The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Faced with disappearances, beatings and intimidation, Afghanistan’s women’s rights activists go quiet on the streets

Afghan women chant slogans and hold banners during a women's rights protest in Kabul on Jan. 16. (Wakil Kohsar/AFP/Getty Images)

KABUL — It had been six days since the two women’s rights activists were abducted. Now, Taliban fighters were on Masooma Hemmat’s street, searching for her. She was inside her house, along with another activist, when a neighbor called to warn her. When Hemmat heard the word “Taliban,” she hung up in fear.

“I was looking for a way to escape,” Hemmat, 28, recalled. “I thought that we, too, were going to be taken and disappeared.”

Even as the Taliban tries to persuade the world to recognize and financially support its government, it has embarked on a violent crackdown on dissent. In recent weeks, Taliban fighters have targeted women’s rights activists, especially those protesting the Taliban’s denial of their basic rights.

Armed militants have beaten female demonstrators, sprayed pepper spray in their faces and shocked them with electric prods, according to a half-dozen activists interviewed by The Washington Post. Other women have received threatening calls and text messages and have been harassed on social media. Several said they were followed by militants in an apparent effort to intimidate them. Many went into hiding. All agreed to speak on the record because their faces and names are known to the Taliban.

Then the threat escalated. Gunmen, on the evening of Jan. 19, took into custody two well-known activists, Tamana Paryani and Parwana Ibrahimkhil, in separate operations. Paryani and her three sisters were abducted from their third-floor apartment, while Ibrahimkhil was taken with her brother-in-law in another part of Kabul, according to human rights activists and the United Nations. Three days earlier, both women protested in the streets against the Taliban. Neither has been heard from since their disappearance.

Taliban fighters have targeted women’s rights activists, especially those protesting the Taliban’s denial of their basic rights. (Video: Courtesy of Feroza Uruzgani)

“Through the abduction of these women, the Taliban are sending a clear message about how society should function, who is the authority and the power, and how people should obey it,” said Sahar Fetrat, assistant researcher for Human Rights Watch’s women’s rights division. “It’s about stopping any kind of activism, any kind of protest against the Taliban.”

The targeting of female activists has continued even after a meeting late last month in Oslo, where Taliban representatives met with special envoys from the United States and European nations to seek more humanitarian aid and diplomatic recognition. The envoys, in a statement, urged the Taliban to “stop the alarming increase of human rights violations, including arbitrary detentions (to include recent detentions of women’s rights activists), forced disappearances” and other abuses.

On Thursday, the U.N. Assistance Mission in Afghanistan announced in a tweet that two more women’s activists reportedly had been detained by the Taliban in the previous 24 hours. At least eight women linked to activism are believed to have vanished in recent weeks, according to protesters.

Khalid Zadran, a Taliban police spokesman, said that the police had not arrested Paryani or Ibrahimkhil, and that “our police didn’t threaten anyone through calls or messages.” Qari Saeed Khosti, a spokesman for the Interior Ministry, also denied any role, saying, “This issue has nothing to do with us.” Two spokesmen for the Taliban’s intelligence agency did not respond to requests for comment.

In Oslo, the Taliban’s acting foreign minister, Amir Khan Muttaqi, blamed rogue elements inside the Taliban who may have detained the women, according to Afghan media. The incidents, he said, were under investigation.

A video of Paryani has emerged on social media in which she is seen screaming for help, declaring that Taliban fighters are banging on her door. “Help please, the Taliban have come to our home,” she’s heard saying in the footage. On social media, some Taliban officials and loyalists declared that the video was fake and a ploy to seek asylum abroad.

But an employee at the building where Paryani lived with her three sisters, a short walk from a bustling road, said in an interview that seven to 10 Taliban fighters arrived around 7:30 p.m. and began to bang on her door. “She was screaming and shouting for help,” said the employee, who spoke on the condition of anonymity for his own security.

The fighters, he said, then “broke the door down,” dragged Paryani and her sisters to the street, and took them around the building on foot. “She is a good person,” he said, referring to Paryani. “We don’t know why they would arrest her.”

A person who identified himself as Ibrahimkhil’s brother answered their mother’s cellphone. “I can confirm the Taliban arrested them, but I don’t know where they are and in what situation they are in,” he said. He added that he could not say more because “the Taliban threatened us not to speak with anyone.”

The U.N. human rights agency last week said in a statement that it found the disappearances troubling, part of “a pattern of arbitrary arrests and detentions” of civil society activists, journalists and others.

The authorities should take measures to ensure the activists’ “safe and immediate release” and hold those responsible accountable, Ravina Shamdasani, spokeswoman for the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights, told journalists in Geneva.

“The lack of clear information on the location and well-being of these and other individuals perpetuates a climate of fear and uncertainty,” she said.

