Taliban Mark a ‘Black Day’ for Afghanistan With More Violence Against Women

A year after the Taliban takeover, women took to the streets defiantly to demand bread, work, and freedom.

ODonnell-Lynne-foreign-policy-columnist
ODonnell-Lynne-foreign-policy-columnist
Lynne O’Donnell
By , a columnist at Foreign Policy and an Australian journalist and author.
Afghan women hold placards as they march and shout slogans such as "Bread, work, freedom" during a women's rights protest in Kabul on Aug. 13.
Afghan women hold placards as they march and shout slogans such as "Bread, work, freedom" during a women's rights protest in Kabul on Aug. 13.
Afghan women hold placards as they march and shout slogans such as "Bread, work, freedom" during a women's rights protest in Kabul on Aug. 13. WAKIL KOHSAR/AFP via Getty Images

Carrying banners proclaiming “August 15 is a Black Day” and calling for “bread, work, and freedom,” a group of Afghan women staged a brave and by now rare demonstration in the Afghan capital over the weekend, where they were beaten and detained by Taliban gunmen who fired in the air to halt their protest. Marking one year since the Taliban took over, the defiant street march highlighted the extreme marginalization of women in Afghanistan, who after four decades of war account for more than half of the population.

About 40 women on Saturday gathered to march through downtown Kabul near the Education Ministry. An organizer who asked that her name not be used for her own safety said the protesters had been marching and chanting for only about 10 minutes when “Taliban soldiers gathered and started shooting.” Video of the protest shows the women screaming as they ran for cover. Organizers of the protest, the first public demonstration in many months, said the gunmen later used their weapons to beat the marchers. Local journalists trying to cover the march were also detained and beaten.

“They wanted to shoot directly at us, but the men nearby, some shopkeepers, pleaded with the Taliban and asked them to shoot in the air. They kept shooting until all the girls dispersed. Some of them were detained and divided into three groups, and girls’ phones were checked by the Taliban. Other girls were rounded up in a nearby pharmacy and beaten,” the organizer said. 

Carrying banners proclaiming “August 15 is a Black Day” and calling for “bread, work, and freedom,” a group of Afghan women staged a brave and by now rare demonstration in the Afghan capital over the weekend, where they were beaten and detained by Taliban gunmen who fired in the air to halt their protest. Marking one year since the Taliban took over, the defiant street march highlighted the extreme marginalization of women in Afghanistan, who after four decades of war account for more than half of the population.

About 40 women on Saturday gathered to march through downtown Kabul near the Education Ministry. An organizer who asked that her name not be used for her own safety said the protesters had been marching and chanting for only about 10 minutes when “Taliban soldiers gathered and started shooting.” Video of the protest shows the women screaming as they ran for cover. Organizers of the protest, the first public demonstration in many months, said the gunmen later used their weapons to beat the marchers. Local journalists trying to cover the march were also detained and beaten.

“They wanted to shoot directly at us, but the men nearby, some shopkeepers, pleaded with the Taliban and asked them to shoot in the air. They kept shooting until all the girls dispersed. Some of them were detained and divided into three groups, and girls’ phones were checked by the Taliban. Other girls were rounded up in a nearby pharmacy and beaten,” the organizer said. 

She said she was whipped on her shoulders. “The Taliban cursed us a lot, saying, ‘You should all be killed,’” she said.

Since the Taliban’s return to power on Aug. 15, 2021, they have effectively eradicated women from public life. Breaking their pledges to honor some of the advances that Afghan women made over the previous two decades, the Taliban have banned women from most work, education, and independent travel and forced them to comply with severe dress codes. Male chaperones are required for trips of any length. The Taliban’s “vice and virtue” police have detained, tortured, raped, and killed women in the year since taking power.

Female television presenters are forced to cover their heads and faces on air, in a display of the Taliban’s disdain for the appearance of women in public in any capacity. They even banned television shows with female actors. Girls are not allowed to pursue secondary education in nearly every Afghan province, and those who were educated during the 20 years of the Afghan Republic have been forced from their jobs. 

Women’s health is also an affront to the Taliban: Access to health care has been curtailed as the Taliban limit the ability of women to be treated by male doctors. But without education, there will soon be no female doctors left. The withdrawal of services for women includes legal support, as female lawyers and judges have been fired. One who specialized in gender-based violence, who spoke on the condition that she not be named, said women have been abandoned at a time when the stresses of economic hardship have sent domestic violence soaring.

“I can’t believe I survived one year of being in prison. I wish it was just my body, but my mind, my soul, and my dreams are imprisoned, too,” she said, comparing the fate of Afghan women today to a jail sentence.

Over the past year, the Taliban have attempted to use their abuse of women as a bargaining chip with the international community, making and breaking promises, for instance, on allowing girls to go to school as leverage for concessions as they seek diplomatic legitimacy. Women’s rights have dominated the narrative on Afghanistan, crowding out other issues, such as the lack of a broadly representative administration; horrific abuses of Hazaras, Tajiks, and Shiites; looting of mineral assets; ongoing production of drugs; and arbitrary crimes including theft, kidnap, and rape committed by Taliban supporters.

But the Taliban’s other broken promises have also hurt the regime’s effort to win legitimacy—and access to international financing that could help stave off a devastating humanitarian crisis. The Taliban cut a deal with former U.S. President Donald Trump in 2020 to trade a full withdrawal of U.S. troops in exchange for a representative government and a break with international terrorist groups such as al Qaeda. They have done neither. A U.S. drone strike killed Ayman al-Zawahiri, the leader of al Qaeda, on July 31 in a Kabul villa where he was a guest of the Taliban. Many other terrorist groups have found a safe haven there, too, said the U.N. Security Council.

Those broken promises, and the threats the Taliban pose to both international security and the world’s conscience, have pushed the United States to reconsider releasing even a portion of the billions of dollars in Afghan central bank assets frozen in the United States. The Biden administration floated releasing half, about $3.5 billion, for humanitarian assistance, provided it could find a way to keep the money out of Taliban hands. The Wall Street Journal reported Monday that that plan is now on hold after the revelations of the close ties between the Taliban and al Qaeda.

A senior U.S. official folded the Taliban’s treatment of women into the overall response. Financial sanctions and a lack of diplomatic recognition are “the price they pay” for their abuse of women, he said, speaking on the condition that he not be named.

Many activists want the world, and especially the United States, where successive administrations greased the path to the Taliban’s return to power, to do more to hold the regime to account.

“This is the time the world should be holding the Taliban to account, especially those who brought them to power, who handed the country to the Taliban under the guise of the so-called peace process,” said Shukria Barakzai, a former Afghan parliamentarian and women’s rights activist now in exile.

“They signed the agreement with the Taliban, and they should be held accountable as the Taliban’s partners in what is happening today.”

Lynne O’Donnell is a columnist at Foreign Policy and an Australian journalist and author. She was the Afghanistan bureau chief for Agence France-Presse and the Associated Press between 2009 and 2017.

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