“No government is stable without the support of women,” read one banner held up by participants, referring to worries that the government the Taliban is in the process of forming is unlikely to include women in leadership positions.
“Don’t be afraid, don’t be afraid,” the women chanted, as Taliban fighters watched, in videos shared on social media. “We are together.”
The United States, United Nations and European Union, among others, have called on the Taliban to form a government that includes women and respects the rights of all Afghan citizens.
The last time the Taliban controlled the country, from 1996 to 2001, the group enforced an extreme interpretation of sharia law forcing women to wear burqas, shuttering schools and beating those who went out in public unaccompanied.
This time around, the Taliban has officially pledged to respect women’s rights, “within the frameworks we have,” and rule on behalf of all Afghans. But many inside and outside the country do not trust the militant group, given its record of repressive rule and gender-based violence when it was last in power in.
In recent years, people living in areas controlled by the Taliban have reported a patchwork of attitudes and approaches, from hard-line to moderate reform.
In one of the Taliban’s first news conferences since taking power, a representative asked women to stay home for now while its fighters become more acclimated to their presence in public.
“For two weeks, I was home and weeping,” said Sabira Taheri, 31, an organizer of the protest. “It was enough. We had to break our silence.”
Fed up with women being told to stay home or being turned away from their offices in the weeks since the Taliban took over, Taheri said she and five friends circulated calls for the protest. They did not expect many people to attend. Still, she was so beset by fear over what could happen that she did not sleep the night before, she said.
“I was afraid, but I told the women that I would stand in the first row,” said Taheri, who is a women’s rights activist in Herat. “The Taliban did not expect to see us on the street. They were surprised and did not know how to handle us.”
Taheri said they told the group to go home as they did not have prior coordination for the protest. But the women remained.