How Afghan women took on the Taliban, as told through their text messages

9/9/21, 9:10 AM

Definitely we should gather at the Water Fountain.

KABUL — When Ramzia Abdekhil and her friends decided to protest the Taliban takeover last year, they knew instantly what to name their group chat: “Powerful Women.”

That was exactly how they felt in those early days in September. Abdekhil still remembers the flurry of WhatsApp messages from friends and strangers. “Thank you my sisters!” “God bless you!” “We can do this and we won’t stop!” the women wrote, sprinkled with emoji of clapping hands, hearts and the Afghan national flag.

Full of adrenaline and hope, they planned their first demonstration for Sept. 3.

The demonstration was broken up by Taliban fighters, but they regrouped quickly. “Afterwards we were just telling each other, look at how brave we are,” said Abdekhil.

That protest and those that followed grabbed global attention. A year on, Afghan women continue to take to the streets, but in ever-smaller numbers. Faced with an increasingly brutal Taliban crackdown, the movement has withered. Women have been forced into hiding; others have fled the country. Many groups have disbanded.

The women who led the protests shared their WhatsApp conversations over the course of the past year with The Washington Post, providing a direct account of their lives and activism, their hopes and fears. Some shared their messages on the condition of anonymity, while others asked to be identified by only one name.

“We thought if the international community could hear our voices, they would be forced to act,” Abdekhil said. Looking back, she doesn’t believe her and her friends were naive. She says they were betrayed.

‘Today is not the day to be silent’

The vast majority of the Afghan women who led demonstrations were young and new to activism. Most had never attended a protest before, let alone organized one. They feared Taliban rule would mean an end to the freedoms they had enjoyed over the previous two decades.

Most of the women in Kabul lost their jobs in the days after the Taliban took control. Internationally funded organizations that employed women shut down; enforced gender segregation excluded others from government offices.

Groups of friends and colleagues planned individual protests using WhatsApp and Facebook. Not knowing whom they could trust, there were few early attempts to unify, despite their common goals.

But the women adapted as they pressed on. A second group Abdekhil joined — “Consensus of the women protesters” — began organizing joint demonstrations, encouraging different groups to converge around a single landmark in central Kabul.

With each protest, the Taliban response grew harsher. Checkpoints choked main roads leading in and out of the city center, and more fighters were deployed to guard popular gathering places. Protesters were tear-gassed, beaten in the streets and detained.

Before each demonstration, protesters shared advice on how to conceal their identities, and how to escape once Taliban soldiers arrived.

The threat of detention, and the social stigma attached, is particularly intimidating for Afghan women and proved effective at quickly shutting down protests in more conservative areas such as Herat and Mazar-e Sharif.

“We live in a society where people will spread rumors that the Taliban have done something to you,” Abdekhil said, alluding to a common assumption in Afghanistan that women are sexually assaulted when detained or imprisoned.

While the protests continued in Kabul, their numbers began to dip. By December, “There were more and more messages begging women to attend the demonstrations, saying things like, ‘Don’t break your promise or give lame excuses,’” Abdekhil remembered.

Despite risking their lives to be heard, protesters felt increasingly ignored by the international community.

Western officials and advocacy groups called for greater respect for women’s rights, but the Taliban refused to moderate. Foreign aid cuts meant to punish the group sent the country deeper into economic crisis.

In late December, the Biden administration named Rina Amiri special envoy for Afghan women and girls. Her appointment, Secretary of State Antony Blinken tweeted, “will advance our vital work toward a more peaceful, stable, and secure Afghanistan for all.”

‘My life went dark’

The next month, the Taliban began arresting female activists in their homes.

When gunmen abducted two high-profile activists in Kabul — Tamana Paryani and Parwana Ibrahimkhil — the news spread immediately through the movement

But the arrests continued. In February, another two women disappeared: Zahra Mohammadi and Mursal Ayar. Later that month, more than 20 female activists and their families were taken in a single day.

After the mass arrest, protesters began wiping their phones, deleting photos, videos and contacts, and leaving WhatsApp groups. Abdekhil disbanded her protest group, changed her phone number and went into hiding for a month.

“It was like my life went dark. I couldn’t speak to my friends or see my family. I didn’t have anything,” she said.

Activists who continued to follow the movement watched it shrink.

“I remember looking at my phone, and there was almost nothing. I used to get so many messages every day, but after the arrests women started leaving the groups,” remembers Shahlla Arifi, 44, an activist who began protesting with her colleagues from the previous government’s Ministry of Women’s Affairs.

