At Pro-Taliban Protest, a Symbol of America’s Lost Influence: Faces Obscured by Veils

At Pro-Taliban Protest, a Symbol of America’s Lost Influence: Faces Obscured by Veils

Hundreds of women, many wearing full-length robes and their faces hidden behind black veils, filled a Kabul university auditorium on Saturday, holding signs — many in English — in support of the Taliban and its strict interpretation of Islam, including separate education for men and women.

According to the Taliban, the demonstration at Shaheed Rabbani Education University, which came after anti-Taliban protests by Afghan women demanding equal rights last week, was organized by female university lecturers and students.

Reporters on the street near Saturday’s march were barred from approaching the protesters by Taliban fighters armed with automatic rifles, and they were not permitted to speak with any of the women. Attempts to contact the participants via social media or the university later went unanswered.

The demonstration, held on the 20th anniversary of the September 11 attacks, served as a stark reminder that, despite two decades and more than $780 million spent promoting women’s rights, the women of Afghanistan could be thrown back decades, if not centuries, with the departure of American forces last month.

When the Taliban ruled Afghanistan from 1996 to 2001, it forbade women and girls from working or attending school, effectively imprisoning them in their own homes. Women were forced to wear the burqa, a tent-like garment that covers them from head to toe and has a crocheted mesh grill over the eyes, in public. Its use to conceal the appearance of women in public was interpreted as a symbol of Taliban oppression in the West.

The demonstration of women wearing head-to-toe garments and face coverings on the 9/11 anniversary was a sharp rebuke to the US and its allies, who had long cited women’s rights as a reason for continuing the war in Afghanistan long after the Taliban had been deposed, Al Qaeda had been demolished, and Osama bin Laden had been assassinated.

Many of the women appeared to be dressed in a style that conservative Muslims in Southern Afghanistan are familiar with, including a veil, while others wore the more traditional blue burqa.

Since the United States and its allies left Kabul on August 30, leaving Afghanistan under Taliban control, Afghan women have been at the forefront of protests demanding that their rights be respected.

Taliban leaders have reacted violently to those protests, beating participants, including women, and insisting that anyone taking to the streets for a public demonstration first obtain permission from their caretaker government.

According to the acting Taliban government’s Ministry of Education, the women who participated in Saturday’s pro-Islamist demonstration requested and were granted permission to hold the event.

“Unlike previous demonstrations in Kabul, this is the second all-women protest that was nonviolent, and journalists were free to cover the protest,” the ministry said in a statement.

“The women also welcomed the scheme of separate classes for boys and girls in all universities and institutes and pledged to work for the strengthening of the Islamic Emirate in Afghanistan,” according to the ministry.

However, the presence of Taliban fighters, the speed with which images of the event and official statements were disseminated, and the event’s timing — Sept. 11 — all suggest that the demonstration was not only sanctioned but possibly orchestrated by the Taliban.

Some of the women taking part in Saturday’s demonstration, standing at a podium decorated with large white flags, criticized recent anti-Taliban protests, insisting that women should follow the Taliban’s strict policy of full-body covering.

According to a recording obtained by The New York Times, one woman stated that anti-Taliban protesters joined last week’s marches solely to become famous in the West.

She acknowledged that those women played important roles in society, such as doctors and teachers, but claimed that they did not represent all Afghan women.

After filing out of the auditorium, the women held a brief march, chanting in support of the Taliban and waving signs in English that read, among other things, “Women who left Afghanistan cannot represent us,” and “Our rights are protected in Islam.”

What exactly are the Taliban? The Taliban arose in 1994, in the midst of the upheaval that followed the withdrawal of Soviet forces from Afghanistan in 1989. To enforce their rules, they used brutal public punishments such as floggings, amputations, and mass executions. Here’s more on their history and record as rulers.

What are the Taliban’s top leaders’ names? These are the Taliban’s top leaders, men who have spent years on the run, in hiding, in prison, and avoiding American drones. Little is known about them or their plans for governance, including whether or not they will be as tolerant as they claim. According to one spokesman, the group wanted to forget its past, but there would be some constraints.

Taliban fighters cleared traffic so that the women could be transported from the university grounds on rented buses.

Even before the Taliban retook power, Afghanistan was near the bottom of every list in terms of women’s rights, and at the top in terms of the need for shelters, counseling, and courts to keep women safe.

Despite this, after 20 years of Western assistance, girls and women made up roughly 40% of all students in the country. Women served in the military and police forces, as well as in politics. Some went on to become internationally recognized singers, compete in the Olympics and on robotics teams, climb mountains, and do other things that were nearly impossible at the turn of the century.

However, many of those women have fled the country, seeing no future for themselves. A Herat women’s soccer team traveled to Italy, five Afghan girls’ robotics team members arrived in Mexico, and Zarifa Ghafari, one of Afghanistan’s first female mayors, arrived in Germany, where she recently met with Chancellor Angela Merkel.

Ms. Ghafari was outraged by the images of the women at Kabul University on Saturday. “This isn’t our culture!” she exclaimed on Twitter. “Afghan women are not extremists; do not turn them savage, and do not impose ISIS culture on us!”

When the Taliban announced their caretaker government on Tuesday, Western leaders noted that the group had failed to live up to promises that it would be more inclusive of Afghanistan’s diverse ethnic groups and religious minorities. It was also entirely composed of men, contradicting another pledge made by Taliban leaders.

Hundreds of Afghans, including women, took to the streets hours before the acting government was announced to peacefully demand that their rights be respected by their new leaders. Taliban fighters used rifle butts and sticks to violently disperse the protesters, forcing them to flee.

Two Afghan journalists were detained and violently assaulted on Wednesday for covering a protest in Kabul. Photos of both reporters’ backsides covered in bruises and gashes from being whipped repeatedly with cables sparked an international outcry.

Sami Sahak and Wali Arian contributed reporting.

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At Pro-Taliban Protest, a Symbol of America’s Lost Influence: Faces Obscured by Veils