Taliban troops use gunfire to bring Afghan women’s protest to abrupt end
Taliban special forces have brought a protest march by Afghan women demanding equal rights to an abrupt and frightening end in Kabul by firing shots into the air.
The women’s march – the second in as many days in the capital – began peacefully as demonstrators laid a wreath outside Afghanistan’s defence ministry to honour Afghan soldiers who died fighting the Taliban, before marching on to the presidential palace.
One prominent protester, 20-year-old Maryam Naiby, said of the campaign in the wake of the Taliban seizing power: “We are here to gain human rights in Afghanistan
“I love my country. I will always be here.”
As the protesters’ shouts grew louder, several Taliban officials waded into the crowd to ask what they wanted to say.
Flanked by fellow demonstrators, Sudaba Kabiri, a 24-year-old university student, told her Taliban interlocutor that Islam’s Prophet gave women rights, and they wanted theirs.
The Taliban official promised women would be given their rights, but the women, all in their early 20s, were sceptical.
As the demonstrators reached the presidential palace, a dozen Taliban special forces ran into the crowd, firing into the air and sending demonstrators fleeing. One witness told reporters the Taliban also fired tear gas.
Taliban fighters quickly captured most of Afghanistan last month and celebrated the departure of the last US forces after 20 years of war.
The insurgent group must now govern a war-ravaged country that is heavily reliant on international aid.
The Taliban have promised an inclusive government and a more moderate form of Islamic rule than when they last ruled the country from 1996 to 2001.
But many Afghans, especially women, are deeply sceptical and fear a rollback of rights gained over the last two decades.
For much of the past two weeks, Taliban officials have been holding meetings among themselves, amid reports of differences between them.
Early on Saturday, neighbouring Pakistan’s powerful intelligence chief Gen Faiez Hameed made a surprise visit to Kabul. It was not immediately clear what he had to say to the Taliban leadership, but the Pakistani intelligence service has a strong influence on the Taliban.
The Taliban leadership had its headquarters in Pakistan and were often said to be in direct contact with the powerful Inter-Services Intelligence agency. Although Pakistan routinely denies providing the Taliban with military aid, the accusation was often made by the Afghan government and Washington.
Gen Faiez’s visit comes as the world waits to see what kind of government the Taliban will eventually announce, seeking one that is inclusive and ensures protection of women’s rights and the country’s minorities.
The Taliban have promised a broad-based government and have held talks with former president Hamid Karzai and the former government’s negotiation chief Abdullah Abdullah.
But the makeup of the new government is uncertain and it is unclear whether hard-line ideologues among the Taliban will win the day – and whether the rollbacks feared by the demonstrating women will occur.
Taliban members whitewashed murals on Saturday, some of which promoted health care, warned of the dangers of HIV and even paid homage to foreign contributors, like anthropologist Nancy Dupree, who singlehandedly chronicled Afghanistan’s rich cultural legacy.
It is a worrying sign of attempts to erase reminders of the past 20 years.
The murals were replaced with slogans congratulating Afghans on their victory.
A Taliban cultural commission spokesman, Ahmadullah Muttaqi, tweeted that the murals were painted over “because they are against our values. They were spoiling the minds of the mujahedeen, and instead we wrote slogans that will be useful to everyone”.
The young women demonstrators said they have had to defy their worried families to press ahead with protests, even sneaking out of their homes to take their demands for equal rights.
Farhat Popalzai, another 24-year-old university student, said she wanted to represent women too afraid to come out on the street.
“I am the voice of the women who are unable to speak,” she said. “They think this is a man’s country but it is not – it is a woman’s country, too.”
Ms Popalzai and her fellow demonstrators are too young to remember the Taliban rule that ended in 2001 with the US-led invasion. The say their fear is based on the stories they have heard of women not being allowed to go to school or to work.
Ms Naiby has already operated a women’s organisation and is a spokesperson for Afghanistan’s Paralympics.
She reflected on the tens of thousands of Afghans who rushed to Kabul’s Hamid Karzai International Airport to escape Afghanistan after the Taliban overran the capital on August 15.
“They were afraid,” she said – but for her, the fight is in Afghanistan.
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