Taliban releases four women’s rights activists but fear persists

from right: Tammanna Zaryab, Marosal Ayyar Parvaneh Ebrahim, And Zahra Mohammadi four Afghan women's rights activists who've been abducted by the Taliban
from right: Tammanna Zaryab, Marosal Ayyar Parvaneh Ebrahim, And Zahra Mohammadi four Afghan women's rights activists who've been abducted by the Taliban © Observers

On February 12, the Taliban released four Afghan women’s rights activists, who were arrested nearly a month earlier. Dozens more are being held in Taliban custody, according to other activists and US diplomats. The released women have not yet been able to share what happened to them in Taliban custody due to the intense suffering they experienced, according to our Observer who is in contact with the victims' relatives.

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The Taliban captured the Afghan capital of Kabul on August 15, 2021, reestablishing power over the country. Some of the first signs of dissent came from groups of women’s rights activists who dared to challenge the Islamist movement in an effort to reclaim their rights. 

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A video captured the moments before the Taliban broke into women's rights activist Tamana Zaryabi Paryani's house, arresting her. In the video, she can be heard saying: "The Taliban attacked our house. Oh my God, my sisters are here too. Please go away, I can't meet you this late at night with these girls. I won't open up, please go. Help, help!" 

Women’s rights activists organized multiple rallies around Kabul following the Taliban takeover, protesting against the first restrictions the group placed on women and girls: the right to participate in Afghan politics and the right to education.

>> Read more on The Observers: Taliban put down protest in Kabul: ‘Even if you cut our heads off, we will rise again’

‘They are morally and psychologically devastated’

Atefa Ghafouri is an Afghan journalist and women’s rights activist. She had to leave Afghanistan for Europe after the Taliban made direct threats toward her and her family. She told the FRANCE 24 Observers team what happened.

Tamana [Zaryabi Paryani], Zahra [Mohammadi], Parwana [Ibrahimkhel], and Mursal [Ayar] are four activists who were arrested, along with some of the relatives, by the Taliban in Kabul. We only knew that the Taliban abducted them, and we didn’t hear any more about them until they were finally released. I was able to talk with some of their relatives, so I know that they had such difficult days in the Taliban prison that they are morally and psychologically devastated. They are still not able to talk about it – they are completely traumatised. 

We know about these cases because they were publicly announced by their families or friends, but the real number of victims seems to be much more than this. However, many families refuse to speak out because of pressure and threats from the Taliban. There are many women’s rights activists who have received threats online, on the phone or in the mail. Some have been summoned to the Taliban police offices, including the women who disappeared. 

Sometimes they even threaten the activists’ families. They have told some families, ‘If you want to keep your wife or your daughter safe, keep her silent.’ It puts even more pressure on the activists. 

 

A Taliban soldier hits a female protester with an iron rod, September 7. Video sent to us by one of our Observers in Kabul.

 

Our Observer is no stranger to these types of threats.

Even weeks before the Taliban took over the country, my father was walking in the street and in front of the governor’s office, a man put a gun to his head and threatened to kill him and my entire family if I didn’t stop working. It was horrible. For weeks, I couldn’t go out, I couldn’t even write anything on my social media accounts, in fear that if I said or did something, they would kill not only me but all of my relatives.

At least 29 women are being detained by the Taliban, according to Rina Amiri, the US special envoy for Afghan Women, Girls and Human Rights on February 12. However, some human rights activists in Afghanistan say the number is much higher.

Activists have had to change locations in order to stay safe after every threat and every protest. However, Tammana and Parvaneh were arrested at their homes on January 19, just an hour before Taliban representatives were to meet Norwegian officials in Oslo to talk about women’s rights.

And just after the Oslo meeting, three others were abducted. According to their families, the abductions were violent: dozens of armed men broke into the houses, beat people and arrested the activists without any explanation.

Amir Khan Muttaqi, the foreign minister of the Taliban, claimed at the Oslo meeting that there are some rogue groups within the Taliban that are carrying out operations like this without Taliban approval. He could be referring to the Haqqani network, the military section of the Taliban [Editor’s note: responsible for some of the most devastating attacks in Afghanistan].

>> Read more on The Observers: ‘I don’t dare to go out anymore’: Women in Kabul live in fear after Taliban return

On January 23, a group of high ranking Taliban members, including Amir Khan Muttaqi and Anas Haqqani, leader of the Haqqani faction, met Western officials in three days of meetings in Oslo to discuss human rights. In the meetings, the Taliban denied any involvement with the abducted women.

Afghanistan’s deputy minister for information and culture, Zabihullah Mujahid, also denied these allegations.

Initiatives like the Oslo meetings do not help Afghan women, as we can see that they arrested women’s rights activists even after that. And nothing has changed in women’s favour. Inviting internationally wanted terrorists like Anas Haqqani to Norway just gives them more legitimacy.

The only thing Western governments can do is stop helping the Taliban at all levels. The government in Afghanistan should only be recognised if it is inclusive, free, based on elections and guarantees women’s rights and their roles in policy [Editor’s note: no country has yet recognised the Taliban government in Afghanistan].

Members of the Taliban fire in the air to disperse demonstrators, September 7. Video sent by one of our Observers in Kabul.

A number of Afghan activists gathered in Oslo during the meetings to demand women’s rights and the liberation of abducted activists.

UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterre on January 26 appealed for the release of recently arrested or abducted women activists.

‘Releasing these four women does not mean the Taliban is changing course’

So far, the Taliban has only responded to families inquiring about their loved ones’ arrests – whether in public cases or not – by denying any involvement with them.

They are playing a simple game to gain international recognition as the sovereign leaders of Afghanistan, unlock frozen assets in international banks and received international humanitarian aid [Editor’s note: the US has frozen roughly $9.5 billion of Afghanistan’s foreign assets as well as imposed financial sanctions on the country]. However, on the other hand, they want to suppress any type of opposition within the country, and women activists were the first – and only – group that dared to defy the Taliban’s authority. So they commit these atrocities without claiming any responsibility.

Releasing these four women does not mean the Taliban is changing course due to international pressure. There are many others who are still illegally behind bars. And they have never taken responsibility for these arrests.

And unfortunately, I think it’s working. With the threats, the arrests, the families who ask activists to give up… each day, there are fewer and fewer women who dare to speak out.