Taliban special forces fired their weapons into the air on Saturday, bringing an abrupt and frightening end to a recent protest march in the capital organized by Afghan women to demand equal rights from the new rulers, according to the Associated Press.
Taliban fighters captured most of Afghanistan last month and celebrated the departure of the last US troops after 20 years of war. The group controls the war-torn country and relies heavily on international aid.
The women’s march – the second in several days in Kabul – began peacefully. Demonstrators laid a wreath outside the Afghan Ministry of Defense in honor of Afghan soldiers who died fighting the Taliban before heading to the presidential palace.
“We are here to demand human rights in Afghanistan. I love my country. I will always be here,” said 20-year-old protester Maryam Naibi.
As the protesters’ shouts rose, several Taliban officials arrived at the crowd to ask them about their demands.
Sudaba Kabiri, a 24-year-old university student who was surrounded by fellow female protesters, told her Taliban interlocutor that the Prophet of Islam had given women rights and that they wanted their rights.
The Taliban official promised to give the women their rights but the women, all in their early twenties, expressed doubts.
As the female protesters reached the presidential palace, dozens of Taliban special forces clashed with the crowd, firing into the air and forcing the female protesters to flee. Kabiri told The Associated Press that they also fired tear gas.
The young protesters said that they had to reject their families’ demands to stay at home and go ahead with their protests, even sneaking out of their homes to get their demands for equal rights from the new rulers.
Ferhat Popalzai, another 24-year-old university student, says she wants to be the voice of voiceless Afghan women, who are afraid to take to the streets.
“I am the voice of women who cannot speak. They think this is a man’s country, but it is not, it is a woman’s country too,” she said.
Popalzai and her fellow protestors are too young to remember the Taliban rule that ended in 2001 with the US-led invasion. They said their fear was based on the stories they heard about women not being allowed to go to school and work.
Naybe, 20, already runs a women’s organization and is a spokeswoman for the Paralympic Games in Afghanistan. She spoke of tens of thousands of Afghans who rushed to Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul to flee Afghanistan after the Taliban overran the capital on August 15.
“They were afraid,” she said, but for her, the struggle was “here” in Afghanistan.
The Taliban promised inclusive government and a more moderate form of government than when they ruled the country from 1996 to 2001. But many Afghans, especially women, are deeply skeptical and fear the erosion of rights gained over the past two decades.
Earlier on Saturday, the powerful head of Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) made a surprise visit to the Afghan capital, Kabul.
It is not yet clear what General Fayez Hamid told the Taliban leaders, but the ISI has a strong influence on the movement.
It was the headquarters of the Taliban leadership in Pakistan, and is often said to be in direct contact with the powerful intelligence service.
Although Pakistan periodically denies providing military assistance to the Taliban, the accusation has often been leveled by the Afghan government and Washington.
General Hamid’s visit comes while the world is waiting to see the form of government that the Taliban will eventually announce, hoping for an inclusive government that guarantees the protection of the rights of women and minorities in the country.
Meanwhile, Taliban elements on Saturday erased murals promoting health care and warning of the dangers of HIV, and others praising some prominent foreign contributors to Afghanistan such as anthropologist Nancy Dupree, who single-handedly chronicled The rich cultural heritage of Afghanistan.
This was a disturbing sign of the attempts to erase everything that bore the memory of the past twenty years. The murals were replaced with slogans congratulating Afghans for their “victory”.
In a tweet, the spokesman for the Taliban’s cultural committee, Ahmadullah Muttaki, said the murals had been replaced, “because they contradict our values. They were corrupting the minds of the mujahideen and instead we wrote slogans that benefit everyone.”