Kabul: Afghanistan marked International Women’s Day in muted fashion on Tuesday, with activists cowed by the threat of arrest or detention at the hands of the country’s new Taliban rulers.
Since returning to power on August 15 the Taliban have rolled back two decades of gains made by the country’s women, who have been squeezed out of government employment, barred from travelling alone, and ordered to dress according to a strict interpretation of the Quran.
“The Taliban have taken away the sky as well as the ground from us,” said an activist from the Woman’s Unity and Solidarity Group, asking not to be named.
“If you care about women’s rights - anywhere in the world - you should be watching Afghanistan with deep alarm,” said Heather Barr, of Human Rights Watch.
“It’s been shocking to see how fast the progress of the last 20 years has been yanked back and how little the international community has done to stand up for Afghan women,” she told AFP Tuesday.
Some Afghan women initially pushed back strongly against Taliban restrictions, holding small demonstrations and protests where they demanded the right to education and work.
But the Taliban soon wearied of the spectacle and rounded-up several of the ringleaders, holding them incommunicado even while denying they had been detained.
Since their release, most have gone silent, although the Taliban distributed videos of some purporting to confess they had been encouraged to protest by activists abroad, who said it would help them gain asylum.
Several rights groups said the alleged confessions were forced, calling them “hostage videos”.
The Taliban at least acknowledged International Women’s Day, with the foreign ministry calling it “auspicious”, adding they would be provided with “an honourable and beneficial life in light of the noble religion of Islam and our accepted traditions”.
Zabihullah Mujahid, the Taliban’s chief spokesman, tweeted the day was “a great opportunity for our Afghan women to demand their legitimate rights” - even though protests are banned unless permission is given.
Soon after taking power, the new government abolished the Ministry of Women’s Affairs, replacing it with its dreaded religious police - the Ministry for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice.
Behind the walls of the sprawling United Nations compound on the outskirts of Kabul, an exhibition jointly organised by the UN and the Afghan Women’s Chamber of Commerce and Industry showcased goods made by local female-owned businesses.
“It’s a hope and a positive thing,” said Tayeba Mashal, 47, owner of a firm that bears her name.
“We are hopeful that the women who are hiding in their homes because of the fear of insecurity will rise again in the society, resume their work, and resume their activities.”
No other major public events were planned on Tuesday by women’s groups, although one said members would mark the occasion by releasing balloons.
“Because of the restrictions imposed on us, we could not do it (collectively),” a Woman’s Unity and Solidarity Group member told AFP.
“Now, everyone will do it individually at their homes.”
A handful of members from another group, the Afghanistan Powerful Women Movement, planned to donate blood at a local hospital, but the Taliban denied them permission.
“The director of Jamhuriat Hospital said donating blood by women is not allowed as per Sharia law,” said member Zakia Zahadat.