A movement that got off to a bold start is now waning. Here’s a survey of the internal and external factors that brought this about.
While Western nations sent out planes to evacuate their staff and armed forces, while fear and despair gripped the people of Afghanistan, and the president and all high-ranking government officials fled from the country, suddenly we appeared in the public arena. We came without weapons, expressing our opposition to the Taliban on the streets of Kabul bearing only a heart full of love for our country. Decisively and vociferously we raised our voices against the Taliban’s efforts to exclude women from society, against fundamentalism, tyranny and misogyny – standing up to a terrorist group that has no concept of humanity or civilisation.
We had no ties to any government faction or political parties in Afghanistan, neither did we have any contacts to high-ranking figures. Most of us were just girls and young women from mainstream society who had not yet played any role in the country’s political life. But the more liberal atmosphere of the past ten years had shaped and influenced us. Behind the scenes we had been growing up as self-assured women and girls, and now we came together and courageously confronted the Taliban – to exuberant acclaim from the rest of the world.
It is notable that we came from all ethnic groups – Hazara, Pashtun, Tajik, Uzbek and more. We were organised in separate sub-groups with different approaches and strategies, but we all took to the streets together with a shared goal. We chanted slogans like “Education, work, freedom”. We worked tirelessly to organise and shape the protests. Since it wasn’t always possible to march on the streets due to Taliban violence, we continued our protests at home or in private inner courtyards, and we got our message out by posting images and videos online. Gradually our movement began to spread from Kabul to other towns and cities, and the pressure grew so intense that the plight of the women of Afghanistan was discussed at all international meetings and conferences on the Afghan situation. The eyes of the world were directed at us; our determination to work together to fight against the injustices seemed unshakeable.
The Taliban reacted to the protests with a wave of arrests and torture. In the wake of house searches, threats, the mysterious disappearance of fellow protestors, and open persecution and murder, many committed and well-educated women had to leave their homes, often ending up homeless. Sometimes, simply possession of a university degree was enough of a crime in the eyes of the Taliban.
But today, two years on, the voices of Afghan women have become fainter, inside the country and even more so in the diaspora. And so it seems all the more important to me to understand what internal and external factors and mistakes led the bold feminist movement in Afghanistan to dwindle in this way.
Lack of experience with data security
In the years before the Taliban regained power in August 2021, fighting the Taliban was a matter for the military. When women in Afghanistan organised protests, these usually took the form of meetings and assemblies supported by international NGOs and state assistance programmes for women. Many Afghan women were involved in setting up this support infrastructure, created during Ashraf Ghani’s term in office. The programmes provided legal assistance to women and girls involved in interpersonal conflicts such as domestic violence or forced marriage of minors and offered them protection in safe houses, for example. This way, we were able to assert and enforce women’s rights to a certain degree.
We resistance members had underestimated the significance of digital security strategies, the Taliban did not.
In the weeks and months after the Taliban seized power, the situation was a very different one. The protest groups throughout the country, particularly in the cities, consisted primarily of younger women. Everyone was racked with fear, and the security situation was catastrophic. Most meetings therefore had to take place virtually, as did mobilisation efforts and the organisation of public demonstrations. However, that made it easier for the Taliban to work out where a demonstration would take place. They often knew about our meeting points even before we got their ourselves and would break up our groups before the demonstration could get started.
We organised our protest actions digitally, through various chat groups, without adequately considering data security. The information we exchanged was not protected, and we repeatedly accepted new members in our chat groups without knowing for sure that they were genuine members of the resistance. That had disastrous consequences. The Taliban were not only able to identify the times and places of protests, they also knew the names of participants and even where we lived. Many of us were arrested and whipped as punishment. But that wasn’t all.
