Taliban special forces staged a protest march organized by Afghan women to demand equal rights to a sudden and frightening end in Kabul with gunfire in the air.
The women’s march – the second in as many days in the capital – began peacefully as protesters laid a wreath outside the Afghan Defense Ministry in honor of Afghan soldiers killed in the fight against the Taliban, before marching to the presidential palace.
One prominent protester, 20-year-old Maryam Naibi, said of the crackdown following the Taliban’s takeover of power: “We are here to advance human rights in Afghanistan.
“I love my country. I will always be here.”
As the protesters’ cries rose, several Taliban officials entered the crowd to ask what they wanted to say.
Surrounded by fellow protestors, Sudaba Kabir, a 24-year-old college student, told her Taliban interlocutor that the Prophet of Islam had given women rights, and that they wanted hers.
The Taliban official promised to give the women their rights, but the women, all in their early 20s, were skeptical.
As the protesters reached the presidential palace, dozens of Taliban special forces clashed with the crowd, firing into the air and forcing the protesters to flee. An eyewitness told reporters that the Taliban fired tear gas.
Soon, Taliban fighters captured most of Afghanistan last month and celebrated the departure of the last US troops after 20 years of war.
The rebel group must now rule a war-torn country that relies heavily on international aid.
The Taliban promised inclusive government and a more moderate form of Islamic rule than when they ruled the country from 1996 to 2001.
But many Afghans, especially women, are deeply skeptical and fear the erosion of rights gained over the past two decades.
For most of the past two weeks, Taliban officials have held meetings among themselves, amid reports of disagreements between them.
Early on Saturday, the head of Pakistan’s powerful neighboring intelligence, General Faiz Hamid, made a surprise visit to Kabul. It was not immediately clear what he would say to the Taliban leadership, but the ISI has a strong influence on the Taliban.
It was the headquarters of the Taliban leadership in Pakistan, and is often said to be in direct contact with the powerful intelligence agency between services. Although Pakistan routinely denies providing the Taliban with military aid, this accusation has often been leveled by the Afghan government and Washington.
General Fayez’s visit comes as the world waits to see what kind of government the Taliban will eventually announce, searching for an inclusive government that ensures the protection of the rights of women and minorities in the country.
The Taliban promised to form a broad-based government and held talks with former President Hamid Karzai and former government negotiator Abdullah Abdullah.
But the formation of the new government is uncertain and it is not clear whether hard-line intellectuals among the Taliban will win the day – and whether the backsliding women protesters fear will occur.
Members of the Taliban whitewashed Saturday’s murals, some of which boosted healthcare, warned of the dangers of HIV and even praised foreign contributors, such as anthropologist Nancy Dupree, who single-handedly chronicled Afghanistan’s rich cultural legacy.
It is a troubling sign of attempts to erase the memory of the past twenty years.
The murals were replaced with slogans congratulating Afghans on their victory.
A spokesman for the Taliban’s Cultural Committee, Ahmadullah Muttaki, tweeted that the murals were painted over them “because they contradict our values. They were corrupting the minds of the Mujahideen, and instead we wrote slogans that benefit everyone.”
Young female protesters said they had to defy their anxious families to move forward with the protests, even sneaking out of their homes to take their demands for equal rights.
Another 24-year-old college student, Ferhat Popalzai, said she wanted to represent women who were afraid to go out on the street.
“I am the voice of women who cannot speak,” she said. “They think this is a man’s country but it’s not – it’s a woman’s country too.”
Ms. Popalzai and her fellow protesters are too young to remember the Taliban rule that ended in 2001 with the US-led invasion. They say their fear is based on the stories they heard about women not being allowed to go to school or work.
Ms. Naibi has already run a women’s organization and is a spokesperson for the Paralympic Games in Afghanistan.
She spoke of tens of thousands of Afghans who rushed to the Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul to flee Afghanistan after the Taliban overran the capital on August 15.
“They were afraid,” she said – but for her, the fighting in Afghanistan.
“Lector profesional. Jugador galardonado. Aficionado a los zombis. Adicto a las redes sociales. Experto en tocino. Erudito en Internet”