In Afghan cities, women protest, in the countryside things are more complicated

Since the Taliban regained control of Afghanistan, establishing their new regime, strong protests have been held almost every day in the country’s main cities, many of them organized only by women, who fear that they will lose the freedoms won during the last twenty years under a regime that, between 1996 and 2001, made women’s lives practically impossible. The protests frequented mainly by women have been widely reported in the media, and today they are the main phenomenon of opposition to the Taliban regime among the Afghan population.

The situation, however, is very different in rural areas of Afghanistan, where the status of women has not changed as evidently, and where all occupations – both Soviet and American – have been characterized by moments of great violence, often against civilians. For Afghan women living in the countryside, therefore, the return of the Taliban has little or nothing to do with their rights, the conquest of which is perceived as something quite independent of those who govern the country.

Protests against the new Taliban regime, in which many women took part, began in the first days after the conquest of Kabul.

Already on August 17, two days after the Taliban had taken Kabul, some women had gathered in a district of Kabul to protest against the new regime, demanding that their rights be respected. The protests then continued, on a daily basis, with very violent responses from the Taliban, which also resulted in deaths.

The women continued to gather and protest: “We will not give up our right to study, work, social and political participation,” activist Fariha Esar said during a protest on 20 August. The protests also involved other cities besides Kabul: in Herat, which is one of the most liberal cities in present-day Afghanistan, dozens of women marched through the streets with megaphones and signs, in one of the most significant demonstrations up to that moment. announcing their intention to spread the protest in all 34 provinces of the country.

– Read also: The Taliban forcibly dispersed an all-women demonstration in Kabul

Afghan women continued to protest, for two consecutive days, even after the presentation of the new government by the Taliban (of course made up of men only). Again, the Taliban responded to the protests with violence. But the Afghan women continued to protest: “I’m not afraid,” one of them told BBC, “I will continue to protest again, again and again, until I die: better to die suddenly than to do it gradually.”

The protests were so significant that, unable to manage them anymore, the Taliban then banned them: it was their first order by the new rulers of Afghanistan, followed by another ban: that, for women, to play sports.

RAWA (Revolutionary Association of Afghan Women), the self-organized group engaged in the struggle for women’s rights in Afghanistan for forty years, also played an important role in the protests of Afghan women against the new regime. In an interview with Manifesto published a few days after the Taliban conquered Afghanistan, RAWA said the women of the movement did not want to flee, but “to stay and fight against the regime”. RAWA women have also expressed their willingness on other occasions to continue to resist and fight for their rights and that of all Afghan women, asking those outside Afghanistan not to recognize the Taliban regime.

– Read also: The most important Afghan group for the defense of women’s rights

The protests of Afghan women in the cities, however, have not been accompanied by similar reactions in the countryside, where more than 70 percent of the Afghan population lives. Rural Afghanistan is indeed very different from urban Afghanistan, and has experienced the last twenty years of American occupation very differently.

He told about it in a long article published in the New Yorker Middle East journalist and expert Anand Gopal, who spent months in Helmand province in southwestern Afghanistan, where the Taliban presence was very strong even before this summer’s military offensive, interviewing dozens of women afghan. It wasn’t easy: in the countryside, Afghan women mostly live indoors, and don’t like to talk to strangers. The division between the public and the private is very clear, and Gopal was able to talk to them mainly thanks to the older women, who accompanied him and introduced him to the other women. He has interviewed many, often without seeing them in the face.

His story is very useful to try to understand what is happening and how the new regime is experienced even in areas less reported by the newspapers or on social networks, and to avoid tracing the Afghanistan of these days to a single image.

An image of rural Afghanistan (Spencer Platt / Getty Images)

In the countryside, the establishment of the new Taliban regime did not arouse the indignation and discontent that characterized the cities, nor did the women interviewed by Gopal intend to leave the country. To understand how this is possible, it is important to know that rural Afghanistan has experienced Soviet and American occupation, as well as the past Taliban regime, very differently from the cities.

Gopal speaks of an Afghanistan “substantially divided in two”: if in the cities the Soviet and American occupation have often brought – albeit with problems and many inadequacies – rights and prosperity, in the countryside they have mainly brought violence, often against civilians . In the cities, the Taliban regime was experienced as hell; in the countryside, like a moment of peace.