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Arifi is a mother of five and has a master’s degree in gender studies from Kabul University. She spent years trying to join the government, hoping she could improve the lives of women. When the ministry was dissolved by the Taliban, she felt lost. The career she had built — and the future she had worked for — felt like it had vanished.

The few women still messaging were increasingly asking for advice on how to flee the country.

“I didn’t think we would be able to stand on our own two feet again. I did worry then that the movement was finished forever,” Arifi said.

The detained female activists were eventually released, but they were forced by the Taliban to record false confessions, saying their demonstrations were part of a foreign plot. And they were barred from future protests.

Arifi, who is still protesting, said their presence is missed to this day: “Even now I feel like there is always an empty chair beside me.”

‘We regained our courage’

The remaining protesters might have given up, but their country was slipping further into economic ruin, and a slew of Taliban rulings further subjugating women and girls re-energized the movement.

In March, millions of girls were banned from attending school. In May, women were ordered to cover head to toe in public and told they could travel outside the home only with a male guardian.

“We felt that they were trying to completely remove us from society,” Arifi said. “So we regained our courage.”

Munisa Mubariz, a 31-year-old activist, worked at the Finance Ministry before the Taliban takeover. She had advised organizations on strengthening civil society and promoting women’s rights but had never taken to the streets herself.

When she planned a protest in March on International Women’s Day, she kept it small, adding only those she knew she could trust.

Taliban fighters arrived within minutes to break up the crowd.

“The protests got shorter and shorter. We were just hoping to get a photo, so the international community knew we were still here,” Mubariz said. But fewer and fewer women were showing up.

When Mubariz organized a demonstration in May against the mandatory head-to-toe covering, she worried there wouldn’t be a large enough group.

Other women began holding protests indoors. They still made signs, took pictures and posted them on social media.

“It’s too dangerous to go outside,” said Somaya Haqjo, 25, who stopped protesting in public when Taliban fighters followed her home after a demonstration, shouting insults as she hid inside.

“They called us prostitutes and the servants of foreigners,” she said. Even more than the threat of beatings, it was the shame of those words that kept her from protesting.

‘We showed the world their brutality’

Mubariz was forced into hiding after the May protest, and groups began using smaller and smaller circles to communicate.

As the anniversary of the fall of Kabul approached, activists held a rare in-person gathering to plan what they hoped would be their largest demonstration since last year. Heated debate broke out about whether to tell the media at all.

For most of the women it was their first protest in months.

“Yes, I was scared. It would be wrong to say I wasn’t afraid,” Arifi admitted.

On the morning of Aug. 13, dozens of women began to march together, carrying hand-drawn signs demanding their rights. But as soon as they reached downtown Kabul, the demonstration was halted by Taliban fighters. Within minutes, they were surrounded.

“We couldn’t take a single step, and the moment we moved they began shooting” in the air, Arifi recalled. She said a gun was put to her head. “The Talib said, ‘Leave, or I’ll pull the trigger.’ I had to go.” As she fled into a taxi, another fighter knocked her down with his rifle.

Days later, the Taliban held their own public gathering in Kabul to mark a year in power. Hundreds of fighters were on the streets — “Victory! Freedom!” they chanted, raising their guns skyward.

Abdekhil watched the women’s short-lived demonstration and the Taliban celebrations on social media. She had stopped protesting after the arrests in February.

“I felt like this is so futile,” she said. “The [protesters] are wasting their energy for no reason. Nothing will change.”

Those who did take to the streets this month searched for examples of how a year of activism has improved the lives of Afghan women.

“This kind of struggle does not give results in the short term,” Mubariz acknowledged.

Arifi blamed the international community for the lack of progress: “They didn’t fulfill their responsibilities.”

But she doesn’t agree the movement accomplished nothing. “Our hands are not empty. The Taliban government still has not been recognized,” she said, arguing the group’s response to the protests has contributed to its international isolation.

“We exposed the Taliban’s faults. We showed the world their brutality.”

About this story

Writing by Susannah George. Photography by Lorenzo Tugnoli. Design by Irfan Uraizee. Editing by Jesse Mesner-Hage, Reem Akkad, Olivier Laurent and Joe Moore. Additional editing, production and support by Aziz Tassal, Chloe Coleman, Alexa Juliana Ard, Carey L. Biron and Courtney Kan.