W.Women have taken up arms in northern and central Afghanistan, marching in the streets by the hundreds and sharing photos with assault rifles on social media, in a show of defiance as the Taliban make radical strides across the country.
One of the largest demonstrations took place in the central province of Ghor, where hundreds of women turned out over the weekend, brandishing weapons and chanting slogans against the Taliban.
They are unlikely to be heading to the front lines in large numbers anytime soon, due to both social conservatism and lack of experience.
But the public demonstrations, at a time of urgent threat from militants, are a reminder of how scared many women are about what the Taliban government will mean for them and their families.
“There were some women who just wanted to inspire the security forces, just symbolically, but many more were ready to go to the battlefields,” said Halima Parastish, director of the women’s direction in Ghor and one of the protesters. “That includes me, and some other women and I told the governor, about a month ago, that we are ready to go fight.”
The Taliban have been rampaging in rural Afghanistan, occupying dozens of districts, including places like the northern province of Badakhshan, which 20 years ago was an anti-Taliban stronghold. They now have several province capitals effectively under siege.
In areas they control, the Taliban have already placed restrictions on women’s education, freedom of movement and clothing, activists and residents of those areas say. In one area, flyers were circulating demanding that women wear the burqa.
Even extremely conservative rural women aspire to greater education, greater freedom of movement and a greater role in their families, according to a new important survey of a group whose voices are rarely heard. The Taliban government will take them in the opposite direction.
“No woman wants to fight, I just want to continue my education and stay away from violence, but the conditions made me and other women,” said a journalist in her 20s from north Jowzjan, where there is a story of women fighting.
He attended a training session on weapons handling in the provincial capital, currently under siege. She asked not to be identified in case it fell to the Taliban. “I don’t want the country to be under the control of people who treat women the way they do. We take up arms to show that if we have to fight, we will. “
She said there were a few dozen women who were learning to use weapons with her and despite their inexperience, they would have an advantage over men if they faced the Taliban, he added. “They are afraid that we will kill them, they consider it shameful.”
For conservative militants, facing women in battle can be humiliating. Isis fighters in Syria were supposedly more scared to die at the hands of Kurdish female forces than to die at the hands of men.
It is rare, but not unprecedented, for Afghan women to take up arms, especially in slightly less conservative parts of the country. Last year, the teenager Qamar Gul became famous across the country after fighting a group of Taliban who killed his parents. The militants included her own husband.
In Baghlan province, a woman named Bibi Aisha Habibi became the only female warlord in the country in the wake of the Soviet invasion and the civil war that followed. They knew her as Commander Kaftar or Pigeon.
And in North Balkh, Salima Mazari, 39, has recently been fighting in the front in Charkint, where she is district governor.
Women have also joined Afghanistan’s security forces for the past two decades, including training as helicopter pilotsalthough they have faced discrimination and harassment from their colleagues and are rarely on the front line.
The Taliban ignored Afghanistan’s historical precedents, claiming that the demonstrations were propaganda and that men would not allow female relatives to fight.
“Women will never take up arms against us. They are defenseless and bound by the defeated enemy, ”said spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid. “They cannot fight.”
Ghor Provincial Governor Abdulzahir Faizzada said in a telephone interview that some of the women who took to the streets of Firozkoh, the provincial capital, had actually already fought against the Taliban, and most had endured violence from the group.
“Most of these women were those who had recently escaped from the Taliban areas. They have already gone through the war in their villages, they lost their children and brothers, they are angry, ”he said. Faizzada added that he would train women who have no experience with weapons, if the Kabul government approves.
The conservative rules of the Taliban are particularly unpleasant in Ghor, where women traditionally wear headscarves instead of fully burqa, and work in the fields and villages alongside their men, Parastish said.
The Taliban have prohibited women from even caring for animals or working the land in areas of Ghor they control, he added. They also closed girls’ schools, ordered women not to leave home without a male guardian, and even banned them from gathering for weddings, saying only men should attend.
Women from these areas were among those who marched. “More than a dozen women escaped from Allahyar in Shahrak district last week and came to us and asked for weapons to go fight for their land and freedom. The same situation is in the Charsadda region, ”said Parastish.
“The women said: ‘They kill us and hurt us without defending ourselves, why not fight?’ They told us that at least two women were in labor in their region, without medical supplies and that they could not come with them. “
For now, the main thing holding women back was the men in power, she said. “The governor said there is no need for us now, and they will let us know.”
Akhtar Mohammad Makoii contributed to the report