A new street battle by Afghan women that Taliban may not be prepared to fight

The sense of losing everything - after a quarter-century of modernization and social progress - seems to have broken the Afghan women's fear of confronting the Taliban, writes Shraddha Nand Bhatnagar for South Asia Monitor 

Shraddha Nand Bhatnagar Sep 09, 2021
A new street battle by Afghan women

On 15 August 2021, the day the Taliban marched into the streets of Kabul--apparently without firing a shot - Taliban leader Mullah Baradar, in his speech from Doha, Qatar the same evening, admitted it was an “unexpected” victory and they had not expected to win the war so soon. Weeks later, on those very same streets, another "unexpected" battle seems to be emerging-- one that Baradar probably won’t admit that his fighters aren’t prepared to fight. 

For the last three days, thousands of Afghan women - wearing the burkha but with faces uncovered - have been on the streets, protesting in Kabul and other cities, braving the gun-toting Taliban fighters, and in some cases facing the lashes by them. 

For the fundamentalist group which considers women inferior and seeks to curtail their freedom, the scenes of the unarmed Afghan women, challenging and arguing with battle-headed militants in close proximity, is an unimaginable as well as a socially humiliating situation--something the group’s fighters had never been trained to handle. 

It was clear since the beginning of the so-called peace process that Afghan women and girls would be the first casualty. The loss is already evident after the complete victory of the Taliban. Women have already been banned from sports; women professors at Kabul University have been asked not to report back to work. Women journalists were barred from entering the state television channel. 

The sense of losing everything - after a quarter-century of modernization and social progress - seems to have broken the Afghan women's fear of confronting the Taliban. 

Protests in several cities

Since Tuesday, the large-scale protests erupted in several cities, including Kabul, especially after a public visit by Pakistan Intelligence chief Lt. General Faiz Hameed. The Taliban assault in Panjshir and the subsequent call by Resistance Leader Ahmad Massoud for a nationwide uprising against the Taliban fueled the anger. 

Women and men chanted slogans, demanding “freedom” and “Death to Pakistan”. Common Afghans rarely wish death to someone, said one of the women. It is hard to find someone in the country who has not lost their loved ones in the protracted civil war, seen by many Afghans as a proxy conflict by Pakistan to dominate their country.

The battle-hardened Taliban militants brought to their knees the US-backed and armed Afghan security forces within weeks of the offensive, making the way clear for the return of the Taliban rule. The loss of the Republic dealt a big blow to Afghans, especially Afghan women. However, at a time, when the guns of the other side fell silent, Afghan women began waging a new kind of battle---first in the last forty years of the war-- without guns though. 

The Taliban’s new cabinet has neither included any woman nor leaders from outside of the Taliban--a cruel betrayal of the earlier assurance of forming an inclusive government.

Dasht-e-Barchi, an area in west Kabul dominated by Shia Hazara ethnic minority community, saw regular protests by women in recent days. In the last 20 years, the area witnessed constant suicide bombings, killing scores of civilians. Hazara, a historically persecuted community, in the 90s, witnessed genocide by the Taliban. However, the community - they form about 10-12 per cent of Afghanistan's 38 million population - especially their girls, made remarkable progress in fields of education and business--all of which are now at risk. 

On Wednesday, Alison Davidian, deputy head of UN Women in Afghanistan, said that a lack of clarity on the Taliban's position on women in Afghanistan has generated "incredible fear" across the country. US Secretary of State Anthony Bliken too has warned the Taliban, saying, “The Taliban seek international legitimacy. Any legitimacy -- any support -- will have to be earned."

Standoff with educated Afghans to grow 

The Taliban’s response to these protests has largely been coercive. Calling the protests “illegal”, the group, in an order issued on Wednesday, banned the protests. On Thursday, media reports say internet services in several areas in Kabul were down.  Journalists, covering these protests, were detained, tortured, and brutally assaulted; a few of them required hospitalization thereafter. Their cameras and phones were confiscated. 

The Sunni fundamentalist group, which considers itself as divine rulers and thinks that its governance and rules can’t be questioned, and are above international law and norms, has shown no sign of reconciling with Afghanistan's new generation. The Taliban's standoff with educated and aware Afghans, especially women in urban areas, is likely to grow further. 

The priority for the group appears to maintain cohesion within the Taliban movement--through hardline policies--rather than reconciling with changed Afghanistan and focusing on governance.  the Taliban doesn’t give two hoots to international criticism. It has been engaging with the world on its own terms and will continue to do so in the foreseeable future, even if it means ruling a starved population and a marginalized country in the international community. But for how long, and to what end, is a question whose answer is difficult to hazard. 

(The writer is Research Associate, South Asia Monitor. The views expressed are personal.  He can be contacted at snbhatnagar296@gmail.com)