Since the Taliban took power in Afghanistan, women’s rights have been successively restricted – now women are no longer allowed to attend universities. But they have not given up their fight for self-determination.
“You have to fight for your rights, they are not given to you,” says an Afghan proverb. Julia Parsi and her colleagues know its meaning only too well. The women founded the “San Library” together, the “women’s library” in the capital Kabul. A place where visitors can read, learn and exchange ideas – in the midst of the ruling Taliban. The Islamists announced their latest misogynist decree on Tuesday: From now on, women will no longer be allowed to attend universities.
A day after the university ban for women in Afghanistan, armed security forces denied hundreds of female students access to universities in Kabul. “We’re at the end, now we’ve lost everything,” a young woman, who declined to give her name, told the AFP news agency in the Afghan capital on Wednesday. Several hijab-clad women gathered in Kabul near universities, whose doors remained locked. Most universities are currently on winter vacation, but have so far been open to staff and students.
Women’s rights in Afghanistan: one setback after another
The ban adds to a long list of restrictions on women since Islamist militants took power in August 2021. In many cases, women were no longer allowed to return to their jobs, then they were forbidden to take taxis alone, and girls were forbidden to attend school from the seventh grade onwards. In Kabul, for example, visiting public parks and fitness studios has been taboo for women for a few months.
However, the activists around Julia Parsi do not want to be determined. Again and again they organize protests against the government and the restrictions imposed by the Taliban. “I want to convey the voice of Afghan women to the outside world,” says Julia in her library, among colorful children’s books and numerous classics of Afghan literature.
Similar to Iran, the protests against those in power in Afghanistan have a female face. What is “woman, life, freedom” for the Iranians and Kurds is “bread, work, freedom” for the Afghan women: the cry of protest that keeps driving them onto the streets of Kabul, Herat or Mazar-i Sharif. “With every new restriction for women, we went out again,” says Parsi. Even beatings, threats or arrests have not been able to stop the demonstrators.
Above all, the extensive restrictions placed on working women by the Taliban pose major problems for many Afghan women. So does Mina, who has had to look after her children on her own since her husband died as a soldier in the war. In Laila Haidari’s workshop, the 35-year-old found a way to take care of her family.
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In western Kabul, Haidari, whose well-known restaurant was closed by the Taliban, has set up an institute where women learn to make clothes and jewellery. In this way, they can subsequently earn an income. In the institute, Haidari also offers courses in subjects such as English, mathematics and programming. This is not unusual – quite a few private schools simply continue to teach girls.
Other women have found one of the few opportunities to earn a living working for the Taliban of all places. When Schaista decided to become a police officer, her husband was skeptical at first. “But now he supports me,” says the 23-year-old in the simple classroom of the police academy with long corridors and bare walls in eastern Kabul. The Taliban are training around 500 policewomen here. They cover their hair with a headscarf and their mouth and nose with a mask. In the target practice room, several AK-47s lie on a school desk.
Due to the prevailing gender segregation, policewomen are still needed, for example when checking other women or house searches. Almost all women here are the main breadwinners of their families, some hide from those around them that they work. There is a playground in the yard where the children of the police trainees can romp around. “I want women to have the opportunity to turn to a police officer if they experience violence at home, for example,” says Schaista. The policewomen are aware that, when in doubt, they can also be used against other women of their own sex, for example during demonstrations.
hope for better times
An end to the rebellion of women is not in sight anytime soon. “For me, sitting still is not an option,” says Alia Waisi, a young women’s rights activist from Bamian in central Afghanistan. Even before the ban on university education for women was imposed, she said that she and her friends were particularly concerned about the rumors about it.
Every step towards freedom and education can cost women in the country a high price – sometimes even their own lives – because of the ongoing threat of terrorism. When an assassin blew himself up in the Dasht-e Barchi district of Kabul in April, the more than 50 fatalities were mostly young women. They prepared for the university entrance exam together in a private educational institution. “She was so excited about the exam,” recalls Hajar’s family, who, like their cousin Marsia, never returned from the course.
Fatima Amiri survived the assassination with serious injuries and lost her left eye. “I was hiding under the desk,” the young woman recalls. “When I opened my eyes, my hands were covered in blood and there were dead people around me.” Despite the terrible events, she passed the subsequent entrance exam for the university – and passed with top marks.
Thanks to a fundraiser by popular Afghan singer Farhad Daria, Fatima can now have her injuries treated in Turkey. But she is determined to return to Afghanistan, even if she continues her education abroad. “I’m convinced that one day there will be better times in Afghanistan,” she says.