Afghan women protest, 4 September 2021
Mariam, an activist with the Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan, living in Afghanistan, spoke to Sacha Ismail from Solidarity.
There have been some demonstrations for women's rights since the Taliban returned to power. Can you tell us more about that?
Yes, demonstrations started in the first week of full Taliban rule, particularly in Herat in the west of Afghanistan and in Kabul and other major cities. In these cities at least women before the collapse of the old government had some basic rights, like having jobs and going to school and university. These were small demonstrations, mostly dozens of women rather than many hundreds or thousands. Even communication is very difficult at the moment. But demonstrations took place in quite a lot of places, and that showed the power and strength that women in Afghanistan have. Some demonstrations were attacked by the Taliban.
The protests were not organised by a particular group or political party, but by women demanding their basic rights, because it is clear that the Taliban will prevent many women from going back to their jobs. A lot of those demonstrating were women employees, especially in government bodies. Often these women are the sole breadwinners for their families; there are a large number of widows living in Kabul and other areas. Without these jobs they cannot feed their children.
Since the Taliban returned, many schools are closed, with only some primary schools remaining open. Even there open they are insisting the male and female children must be separated. [Since the interview secondary schools have started to reopen – but with girls and female staff excluded.] Meanwhile the female employees, in government offices and in the private sector, are being sent home. So women could see immediately their rights are being violated.
Of course, before this, women in Afghanistan did not enjoy a lot of rights; it was a very male-dominated society. With the Taliban however there is a major change. Largely you don't even see women on the streets now. If they are on the streets it is in the burqa. But Afghan women are the not the same as 20 years ago. They have learnt a lot. It is very important to say this was not because of the US or NATO presence in Afghanistan. It is because 20 years is a long time and a generation who have had some basic rights want to try to keep them. We [RAWA] reject the US's deceiving slogans that it stood for women's rights and democracy in Afghanistan. The old government was not a democracy, it was a corrupt and rotten regime and in many ways a puppet. But at the same time many women went to school and work and were introduced to a new vision and saw things could be different. They don't want to experience what their mothers experienced under the first period of the Taliban.
Did you yourself take part in any of the demonstrations?
Yes, I did. One thing to explain is that we usually cover our faces, for obvious reasons – so we cannot be identified.
You mentioned that many of those protesting are women afraid for their jobs. Would they be members of any trade unions or workers' organisations?
There really isn't much in the way of trade unions in Afghanistan, even among male workers, because our economy is completely different. It's not an industrialised country, there aren't many factories. A lot of people are shopkeepers and so on, they work in small places. The women I'm talking about, in the cities, have mostly worked in the education system or healthcare, though more of the health system is still running. Also there are women who worked for aid agencies and the like, mainly in Kabul.
The other thing I should say is that there were also some women's rights protests that were joined by men too. However, as soon as the new Taliban administration was established, the very next day, one of the first things they announced was that no protests or demonstrations would be allowed. Unfortunately, the protests came to an end. Then in fact they mobilised some small demonstrations of their own female supporters, all covered from head to toe in black, including a meeting at Kabul University. Of course the various fundamentalist groups have a tradition of mobilising their wives and daughters and so on in this way; there are also women who have attended madrassas and are won over.
Do you think there could be student protests against the regime?
In Afghanistan university students have played an important role defending democracy and progressive values, particularly in the 1960s and 70s but more recently as well. Universities have been an important base for leftist and more generally progressive groups. But again it will be hard for them to demonstrate at least in the period ahead.
What has happened with the media there? I mean the local media, not international media.
Under the old government there was a lot more usage of the internet and social media. Now it is all changing. In the last few weeks there have been a lot of intellectuals, writers and so on arrested. Many journalists have fled the country or are in hiding. The media networks that have kept going are just putting on entertainment, not any reporting or political discussion. And suddenly there are hardly any women appearing.
There is some debate in the West about whether the Taliban will be as repressive as in the 90s, given the pressure from foreign governments but also the fact that Afghan society has changed. What would you say?
Well, in a sense the Taliban have changed, but not in a positive manner. They have not become more modern, let alone democratic. You can see this reality just from what I have described already. Very soon they will establish their own army and police and intelligence service, and they will control the population more and more. It is absolutely in the nature of the Taliban that they are reactionary fundamentalists. It would be foolish to expect any positive changes from them. So for instance they say they are not against women's rights, but listen to what they actually say, that women's rights must come under sharia law. Sharia law is itself incompatible with the rights of women and means limiting them. The very best that we could end up with is something like Iran, but of course you know what a misogynistic regime that is, and very likely it will be far worse.
I think that for the majority of Western governments and the Western media, if they can achieve their goals, it won't matter much to them what is happening in Afghanistan. They are not against dealing with the Taliban and if they can get them in line they will find ways to legitimise them. We will hear a lot more about how the Taliban have changed and modernised and so on.
What does RAWA say or what do you say about the US withdrawal?
For 20 years we raised the slogan for independence of the country and against the US occupation. We think that in the long run the US leaving is positive for Afghanistan, because we were an occupied country and because of the US's support for fundamentalist and terrorist groups. But the US will want to try to keep some influence in Afghanistan, partly because it fears the influence of Russia and China. The US can deal can work with so-called "democrats" and technocrats as we had before or it can work with jihadist terrorists.
What role do you expect other governments to play, in particular China?
For China it is a golden opportunity to pursue their own economic interests in the area through friendship with the Taliban. China's involvement will absolutely not benefit the people of Afghanistan. We believe that no foreign power, whether that was the US, the former Soviet Union, Russia or now China can bring justice and peace to Afghanistan. It is only by our own people becoming conscious, becoming organised, being mobilised and rising up that we can achieve justice.
There are food shortages in Afghanistan? How do you think the Taliban will deal with the issue and could it lead to protests?
