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Young Afghan women defiant as Taliban bring back moral police

by Annie Banerji | @anniebanerji | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Wednesday, 8 September 2021 15:00 GMT

An Afghan woman uses a microphone to chant during the anti-Pakistan protest in Kabul, Afghanistan, September 7, 2021. WANA (West Asia News Agency) via REUTERS

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During the Taliban’s previous rule, women and girls faced violence for breaking moral code

By Annie Banerji

Sept 8 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - As the Taliban reintroduce a moral policing ministry in Afghanistan that once controlled women's lives, female activists and students say a young generation of educated and working women will not accept oppression by the Islamist militant group.

Three weeks after storming to power, the Taliban announced an all-male interim government on Tuesday that included the Ministry of Guidance and Call, formerly known as the Ministry of Promotion of Virtue and Punishment of Vice or the moral police.

During the Taliban's prior 1996-2001 rule, girls could not attend school and women were banned from working or studying.

Women had to cover their face and be accompanied by a male relative in public. Those who broke the rules were sometimes humiliated or beaten by the Taliban's moral police squads.

Since the Taliban seized the capital Kabul on Aug. 15, young Afghan women have staged protests in major cities, demanding their rights after the militants barred many from leaving their homes for work and girls from attending school or university.

"The Taliban really love to whip people ... their whole attitude towards women is almost like they are disgusted by us," said veteran activist Mahbouba Seraj, who has established several organisations to promote peace and women's rights.

"But this time, it won't work," the 73-year-old said by phone from Kabul. "The young generation of Afghanistan ... they have not seen the whip of the Taliban. They don't have that kind of fear."

Taliban spokesman Suhail Shaheen told the Thomson Reuters Foundation that the new ministry would focus on sermons and preachings, but declined to comment on its treatment of women.

"(The) future will tell that," he said by phone.

RIGHTS ROLLBACK FEARED

The Taliban have pledged to protect women's rights in accordance with Islamic law, but advocates fear a backslide after two decades in which female workers have joined previously all-male bastions including the media, judiciary, and politics.

"The reinstatement of this ministry will definitely heighten fears that most of all of the old abuses will be back," said Heather Barr of Human Rights Watch, who has worked with women in Afghanistan for more than six years.

As the new government was announced, Afghan women protested in the streets of Kabul but had to take cover after Taliban gunmen fired into the air to disperse hundreds of demonstrators.

Videos on social media - which could not be verified - showed Taliban soldiers beating burqa-clad women with sticks.

"We are not a herd of animals or an illiterate bunch that would need men with batons to guard and lead us," said 23-year-old student Sharifa Qayumi, who attended the protests in Kabul.

"We are all educated (and) from dignified families... they beat some of our friends with sticks and threatened them with aerial firing, but we would not give up on our rights."

NO WOMEN IN GOVERNMENT

The Taliban have not named any women in their new government and have also omitted the women's affairs ministry - which was created in 2001 after the United States toppled the insurgents.

"It is very disappointing," Hasina Safi said on Twitter. She headed the women's affairs ministry from May 2020 until last month when she fled the country.

The ministry had spearheaded policies that aimed to curb virginity tests, ban child marriages and boost women's presence in public life over the last two decades.

Before the Taliban's takeover, women held nearly 30% of seats in the country's parliament.

At least three women headed federal ministries, including the interior and finance, and dozens of others were deputies, advisers and bureaucrats, according to previous government data.

World powers have told the Taliban the key to peace and development is an inclusive government that would back its pledges of upholding human rights, after its previous rule was marked by bloody vendettas and oppression of women.

Taliban spokesman Shaheen said the current government was not final and that its leaders were "very clear that they want women to work in the government".

"In the future, when things settle down, there will be a possibility of having women in ministerial positions as well," he said, while raising the prospect of a "ministry of women".

While campaigner Seraj said she doubted the Taliban had changed since its previous rule, she stressed that the insurgents were now facing a "new generation of women".

"They are educated, they have all lived and grown up in another era. They are not going to be sitting silently."

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(Reporting by Annie Banerji @anniebanerji, Additional reporting by Zofeen T. Ebrahim and Emma Batha, Editing by Kieran Guilbert; Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers the lives of people around the world who struggle to live freely or fairly. Visit http://news.trust.org)

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