Kabul has been shut and the Taliban have said women will only be allowed to work in a small number of jobs.
Women wanting to express their anger publicly are struggling to do so. Six who took part in demonstrations after the Taliban stormed to power on Aug. 15 said they had not done so since early September.
“We have a lot of plans to stage more protests, but unfortunately due to security concerns, we are not going out much right now,” said Nasima Bakhtiary, a former commerce ministry worker in Kabul.
“We have seen so much harassment … regarding our protests … we have to be careful.”
Earlier this month, the Taliban said protests were not banned, but that those wanting to hold demonstrations needed to seek prior permission and provide details of place, timings and slogans that would be chanted.
Taliban spokespeople did not respond to requests for comment for this story.
Based on interviews with organisers, social media posts and advocacy groups, Reuters counted seven significant women-led protests between Aug. 15, when the Taliban came to power, and Sept 8. when they made permission necessary.
Since Sept. 8, Reuters has counted one, on Sept. 19 outside the women’s ministry building in Kabul after it was shut down. The sign outside has been switched to that of the Ministry for Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice – the moral police.
Maryam Sadat, a 23-year-old law student and protest organiser in Kabul, said she and a small number of others had tried to stage a demonstration on Sept. 30, but it was dispersed by members of the Taliban.
Women have also been involved in broader protests, some of which have involved hundreds of people. Several people have been killed, some demonstrators have been beaten and the Taliban have fired warning shots in the air to disperse crowds.
The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights last month condemned the violence against protesters, including women.
“As Afghan women and men take to the streets during this time of great uncertainty in their country to press peacefully for their human rights to be respected … it is crucial that those in power listen to their voices,” it said.
Women like Taranom Seyedi said they were scared to continue to demonstrate.
The 34-year-old women’s rights activist in Kabul who helped organise some of the protests there said she had received letters saying the Taliban had made a list of all the women who protested and would conduct house searches for them.
She does not know who sent the letters, but has erased protest-related content from her social media accounts as a precaution, and said others had done so too.
Sadat went further.
“Since my participation in the protest, I’ve had to relocate twice … My family is terrified, and even my neighbours are concerned and urging me not to join.”
Others spoke of pushback from those close to them, including Zulaikha Akrami, a 24-year-old international relations graduate who worked at a foreign non-profit organisation in the northeastern province of Badakhshan.
“My mother tried to threaten me not to go and said if you go, don’t call me mother,” said Akrami, referring to a demonstration she attended in Badakhshan on Sept. 8.
She said she recalled her younger brother telling her: “If they beat you to death, I won’t be there to pick up your body off the street.”