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Hundreds of women, many wearing full-length burqas with veiled faces, filled a Kabul university auditorium on Saturday with placards – many in English – in support of the Taliban and their strict interpretation of Islam, including separate education for men and women.

The Taliban said the protest at Shaheed Rabbani University of Education, which followed last week’s anti-Taliban protests by Afghan women demanding equal rights, was organized by university professors and students.

Journalists on the street near Saturday’s march were kept away from protesters by Taliban fighters armed with automatic rifles and not allowed to speak with any of the women. Subsequent attempts to reach participants via social media or the university went unanswered.

The protest, held on the 20th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, served as a stark reminder of how, despite two decades and more than $ 780 million spent to promote women’s rights, after the departure of US forces last month, Afghan women could be decades, if not centuries, back.

When the Taliban ruled Afghanistan from 1996 to 2001, they prohibited women and girls from doing most jobs and going to school, and virtually imprisoned them in their homes. Women were forced to wear the burqa, a garment that covered them from head to toe, often including the eyes. Its use to erase the appearance of women from public life was seen in the West as a symbol of Taliban oppression.

The protest with large numbers of women wearing the garment on the anniversary of 9/11 was a stern rebuke to the United States and its allies, which have long cited women’s rights as a reason to continue the war in Afghanistan long after the overthrow of the Taliban, Al Qaeda was defused and Osama bin Laden was assassinated.

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

Taliban leaders responded to the protests with violence, beating participants, including women, and insisting that anyone taking to the streets for a public protest must first get approval from their interim government.

The interim Taliban government’s education ministry said women attending Saturday’s pro-Islamist protest had requested and obtained their authorization to hold the event.

“Unlike other protests in Kabul, this is the second all-female non-violent protest and journalists have been allowed to cover the protest freely,” the ministry said in a statement.

“The women also praised the program of separate classes for boys and girls in all universities and institutes and pledged that they would work to strengthen the Islamic Emirate in Afghanistan,” the ministry said.

But the presence of Taliban fighters, the efficiency with which the images of the event and the statements have been released and its timeline – 9/11 – suggests the protest was not only endorsed by the Taliban, but potentially orchestrated by them.

Standing on a podium decorated with large white flags, some of the women participating in Saturday’s protest criticized the recent anti-Taliban protests, insisting that women should abide by the Taliban’s strict policy of women wearing a full coverage.

One woman said anti-Taliban protesters joined the marches last week just to gain fame in the West, according to a recording obtained by The New York Times.

She acknowledged that these women held important roles in society, including doctors and teachers, but said they did not represent all Afghan women.

After the women exited the auditorium, they held a short march, chanting in support of the Taliban and holding up signs, including several in English that read: “The women who left Afghanistan cannot represent us.” and “Our rights are protected in Islam. . ”

Taliban fighters cleared the traffic so that rented buses could transport the women from the university grounds.

Even before the Taliban returned to power, Afghanistan ranked low on all lists for protecting women and leading in the need for shelter, counseling and courts that could help ensure security. women.

Nonetheless, after 20 years of Western support, girls and women made up about 40 percent of all students in the country. Women joined the army and police and held political office. Some have gone on to become internationally renowned singers, compete in the Olympics and in robotics teams, climb mountains and much more – all of which were nearly impossible at the turn of the century.

But many of these women, seeing no future for themselves, fled the country. A women’s soccer team from Herat traveled to Italy, five members of the Afghan Girls’ Robotics Team landed in Mexico, and Zarifa Ghafari, one of Afghanistan’s first female mayors, arrived in Germany, where she recently met Chancellor Angela Merkel.

Ms Ghafari expressed outrage at the images of women at Kabul University on Saturday. “It’s not our culture! she wrote on Twitter. “Afghan women are not part of extremism, do not make them wild, do not impose ISIS culture on us!”

When the Taliban announced their interim government on Tuesday, Western leaders noted that it had failed to deliver on promises that the group would be more inclusive of Afghanistan’s diverse ethnic groups and religious minorities. It was also composed entirely of men, breaking with another commitment of the Taliban leadership.

Hours before the announcement of the interim government, hundreds of Afghans, including women, took to the streets to peacefully demand that their rights be upheld under the leadership of their new leaders. Taliban fighters used rifle butts and batons to violently disperse the protest, scaring the participants away.

On Wednesday, two Afghan journalists were arrested and severely assaulted for covering a demonstration in Kabul. Photos showed the two journalists’ buttocks covered in bruises and gashes after being repeatedly whipped with cables, sparking international outcry.

Reporting was provided by Sami Sahak and Wali Arian