The women interviewed by Gopal, for example, recount how, during the Soviet occupation, attempts to send girls to school were sudden, unexpected, and perceived as something imposed from the outside and completely different from what had always been. done, even by the women themselves. Those attempts, one of them said, only provoked violence between those who wanted to free women and those who opposed that liberation.

The Soviet occupation was followed by a bloody civil war between the mujaheddin Islamists and the Afghan government, told by women with images of corpses being transported to the countryside, rapes and killings, sounds of gunshots and screams that came unexpectedly during normal daily occupations.

In a context like this, when in 1996 the Taliban (a group founded in 1994 by Mullah Omar, who had fought among the mujaheddin) took power and established their regime, in the words of the Afghan women heard by Gopal came more than anything else peace: the Taliban regime was judged by them in the light of what had happened before rather than on the basis of some universal principle of justice and respect for human rights. Above all, their lives did not change much, except to the extent that they stopped hearing gunfire and undergoing nocturnal raids into the house by foreigners looking for the enemy. They returned the mornings when you could have breakfast without fear, some of them say, and the summer evenings when you could stay on the roof of your house without risking your life.

– Read also: What a history of Afghanistan

In the countryside, Afghan women therefore experienced the American occupation very badly, which for them meant more than anything else a new resumption of violence and civil war. For many of them, the image of evil corresponded not so much to the Taliban as to the commanders of the Afghan army and American soldiers who scoured the countryside, house to house, looking for the Taliban, and sometimes killing civilians suspected of being so, or bringing them in. prison.

The women also say that it was the Taliban who often warned the local population of the impending attacks and conflicts, advising them to lock themselves up at home, not to pass through the streets, or closing off traffic to civilians when they had to attack an American military vehicle. The Americans, on the other hand, did not, and every time a civilian died the indignation towards them grew, even in the women, who recount the sudden deaths of children who played or slept, of husbands or relatives killed by a drone while participating. at a funeral.

It is not surprising, therefore, that the reports of the American government spoke of an “unfavorable” perception of the coalition forces by the local population. For some women living in the countryside, the same education programs were perceived as an imposition of Western values.

The rifle tip of an American soldier patrolling an Afghan campaign from a helicopter in 2009 (Chris Hondros / Getty Images)

When we think about how Afghan women living in the countryside are experiencing the establishment of the new Taliban regime, it is important to have all of this in mind. For many of them – who in these twenty years have not gone to university, have not traveled, have not become journalists, politicians or diplomats, have not lived in cities that have grown and transformed – the end of the American occupation and the return of the Taliban simply means the end of the war.

An Afghan house destroyed by an air strike in Helmand province (AP Photo / Abdul Khaliq)

During his trip, Anand Gopal visited several villages and towns in the Helmand province. The women he spoke to suffer the same abuse as before – one of them, for example, was beaten for going to the market alone, to buy cookies – but without tanks, airstrikes and other violence around. “If you obey us, we will not kill you” is the simple agreement with which the Taliban now run many of those places.

Gopal, however, asked the women he met what they thought of the disparity they are treated with compared to men. Their response, unlike what would have happened in the city, was not compact.

Some of them responded by arguing that while the women of Kabul were given rights, women in the countryside were being killed. Others defended the existing rules, saying that women and men are not the same, that they have different roles, and that these roles must be respected and preserved. One of them said that she thought many times about leaving her husband, but that for her it would be an economic and social ruin: “Too much freedom is dangerous,” she said.

Finally, others said they would like the rules to change, to be allowed to go to the market freely, or to have a picnic. However, they all agree that change cannot be imposed. Some of them think that the tool for acquiring rights lies precisely in the Islamic religion: “The Taliban say that women cannot go out, but there is no such rule in the Islamic religion,” says one of them. “With our heads covered, we should be able to go wherever we want.”

One of them – her name is Shakira, and she was very surprised when she found out she was named after a famous western pop star – never stopped reading. One sura at a time he is translating the Quran into Pashto, one of the official languages ​​of Afghanistan. He lives in Pan Killay, a village that is not on Google Maps and where all his ancestors and relatives are buried. He is teaching his daughter to read, he has no intention of leaving, and his dream is that sooner or later they will open a school.

– Read also: The last time the Taliban ruled

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