As I explained they have banned protests so for now I think that will be very difficult. People will be dissatisfied, of course, the situation is very bad now and getting worse - though poverty and hunger are not a new thing in Afghanistan. We don't know yet what the Taliban will do. Possibly they will allow some international aid agencies and organisations in, but I don't know whether they will allow local NGOs to start running programmes again.
What is your attitude to humanitarian aid? In your view should it be opposed because of the Taliban, or supported anyway to relieve distress?
It is a sad situation, because our people are in dire need of assistance. In reality though very little of this kind of assistance reaches needy people. For years foreign aid agencies here operated with their own huge admin costs, and they were ineffective reaching the remote villages. Now many of these organisations no longer function at all. So aid can function as a kind of bribe for the Taliban, propping up and legitimising their government. The Pakistani prime minister, Imran Khan, called it a treat for the Taliban!
That actually brings me to another question, which is do you have links with women's rights activists and the left in Pakistan?
During the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan there were many Afghan refugees in Pakistan and RAWA was active there, including in organising humanitarian relief. We were kept under surveillance and pressure from the Pakistani government and Pakistani intelligence services. Our members were arrested and some of our meetings and demonstrations were attacked. We had a good relationship with left and progressive and women's rights organisations there. However after the fall of the Taliban in 2001 we moved our organising back to Kabul and so our connections in Pakistan have weakened.
In general I should stress that we always see a huge difference between the governments we criticise and the ordinary population, the people, and especially those seeking social justice. We criticised the Pakistani government, but we know there are many freedom-loving people and movements in Pakistan; we strongly criticised the United States government, but our biggest networks of supporters are in the US.
In terms of the Taliban's oppression of women, was it previously harsher in the countryside or the cities? How do you think it will be now?
It will be harsher in the cities, as it was before, because in countries like Afghanistan everyday life, and the mentality of the people, is a bit different in the cities compared to the remote villages. Those are the main areas where civil rights exist, where there is some media, some political activities and so on. People in the cities are generally more concerned about these kinds of rights. In the countryside people are very much involved in the daily routine of getting up and going to work in the fields. In many areas they don't even have electricity, let alone phone connections or the internet. The Taliban has been dominant in these areas for much longer. Now they will be able to carry out their repression in the cities.
In the last 20 years, in the cities, it was extremely rare to find a woman in a burqa. Women wore headscarves but as the years went by they were getting smaller and in general women's clothes were getting less restrictive. Many young women wore tight jeans and maybe long sleeved t-shirts or something like that. There was lots of Western-style fashions. Now all that has been wiped out.
Is it right the previously in some rural areas the Taliban made exceptions to their rules about women's dress so women could continue to work in the fields?
In certain areas, in eastern Afghanistan, women have had the right to work in the fields and do not wear the burqa. They wear their own traditional clothes and small headscarves. The Taliban allowed this for their own self-interested reasons, to keep things running. But in most of Afghanistan women mostly do not work in the fields. They are very much involved in agriculture, but the work they do is in their own houses or in their gardens or similar.
How much popular support do the Taliban have, in you view? Do they have any support among women?
I would say they have very little support, particularly in the cities. In the rural areas there will be some people who support them – not because they think the Taliban are wonderful, but because they were fed up with the previous government. They were fed up with the bombing of rural areas by the government, backed by the US. Of course it was mostly civilians who were killed. So some people think ok, now we can put an end to this and under the Taliban we can get on with our work in agriculture. Still, even in the most remote villages of Afghanistan, you will find many people who are concerned about education for their children, including girls, who are concerned about healthcare for women. I always say, Afghan people are not from some other planet. They want rights, they want development, better living standards. So when they see the Taliban taking things back many years, they may not accept that.
Obviously that is even more the case among women; but don't forget that people can be brainwashed. Some women for instance will see the madrassas the Taliban run as a positive thing for children, a good service in a part of the world where there are not many services. That is where most of the Taliban fighters come from, they are young men in the 20s or 30s who were brought up in these schools.
The Taliban is a Pashtun-dominated movement and their new government is Pashtun-dominated. What will their rule mean for different ethnic groups in Afghanistan?
When the various fundamentalist groups were growing in Afghanistan, from the 1970s, they used religious and ethnic differences to build up their forces, by claiming to defend this or that group. In reality they were just as repressive to most people in their "own" communities as the other groups they were fighting. What it did do is encourage a very bad trend, where people think in terms of their own group. Previously things were much more mixed up and fluid in terms of marriages, families, friendships. As an organisation we say that ethnic questions, like gender questions, can only be solved on the basis of a just, secular, democratic government that guarantees equality for people of all ethnicities. However, yes, you are right, the Taliban are a Pashtun movement and they are a threat to other ethnic groups, in particular the Hazara people who have always been under attack as a minority in the country.
What kind of activities is RAWA trying to organise now?
Even before this, we didn't have offices. We ran out of people's houses, through private meetings in homes and so on. Now it is extremely difficult for us as you can imagine. Some of us have some experience from the first period of Taliban rule, when we regularly documented executions, beatings and the oppression of women. We will do that again. We we will continue our fight, with patience and determination. It will be more difficult than before and we will not be as strong. We will have to see what is possible and how we need to adapt.
We have always taken a lot of strength from international support, by which I mean support from activists in other countries. We have never received any support from governments or mainstream organisations. We do need support from freedom- and justice-loving people, more than ever. The first thing is to listen to the voices of those fighting for human rights in Afghanistan and try to magnify them. The second is to understand that the Taliban have not changed, not fundamentally, and to reject and challenge any talk suggesting they have.
We are working with V-Day and One Billion Rising to call for solidarity actions around the world on 25 September. It would be great if people could organise some actions in the UK.