Afghan activists protest outside shuttered women affairs ministry

Published September 19, 2021
Afghan women hold placards during a demonstration demanding better rights for women in front of the former Ministry of Women Affairs in Kabul on September 19. — AFP
Afghan women hold placards during a demonstration demanding better rights for women in front of the former Ministry of Women Affairs in Kabul on September 19. — AFP
Afghan women converse with a man while they hold placards during a demonstration demanding better rights for women in front of the former Ministry of Women Affairs in Kabul on September 19. — AFP
Afghan women converse with a man while they hold placards during a demonstration demanding better rights for women in front of the former Ministry of Women Affairs in Kabul on September 19. — AFP

About two dozen women activists protested outside Afghanistan's women's ministry on Sunday after it was closed by Taliban officials in power in Kabul and replaced by their Ministry for Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice.

Female staff said they had been trying to return to work at the ministry for several weeks since the Taliban takeover last month, only to be told to go home.

The sign outside the Ministry of Women's Affairs has been replaced by one for the Ministry for Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice.

“The Ministry of Women's Affairs must be reactivated,” said Baseera Tawana, one of the protesters outside the building. “The removal of women means the removal of human beings.”

When Taliban Islamists were in power from 1996-2001, girls were not allowed to attend school and women were banned from work and education.

During that period, the Ministry for Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice became known as the group's moral police, enforcing its interpretation of Sharia that includes a strict dress code and public executions and floggings.

The protest came a day after some girls returned to primary schools with gender-segregated classes, but older girls faced an anxious wait with no clarity over if and when they would be able to resume their studies.

“You cannot suppress the voice of Afghan women by keeping girls at home and restricting them, as well as by not allowing them to go to school,” said protester Taranum Sayeedi.

“The women of Afghanistan today are not the women of 26 years ago.”

The protest lasted for about 10 minutes. After a short verbal confrontation with a man, the women got into cars and left, as Taliban in two cars observed from nearby. Over the past months, Taliban fighters broke up several women’s protests by force.

Taliban officials have said they will not return to their fundamentalist policies, including the ban on girls receiving an education.

Kabul municipality to female workers: stay home

Meanwhile, the interim mayor of Afghanistan’s capital said on Sunday that female employees in the Kabul city government had been told to stay home, with work only allowed for those who could not be replaced by men.

In his first news conference since being appointed by the Taliban, Mayor Hamdullah Namony said that before the Taliban takeover last month, just under one-third of close to 3,000 city employees were women, and that they had worked in all departments.

Namony said the female employees had been ordered to stay home, pending a further decision. He said exceptions had been made for women who could not be replaced by men, including some in the design and engineering departments and the attendants of public toilets for women. Namony did not say how many female employees had been forced to stay home.

“There are some areas that men can’t do it, we have to ask our female staff to fulfil their duties, there is no alternative for it,” he said.

Across Afghanistan, women in many areas have been told to stay home from jobs, both in the public and private sectors. However, the Taliban have not yet announced a uniform policy. The comments by the Kabul mayor were unusually specific and affected a large female workforce that had been involved in running a sprawling city of more than five million people.

Elsewhere, about 30 women, many of them young, held a news conference in a basement of a home tucked away in a Kabul neighbourhood. Marzia Ahmadi, a rights activist and government employee now forced to sit at home, said they would demand the Taliban re-open public spaces to women.

“It’s our right,” she said. “We want to talk to them. We want to tell them that we have the same rights as they have.”

Most of the participants said they would try to leave the country if they had an opportunity.

Namony also said the new government had begun removing security barriers in Kabul, a city that has endured frequent bombing and shooting attacks over the years. Such barriers — erected near ministries, embassies and private homes of politicians and warlords — had been commonplace in Kabul for years.

The mayor said private citizens would be charged for the work of taking down the barriers. While he said most barriers had been removed, reporters touring the city noted that barriers outside most government installations and embassies had been left in place.

'Our people need help'

Witnesses, meanwhile, said an explosion targeted a Taliban vehicle in the eastern provincial city of Jalalabad, and hospital officials said five people were killed in the second such deadly blast in as many days in the militant Islamic State (IS) group stronghold.

The Taliban and IS extremists are enemies and fought each other even before the Taliban seized control of Afghanistan last month.

Hospital officials in Jalalabad said they received the bodies of five people killed in the explosion. Among the dead were two civilians, including a child, and three others who according to witnesses were in a targeted border police vehicle and were believed to be Taliban.

The Taliban were not immediately available for comment about possible casualties among their ranks.

On Saturday, three explosions targeted Taliban vehicles in Jalalabad, killing three people and wounding 20, witnesses said. There was no immediate claim of responsibility.

With the Taliban facing major economic and security problems as they attempt to govern, a growing challenge by IS militants would further stretch their resources.

The Taliban have tried to present themselves as guarantors of security, in hopes that this will win them support from a public still widely suspicious of their intentions. Under the previous government, a rise in crime had been a major concern for ordinary Afghans.

Perhaps the toughest challenge faced by the new Taliban rulers is the accelerated economic downturn. Even before the Taliban takeover, Afghanistan was plagued by major problems, including large-scale poverty, drought and heavy reliance on foreign aid for the state budget.

In a sign of growing desperation, street markets have sprung up in Kabul where residents are selling their belongings. Some of the sellers are Afghans hoping to leave the country, while others are forced to offer their meagre belongings in hopes of getting money for the next meal.

“Our people need help, they need jobs, they need immediate help, they are not selling their household belongings for choice here,” said Kabul resident Zahid Ismail Khan, who was watching the activity in one of the impromptu markets.

“For a short-term people might try to find a way to live, but they would have no other choice to turn to begging in a longer term,” he said.

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