Using the confiscated telephones of arrested women activists, the Taliban had access to all the information that had been shared by our groups. We had thereby unwittingly helped the Taliban secret services to infiltrate our groups. Only with hindsight did we realise we should have immediately disposed of our telephones following arrest. The Taliban were no longer as poorly informed as they had been in the 1990s. While many of our resistance members had underestimated the significance of digital security strategies, the Taliban had been expanding their own digital capabilities.
Infiltration by Taliban spies
Another serious blow to our resistance efforts in Afghanistan was the infiltration of our groups by a handful of female Taliban spies. Some even infiltrated leadership teams. Those spies sowed fear and distrust among the women activists; we began suspecting and blaming one another. At a time when unity and solidarity were urgently needed, instead we were quarrelling. Rising distrust led to the dissolution of many protest groups. In the worst cases, the locations of safe houses in Kabul were disclosed.
Extreme poverty and security concerns
A decisive factor that may well have motivated some women to work with the Taliban was fear for their own safety and intimidation by Taliban secret service operatives. Several fellow activists were harassed by Taliban soldiers during demonstrations. Sometimes they would agree to cooperate with the Taliban in order to escape imprisonment or torture – or out of the fear that their families might be harmed.
Since women were now forbidden from undertaking paid employment, families without a male head were at particular risk of extreme poverty. Out of the sheer need to feed their families, some of our fellow activists accepted the Taliban’s offer to serve as morality police in prisons or elsewhere.
The role of female Afghan politicians in exile
The character of the demonstrations quickly changed with the attempts by former high-ranking female politicians to influence the groups of protesting women inside Afghanistan. When the Taliban recaptured the country, these women were the first to flee into exile, thanks to the good relations abroad that they had established during their term in office. In the past they had portrayed themselves as heroines fighting for the rights of women in Afghanistan. Now, they left Afghan women and girls to their own devices.
When the pictures and videos of the Afghan women’s rebellion began making international headlines and the world applauded their courage, suddenly those female politicians abroad were nowhere to be seen. Subsequent conversations revealed that the images of women from poor urban districts protesting out on the streets had triggered feelings of guilt within them. In order to assuage their consciences, they reached out to the leaders of the movement in Afghanistan and gained our confidence. They promised financial support or got in contact with women activists who were already in trouble with the Taliban and helped them leave the country.
The trust we placed in those women who had for years been involved in the West’s political projects to advance women’s rights and social justice ultimately led to disunity and discord within our groups. Some resistance groups separated off from the rest, and women activists began accusing one another of accepting money to keep the protests going. Far too much energy was wasted on justifying our behaviour to one another. And, indeed, gradually the motivation for participating in the protests began to change. While the activists had originally taken to the streets in order to stand up for our rights, now some of us began doing this in order to get out of the country as soon as possible.
Ultimately, those quarrels led to a point where the discord between protestors became known to outsiders, and the Taliban secret services learned of it. Once they discovered this weakness, they intensified their efforts to infiltrate our protest groups.
Mistakes made by UN representatives in Afghanistan
Representatives of the United Nations and other international bodies met with members of the protest movement in three- to four-hour sessions in Kabul. However, they neglected to make use of the opportunity presented by those meetings to speak with the women about security risks and the need for protective measures in both the digital and analogue worlds. Apparently, these representatives of major international organisations simply forgot to address this crucial matter.
Help to flee: the only assistance offered by the international community
Another factor that weakened the protests was the consistent, broad-ranging encouragement from abroad to leave Afghanistan. We were increasingly given the impression that we were in constant and immediate mortal danger. Some of the women activists who left the country did not properly consider the situation of those left behind, and as a result created security risks for them.
The international community must finally work to build trust and a positive relationship with the activists who have remained in the country.
