Afghan Women Lead Resistance as Taliban Squeezes Rebels, Unveils Hardline Cabinet

Afghan women are leading the first major civil challenge to the new regime in Kabul, again taking to the streets Wednesday to demand their hard-won freedoms and defy Taliban fighters who have been breaking up marches with clubs and rifle fire.

The Taliban assault on the Afghan resistance in the Panjshir Valley, Pakistani influence on the group and its new cabinet, and the deteriorating economic condition inside Afghanistan are among the drivers of this week's protests.

The militant group's announcement of its interim government on Tuesday gave the unrest a new edge. The interim government confirmed the fears of those who doubted the group's commitment to an inclusive ruling body representative of the Afghan people.

The 33-member government—all Taliban members—includes no women and only three non-Pashtuns—the ethnic group that dominates the Taliban.

With Ahmad Massoud's National Resistance Front under intense pressure in the Panjshir Valley, the women of Afghanistan have taken up the mantle of resistance to Taliban rule.

Marzia—whose surname is withheld for her own safety—from Kabul was among the women protesting in the capital on Tuesday. She told Newsweek that around half of those marching were women: "They were leading this movement."

Taliban fighters broke up the march, attacking protesters and badly injuring one of Marzia's friends. "They do not believe in human rights or women rights," she said of the Taliban, suggesting any signs of new moderation or tolerance are merely an act for the international community.

"They were chasing me when I was escaping, they wanted to arrest me. It shows that they do not believe in democracy. We didn't do anything wrong, we just want our freedom."

Afghanistan's women have a great deal to lose, especially in the major cities and the capital Kabul where two decades of international presence had fostered the most opportunity for women.

Farkhunda Zahra Naderi is a former member of Afghanistan's parliament, a senior advisor to former President Ashraf Ghani, and a member of Afghanistan's High Council for National Reconciliation.

"There have been 20 years of constant changes in Afghanistan, therefore, we're talking about generations. During these 20 years, we have been more connected to the world than we have ever been," Naderi told Newsweek from the Uzbekistani capital Tashkent.

"We've had so many young people going to different parts of the world for scholarships, workshops, attending conferences, and so on, and coming back to bring those experiences and knowledge with them.

"These years changed the face of Afghanistan, maybe not totally because we have a lot to do, but they are all a part of our achievements. That is why today Afghan women are different...

"Women are daring to get out from Herat to Kabul, from Kabul to Nimruz, from Nimruz to Balkh. They are getting out and they're obstinate in demanding their rights from the Taliban. They are trying to make the Taliban realize that this is the kind of culture that Afghans have been living with for these 20 years.

"And if they want to be a part of today's society, they have to get used to these realities. You can't ask 35 to 38 million to change their culture or their habits."

On Tuesday, the Taliban declared the protests illegal and on Wednesday again resorted to force to try and stop women reaching the center of Kabul. There have been numerous other protests around the country.

The Taliban has assured women they will be safe in the new Afghanistan, publicly urging them to take part in government while also suggesting they stay at home for their own safety.

Spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid said last month that women would be safe "within the framework of Sharia"—a vague statement that for some observers hinted at a return to the fundamentalism and oppression of the 1990s.

Men and women are already being separated in university classrooms. Female students have been ordered to wear full face coverings. It appears the Taliban is swiftly and systematically rolling back two decades of progress.

"We hardly know what 'according to Sharia' means," Samira Hamidi, an Afghanistan campaigner for Amnesty International told Newsweek. "If they mean the same Sharia that they were imposing in 1996 on people including on women, then I don't think they are actually respecting women's rights."

The composition of the interim government is a blow to all those who were hoping for a new Taliban that would fulfill supposed commitments to inclusivity. It will also make an international diplomatic thaw more difficult, and much-needed economic relief less likely.

Afghan women are showing the Taliban that silencing them will not be easy.

"Women are not ready for another round of repression. They can and will still protest, they will still speak up for their rights, no matter if the international community is there or not," Hamidi said.

"When the Taliban took over Afghanistan in 1996 it was a broken country. It was a country of many civil wars...there were no systems in place, women had already suffered a lot. But today, it's a different Afghanistan."

The Taliban is not a monolith. Tuesday's interim government is the result of weeks of political jockeying and negotiation. Different factions and leaders will propose different approaches to the female-led protests. Some may prefer dialogue and reassurance, others will want to silence dissent.

"I think the Taliban should listen to them," Naderi said.

"These women want to be heard so they can be given a space for a dialogue, that they can express their concerns, and then the Taliban can answer them. And through this dialogue, we can come to some kind of conclusion.

"Otherwise, I don't think that ideas of inclusivity and an accountable upcoming government can have meaning...A true peace starts only when Afghans are listening to each other.

"It's not that the women are imposing themselves on the Taliban. Everyone should understand that women are a part of this society and they have contributed to the wellbeing of Afghanistan.

"As they say, if you educate a man you educate a human being, but if you educate a woman you're educating a society. I would say you are educating a nation. This is about how we transform from a culture of war into a culture of peace."

There have been multiple reports of Taliban fighters harassing protesters at Wednesday's rallies, as well as detaining journalists trying to cover the demonstrations.

"People are afraid," Marzia said after Tuesday's march. "But tomorrow we also have a protest. I wish to have a free Afghanistan, I just wish to come back home alive."

The State Department has expressed reservations about the Taliban's interim government.

"We note the announced list of names consists exclusively of individuals who are members of the Taliban or their close associates and no women," a State Department spokesperson told Al Jazeera.

"We also are concerned by the affiliations and track records of some of the individuals...We understand that the Taliban has presented this as a caretaker cabinet. However, we will judge the Taliban by its actions, not words."

But Afghan women in the streets feel abandoned. "I want them to stand with us," Marzia said of the international community.

"Where is the UN now? Where are human rights now? Why are they silent? They are seeing what the Taliban are doing in our country but they are just watching us.

"Shame on them."

Afghan women protest in Kabul vs Taliban
Afghan women hold banners and placards as they take part in a protest in Kabul, Afghanistan on September 8, 2021. HOSHANG HASHIMI/AFP via Getty Images