After being shut out from the Taliban‘s new government, women increased pressure on Afghanistan‘s new rulers with a number of protests Wednesday, at least one of which was broken up by Taliban fighters who whipped some of the demonstrators and arrested local journalists.
The protests came one day after the Taliban announced an interim Cabinet composed exclusively of the group’s stalwarts, with no women or former political figures and few minorities. Although the rallies were small, with only a few dozen women in each case, they put the new government to the test after it declared that participating in — and covering — protests is illegal without government permission.
The rallies illustrated the reality that, though the Taliban may now stand virtually unchallenged on the battlefield, the group faces a more complicated task in getting fearful Afghans — especially women and those living in cities — to buckle under its rule. It is evident that the militant group is growing less tolerant and more violent in confronting criticism amid calls for wider civil rights.
A video posted on social media showed a Taliban fighter whipping one of the demonstrators as several women screamed and hurried away. The Times verified the location where the video was taken. Two Afghan journalists were taken to a police station and beaten with pipes and rifle butts.
Protesters assembled Wednesday at 8 a.m. near a bank on the main thoroughfare bisecting Dasht-e-Barchi, a southwestern Kabul neighborhood dominated by the minority Hazara community. They stood in a semicircle and raised printed signs in Dari and English. One of them read, “Why is the world watching us silently and cruelly?”
Soon after, they began their march down Shaheed Mazari Road, holding up their signs and shouting, “Azadi!” — freedom — as a parade of minivans, motorcycles and ’90s Toyota Corollas passed by them.
Trailing at the back was Rahela Talash, who along with her colleague was lugging a portable speaker with a broken handle: “No women, no Hazara [in government]. It’s completely wrong. This is why we are here,” she said, adding that the Taliban’s government was almost completely chosen from the dominant Pashtun ethnic group.
There was also a notable omission in the new Cabinet compared with the government of deposed President Ashraf Ghani: The Ministry of Women’s Affairs, which had existed since late 2001, after the Taliban was driven from power by a U.S.-led invasion, appears now to have been disbanded, a move that enraged many of those at the protest.
“It’s completely wrong that they don’t think about us. We’re half of this society. They have to consider us,” said Mariam Shafaii, a 19-year-old student.
The Taliban signaled it was losing patience with demonstrations: “For the past few days, a number of people in Kabul and other provinces have taken to the streets in the name of demonstrations, disrupting security, harassing people and disrupting normal life,” the interior ministry said in a statement. “All citizens are informed that for the time being, they are not [to try] to hold demonstrations under any name or title.”
Shafaii was not deterred. “We will not keep quiet,” she said.
In another sobering turn, the Taliban has reinstituted a ministry for the promotion of virtue and prevention of vice, which was notorious during the group’s 1996-2001 rule for its brutal enforcement of the Taliban’s ultra-conservative brand of Islam. The ministry presided over the amputation of thieves’ hands and the stoning deaths of women found guilty of adultery.
“The Taliban were at a crossroads: choose a path that would mollify the international community… by being more open and inclusive, or they could have taken the easy path of appeasing their own rank-and-file and going back to what had worked for them in the 1990s,” said Ibraheem Bahiss, an Afghanistan consultant with the International Crisis Group. “They very much chose the latter.”
That choice was met with opprobrium, with many nations expressing their disapproval of a government makeup that was exclusively Taliban. “The government certainly does not meet the test of inclusivity,” said U.S. Secretary of State Anthony J. Blinken in a press conference from Germany’s Ramstein Base on Wednesday. “We’re also concerned by the affiliations and track records of some of those individuals.”
Roughly half of the Cabinet’s members are under U.S. or U.N. sanctions. The acting minister of the interior, Sirajuldin Haqqani, is wanted by the FBI, which placed a $5-million bounty on him. Blinken, however, said he would wait for “actions” to finally assess the government and determine its legitimacy and the future of U.S.-Afghan relations.
On Wednesday, after 45 minutes of walking, the protesters in Kabul came upon a parked Humvee. Four Taliban fighters moved to push the women back. Despite the AK-47s they carried, the women swarmed toward them, shouting and arguing at the leader until he relented and allowed them to continue.