Shortly after fleeing, some women who had only recently been demonstrating on the streets of Kabul now appeared in photographs taken at international conferences on the Afghan situation. The Taliban made use of those images to discredit our protests and accuse the young women of protesting purely to assist their asylum process. As a result, during the last of the demonstrations the women were mocked and insulted by passers-by and shopkeepers. There were cases of ordinary people helping the Taliban to arrest women and girls. Families whose daughters had been seen protesting in the media were put under pressure by property owners and neighbours, and were ultimately forced to leave their home or locality. They were accused of endangering the safety of their families and their neighbourhood. Some were beaten by their parents or husband, or they were threatened with divorce if they continued to demonstrate or give interviews. That kind of harassment and oppression contributed greatly to the steady decline of the protests in Afghanistan; the women’s voices faded; and the Taliban were able to continue to pursue its misogynistic and inhuman policies with ever greater confidence.
Protests by women in Iran
Another decisive factor behind the decline of the Afghan women’s protest movement both at home and abroad was the protests that took place across Iran from September 2022. The death of Jina Mahsa Amini following her arrest by Iranian morality police sparked fury and indignation among wide swathes of the Iranian population. Women and men took to the streets side by side to protest against the religious dictatorship in Iran, using all available platforms to get organised and attract attention to what was happening in their country. Although the Iranian protestors also met with tremendous violence and some were even killed, they did not consider leaving the country. Unlike in Afghanistan, the international community also did not try to encourage the protestors to flee.
What sets the demands of the Iranian women apart from our protests here in Afghanistan is the vastly different Iranian perspective: there is rarely a lack of bread, work and education in the Islamic Republic. The Iranian protestors aspire to change the ideology at government level, and to effect that change they are using all the tools at their disposal. By leveraging digital content, international conferences, and powerful hashtags, the Iranians were quickly able to gain global solidarity and attention for their cause. The movement’s influence was so great that it was even able to bring about a huge protest rally for regime change in the heart of the German capital. In the meantime, the women of Afghanistan are demonstrating for bread, work, participation in social and political life, and for their very survival – even if that means working and surviving under the rule of the Taliban.
Fruitless efforts of international organisations
Representatives of leading international organisations, including the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA), came to Afghanistan and encouraged the women to continue their protests by offering a sympathetic ear and making promises. Eighteen months later it had become clear that they would not be able to bring about any improvement in the situation. Misogynistic laws were passed, underage girls were forced into marriage, and suicide, rape and murder became once again the order of the day. The lack of any real results led us to lose confidence in our supporters abroad. Our hopes that international organisations might be able to help end the gender apartheid in Afghanistan were shattered.
All the factors mentioned above have contributed to weakening the morale and fighting spirit of the women of Afghanistan. They should be remembered as important aspects in the history of the Afghan women’s movement. At this point I would like to again emphasise the international community’s failure to act. It has simply sat back and observed events, failing to develop a vision for the country’s future. Why are other countries so hesitant to address the problems in Afghanistan? The answer seems simple: the Taliban no longer represent a threat to the international community. Their return to Afghanistan has had no immediate impact on the United States or the rest of the world. So why bother putting any pressure on the Taliban?
If the world continues to stand idly by while we Afghan women – the only ones offering any resistance to the Taliban – are marginalised, arrested and murdered, Taliban rule will gradually become the new normality. Sadly, the only thing the international community is doing for the protestors in Afghanistan is to get them out of the country. That practice is eroding the opposition in Afghanistan as it is losing precisely those individuals who have studied and fought so long for a future in this country.
The international community must finally work to build trust and a positive relationship with the activists who have remained in the country. They are, after all, the ones who are most familiar with the situation on the ground, and their experiences with the Taliban should inform the measures taken to improve the situation of women in Afghanistan. I would ask women in exile to stay in close contact with the women inside the country, particularly those in remote towns and villages, so that they can document everything that happens there. They must become the mouthpiece of their fellow Afghan women. But the most important thing is that Afghan women activists demonstrate solidarity with each other and do not sabotage one another’s efforts. They must continue to do everything they can to uphold resistance against the inhuman regime of the Taliban; the voices of dissent must not be allowed to fall silent.
Translated from German by Todd Brown
This article is part of the dossier Feminist Voices Connected.