Fleeing the Taliban

For weeks, Hemmat has lived in such a climate.

After hanging up the phone, she peered out from the balcony and saw a group of Taliban fighters approaching the house, Hemmat said. She went to a closet and found two burqas and handed one to her activist friend, Shamail Tawana Nasiri. The women put them on.

“We went out the back door, jumped into a taxi and drove to my relative’s house,” Hemmat recalled.

Both earned college degrees and had jobs in the former government, beneficiaries of two decades of Western presence in Afghanistan that enhanced women’s rights and participation in society.

Today, in most areas, girls cannot attend school beyond the sixth grade. With the exception of those working in the health sector and education, women are banned from government jobs. No woman is among the 33 cabinet ministers of the Taliban interim government, which shut down the Ministry of Women’s Affairs and turned it into the office of the religious morality police. Women are now required to take a male relative with them on long journeys.

“When we lost our jobs, and after they implemented restrictions on us, that made us go outside and protest,” Hemmat said. “Our future was either life or death.”

The peaceful protests for equal rights for women were often small, sometimes no more than 20 to 30 women, but they attracted media attention. Taliban fighters would push the participants with their rifle butts. They arrested and beat up local journalists covering the protests.

By last month, the Taliban had adopted harsher tactics. On Jan. 13, Hemmat and Nasiri joined a group of activists calling for an investigation into the abduction of Alia Azizi, a female prison official in Herat who has been missing for more than three months. The protest didn’t last long.

“The Taliban tore up our banners,” Hemmat said, as Nasiri nodded in agreement. “ ‘If you don’t leave we’ll fire on you,’ they said as they pointed their guns at us.”

The next day, a Taliban loyalist tweeted out a photo of Nasiri and wrote a message addressed to Taliban intelligence officials, urging them to arrest her and other activists. He accused her of sedition, saying that she will organize protests “until the collapse of the system.”

Nasiri, 24, stayed inside her home, fearful of being arrested.

Then, on Jan. 19, Paryani and Ibrahimkhil disappeared.

“When I saw the video of Tamana crying and calling for help, I felt hopeless,” Nasiri recalled. “I couldn’t sleep that night. I kept looking out the window thinking the Taliban will come to my house and arrest me.”

On Jan. 25, as the Oslo talks were taking place, Nasiri felt more confident about leaving her house. She went to Hemmat’s house for tea. That’s when their worst fears came true.

Nowadays, they keep a very low profile.

“We are still hiding,” Hemmat said.

‘They harassed and beat us’

Sidika Tariq, 27, was hit in the back with the butt of a gun during a recent protest, she said. The Taliban, she added, warned the women: “We are an Islamic government. Your demands are illegal.”

Later, on Jan. 29, she was on her way to Kabul University to speak with another activist. Gunmen stopped her and demanded that she get into their truck.

“They threatened me with their guns,” Tariq said. “They were pushing me and saying ‘Come with us.’ I was screaming and shouting. I beat them with my bag.”

A crowd soon gathered. The gunmen released her and left. She said she wasn’t sure who they were, though she suspects they were Taliban.

Feroza Uruzgani, 37, a mother of four with a master’s degree, was with Paryani and Ibrahimkhil at their last protest on Jan. 16. About 25 women had gathered to march toward Kabul University.

A large contingent of Taliban fighters, she said, was present, as if the militants had learned about their plans. As they marched, some fighters pointed their guns at the protesters. Human Rights Watch reported that some were calling the women “puppets of the West” and “whores.”

“They sprayed gas on us,” Uruzgani recalled. “They harassed and beat us. They shocked protesters with electricity sticks.”

Human Rights Watch researchers said the chemical substance was probably pepper spray.

After the abductions, Uruzgani has left her home twice, covered up in sunglasses and a headscarf. She has deleted from her phone most videos of protests, in case she gets stopped by the Taliban. Sometimes, she removes her sim card and shuts down her phone, worried that the militants are able to tap her conversations.

“We are psychologically under pressure,” said Uruzgani, who lost her job at a nonprofit working to assist women when the Taliban entered Kabul.

Nevertheless, all of the activists interviewed said they want to continue to fight for their rights. Some have held news conferences inside their houses with a handful of journalists. Others have taken to social media to defy the Taliban.

Since Jan. 16, there have been no street protests, the activists said.

All said they feel abandoned by the world. Denunciations from the United Nations and Western officials have done nothing to prevent the Taliban from targeting female activists. More tangible pressure needs to be applied, they said, such as refusing to meet or talk with Taliban officials about diplomatic recognition or humanitarian funding, denying them legitimacy until they improve their treatment of women.

“We have learned from our protests,” said Nafisa Bahar, 29, a leading activist. “If we don’t have strong support from the international community, our movement will not be effective. We will have more victims if we continue this way.”

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