Defiant Afghan women staged a rare protest Thursday, saying they would accept the burqa if their daughters could still attend school under Taliban rule.
“It is our right to education, work, and security,” a group of about 50 female demonstrators chanted as they waved placards in the streets of Herat, Afghanistan’s western city.
Women and girls were largely denied education and employment during the Taliban’s first tenure in power, before being ousted by a US-led invasion in 2001.
Burqas became required in public, women were not allowed to leave the house without a male companion, and street protests were unthinkable. “We’re here to demand our rights,” one of the demonstrators, Fereshta Taheri, told reporters by phone.
“We’re even willing to wear burqas if they demand it, but we want women to go to school and work,” the photographer and artist added.
Herat, an ancient Silk Road city near the Iranian border, has long been a cosmopolitan outpost among more conservative cities, though some women do already wear the burqa.
The Taliban, who took power last month after a lightning military campaign, are debating the composition of a new government. They have promised to be “inclusive” in their leadership, but many are skeptical that women will find a place in Afghanistan’s new administration.
“We watch the news, and we don’t see any women in Taliban meetings or gatherings,” said Mariam Ebram, a Herat protester.
The group has now promised a softer brand of rule, promising that women will be allowed to work but only within the parameters of Sharia law.
Experts are skeptical of the rebranding, questioning whether it is a short-term attempt to gain international recognition and continue vital aid.
“The talks to form a government are still going on, but they’re not talking about women’s participation,” Basira Taheri, one of the rally’s organizers, said.
“We want to be a part of the government; no government can be formed without the participation of women. We want the Taliban to meet with us for talks.”
She stated that “the majority of the working women in Herat are at home” due to fear and uncertainty.
According to Ebram, those who returned were met with resistance from the new Taliban forces in control.
“Some women, such as doctors and nurses who have dared to return to work, complain that the Taliban mock them,” Ebram said.
“The Taliban do not look at them or speak to them. They only make angry faces at them.”
Primary school-age children, including girls, have returned to school, but the Taliban says further education will be put on hold until a government is formed.
Protests against Taliban rule were unthinkable during their previous reign.
Former government minister Nehan Nargis stated that Afghanistan has changed since the Taliban were in power.
“People are much more aware, they have different aspirations for Afghanistan now, and they have different expectations from the government,” she said, adding that social media has helped bring like-minded activists together. “The Afghan people… have collectively raised their voices very strongly using the platform of social media for their issues and causes… and they will continue to do so,” Nargis said.
Basira Taheri stated that the protest would continue until their demands were met.
“The women of this country are well-informed and educated,” she said. “We are not afraid because we are one.”
Demonstrators in Herat expressed hope that their example would inspire others across the country.
“We will keep protesting,” Basira Taheri said. “We began in Herat, and it will soon spread to other provinces.”