Since the Taliban took power in August 2021, and despite severe repression, Afghan women have regularly demonstrated for their right to education and employment. The vast protest movement that erupted in neighboring Iran after the death of Mahsa Amini brought them hope: that this would have beneficial effects beyond the borders, up to them.
Raihana M* was in her living room in Kabul, the capital of Afghanistan, when she first heard of the protests erupting across the border in Iran. It was at the end of September, shortly after the death in custody of Mahsa Amini, a 22-year-old Iranian Kurd, arrested by the morality police who accused her of having broken the strict dress code of this Islamic Republic.
For six weeks, his face has become the symbol of the revolt of thousands of Iranians who are demonstrating across the country. And despite severe repression, the movement is not weakening: new rallies took place in several universities on Saturday October 29, notably in Tehran, Kerman and Kermanshah, while the commander-in-chief of the Revolutionary Guards, General Hossein Salami assured that the day would mark “the last day of the riots”.
“I felt united”
“I was really shocked and sad,” Raihana recalled. This Afghan social worker saw the images of the protests on Manoto TV, a London-based Persian television channel. “As an Afghan, as a woman, I felt united because we are going through the same thing. Except that it is worse for women in Afghanistan,” she explained in a telephone interview from Kabul.
Since their return to power in August 2021, in Afghanistan, the Taliban have gradually reduced the freedoms won by women over the past twenty years. They have largely excluded them from government jobs, restricted their right to travel, and barred girls from middle and high school.
>> To review: The courage of Afghan women: a year of resistance to Taliban daily life
Faced with these images, Raihana quickly took to social media to watch video clips of rallies across Iran. At the same time, other Afghan women have started doing the same. A few days later, about thirty of them gathered in front of the Iranian embassy in Kabul, chanting “Zan, zendagi, azadi!” (Women, life, freedom, Editor’s note) – echoing the slogan used by their neighbors. Others held banners proclaiming: “From Kabul to Iran, say no to dictatorship!” The demonstration was quickly interrupted: Taliban leaders came to disperse the crowd, shooting in the air and threatening to hit the participants with the butts of their rifles.
“Afghan women are really alone”
Lina Qasimi, too, is following the situation in Iran closely, with the same feeling of solidarity. Since the return of the Taliban, this teenager can no longer go to high school. “I feel very close to all of this. It’s really terrible. No one should be killed for simply showing their hair,” she reacts. “But in Afghanistan, it’s not just about hair, it’s about being a woman. Just being one is a problem for the Taliban,” she laments.
Raihana and Lina Qasimi were thus struck by the images of Iranian men joining the women in the processions. “In Iran, everyone is standing up. Women and men are demonstrating together,” Raihana is surprised. “In Afghanistan, it’s not like that – people are so scared. Afghan women are really alone.”
“It’s true. Iranian women have tremendous support from men. Afghan women don’t have that,” said Tamim Asey, co-founder of the Kabul-based Institute for War and Peace Studies. , and former Afghan Deputy Defense Minister. For good reason, “the Afghans have suffered from 40 years of war, violence, murders… And the Taliban exert enormous pressure on the men: if women demonstrate, the authorities find their husbands, their fathers, their brothers and arrest them. “, he explains.
Afghan women took to the streets in the days following the return of the Taliban. According to several human rights groups, the repression was brutal, targeting the participants but also their male relatives. In a report published in mid-October, the NGO Human Rights Watch details the case of three women arrested with their husbands and children then separated in detention and severely tortured. Among them is Tamana Paryani. The latter had filmed herself in January imploring help when the Taliban burst into her house. She had taken part in a demonstration demanding the right to education and work.
“The international support for Iranian women is phenomenal”
However, despite this violent repression, the protest movement continues. Protests erupted further in several cities, including Kabul, Mazar-e-Sharif, Herat and Bamiyan after an October 1 attack on an education center in the capital that killed more than 50 students, mostly female students .
While the international community’s support for Afghan women appears to be waning, the protest movement in Iran has sparked reactions around the world. On Saturday September 22, around 80,000 people gathered in Berlin to support their cause while several celebrities, like French actress Juliette Binoche, filmed themselves cutting their hair in a video shared from thousands of times on social networks.
“The international support for Iranian women is phenomenal. US President Joe Biden, Secretary of State Antony Blinken, actors, stylists and celebrities… All have expressed their support for the Iranian protesters”, lists Tamim Asey. “Afghan women are not the same. Yet they are the ones who are driving this protest movement – there has been a ripple effect. And they are raising their voices against a regime much more brutal and dogmatic,” said the former minister.
So how can this difference in consideration on the part of the international community be explained? “Over the past twenty years, Western countries have supported Afghan women in various forms. Today, they feel they have done a lot and now is the time for Afghan women to pick up the slack. Conversely, in Iran, this support did not exist before”, he analyzes.
Online support, in fear of repression
Fearing repression from the authorities, Lina Qasimi and her friends preferred to show their support for their Iranian sisters via social networks and avoid the streets. Their solidarity online is also often expressed through “stories” – which generally expire after 24 hours – rather than through more permanent posts.
“It’s the only way for me to say something. It’s too dangerous to post a critical message. The Taliban may find us and they can do anything,” fears the teenager. And to insist: “we can’t do anything. Even if we only go outside, we are afraid of not coming back home.”
If Lina Qasimi is deprived of education today, at 26, Raihana is one of the few women in Afghanistan to still have her job. But fear is also an integral part of his daily life. The humanitarian, who works for an international NGO and who preferred to remain anonymous for security reasons, had to adopt the abaya, a long dress that covers the whole body. Every day, in a company car, she and her colleagues – men and women – take different routes to avoid Taliban checkpoints when they go to help the population.
“The protests in Iran are centered on the issue of the veil, and then, by extension, on freedom. The education of girls and women is not an issue there. In Afghanistan, women are demonstrating for their fundamental rights and their survival”, recalls Barnett Rubin, specialist in Afghanistan.
>> To read also: Iranian women denounce “the sacralized patriarchy through the veil”
Towards a domino effect?
From Kabul, Raihanna now has hope: that the protests in Iran will bring change to her country. “If the protests lead to something, if the Iranian government makes concessions and the restrictions on the hijab change, I think the Taliban will see it. They will understand that if they continue like this, a similar situation could happen here” , she hopes.
An optimism that Tamim Asey does not share. “I think the Taliban hardly care about this movement and are absolutely not afraid of an overflow in Afghanistan”, estimates this former minister, affirming that the main concerns of Kabul vis-à-vis Tehran relate to the border issues, including drug trafficking and migration.
Either way, whether the Iranian movement ends up spilling over into Afghanistan or not, images of Iranian women on the streets provide important moral support to Afghan women. In this common struggle against Islamic Republics on both sides of the border, women are determined to keep up the pressure for their rights.
*Names have been changed
This article was adapted from English by Cyrielle Cabot. The original can be found here.