But for Afghan women, taking on the Taliban’s restrictive policies is a monumental task.
Since the Taliban takeover last year, Afghan women have been demonstrating for their right to education and employment. When women in Iran took to the streets after the death of Mahsa Amini in police custody, their Afghan sisters immediately began monitoring the protests across the border. As mourners in Iran on Wednesday gathered at Amini’s grave to mark the 40-day mourning period, Afghan women are hoping for a spillover effect.
Raihana M* was in her living room in the Afghan capital, Kabul, when she first heard of protests erupting across the border in neighbouring Iran following the death in police custody of Mahsa Amini, who was arrested for allegedly breaching Iran’s strict dress code.
The Afghan social worker saw footage of the protests in Iran on Manoto TV, a London-based Persian language TV station, and said she felt an immediate, almost physical, rush of solidarity for her Iranian sisters.
“I was really shocked and sad. As an Afghan, as a woman, I felt solidarity because we are experiencing the same thing. Only it’s worse for women in Afghanistan,” she explained in a phone interview from Kabul.
That was in late September, not long after 22-year-old Amini was declared dead by the Iranian authorities. Raihana then took to social media, watching clips of protests across Iranian cities and towns.
Other Afghan women living under the Taliban regime were also doing the same. Within days, a group of around 30 Afghan women gathered outside the Iranian embassy in Kabul chanting, “Zan, zendagi, azadi!” (Women, life, freedom), echoing the protest cry from Iran. They also held banners proclaiming, “From Kabul to Iran, say no to dictatorship!”.
Taliban officials then moved in to break up the demonstration, firing into the air and threatening to hit the women with their rifle butts.
Lina Qasimi, an Afghan teenager who has been unable to go to school since the Taliban shut down secondary schools, has also been keenly following the protests in Iran. “I feel very close to this. It’s really terrible. No one should be killed for just showing their hair. But in Afghanistan, it’s not just hair, it’s women. Just being a woman is a problem for the Taliban,” she said.
With a 921 km border dividing the two countries, Tehran and Kabul have a complicated history of wars, border skirmishes, smuggling networks, migrations, and discrimination in Iran against Afghan refugees. But they also share cultural ties, common linguistic traditions, and centuries of empathy that is probably best described in the lyrics of revered Iranian songwriter, Bijan Taraghi, who famously wrote, “Though your child threw a stone at our window/It did not break our lasting bond”.
‘Afghan women are really alone’
As protests spread across Iran, both Raihana and Qasimi were struck by the extraordinary scenes of Iranian men joining the women in their anti-regime demonstrations. “The difference is, in Iran, all the people are standing up. Iranian women and men are really protesting in unity,” noted Raihana. “In Afghanistan, it’s not like that – people are so afraid. Afghan women are really alone.”
That’s true, says Tamim Asey, co-founder of the Kabul-based Institute for War and Peace Studies and a former Afghan deputy defence minister. “Iranian women have the support of men in considerable ways. Afghan women don’t have that. Afghan men have suffered 40 years of war, so much violence, so much killing. The Taliban are also putting tremendous pressure on the men. If some women protest, they find their husbands, fathers, brothers and arrest them,” he explained.
Afghan women began protesting the week after the Taliban seized control of Kabul on August 15, 2021, despite the grave risk of confronting a movement of hardline Islamist male fighters.
The crackdown has been brutal and extends to male relatives of ‘troublesome’ women, according to rights groups. In a report last week, the New York-based Human Rights Watch detailed the cases of three women, who were arrested with their husbands and children, separated under detention and severely tortured. The detained women included Tamana Paryani, who filmed herself pleading for help as the Taliban broke into her house at night in January after she joined a women’s protest demanding the right to education and work.
‘We are not allowed to do anything’
And yet, the women’s protests in Afghanistan have continued. Following an October 1 attack on an education centre in Kabul’s Dasht-e-Barachi neighbourhood, which killed more than 50 mostly female students, protests by women and girls erupted in several Afghan cities, including Kabul, Mazar-e-Sharif, Herat and Bamiyan.
But they failed to get the sort of media attention and solidarity displays that the Iranian protests have attracted across the world.
On Saturday, around 80,000 people from across Europe demonstrated in Berlin in solidarity with the protest movement in Iran. Global celebrities, including leading French actress Juliette Binoche, have filmed themselves cutting locks of hair in public displays of protest against Amini’s death in custody.
“The international support for Iranian women has been phenomenal. US President Joe Biden, Secretary of State Antony Blinken, actors, designers, celebrities have all condemned the persecution and expressed support for the Iranian protesters. The same thing does not happen for Afghan women – even though they originally started the protest movement that had a spillover effect in Iran. And they raised their voices against a far more brutal, dogmatic regime,” said Asey.
The international engagement in Afghanistan, followed by the disastrous fallout of the hasty US withdrawal, could account for the lack of global interest, according to experts. “Over the last 20 years, Western countries have supported Afghan women in various forms and forums. The West feels it’s done so much, now it’s time for Afghan women to take it on. In Iran, that support wasn’t there,” explained Asey.
But for Afghan women, taking on the Taliban’s restrictive policies is a monumental task.
The fear of crackdowns and surveillance have forced Qasimi and her friends to take to social media and avoid the streets. But even the online solidarity is restricted to “live stories” – which typically expire after 24 hours – and not “posts” that stay online until they are deleted.
“It’s the only way I can say anything. It’s too dangerous to post anything critical. The Taliban will find you and they can do anything. We are not allowed to do anything. We’re not allowed to go to school, even if we just go outside, we fear we may not come back home,” explained the Afghan teenager.
At 26, Raihana, on the other hand, completed her education during the US intervention years. She is among the few, lucky women in the country to still have her job, at an international NGO. The Afghan aid worker did not want her real name or that of her employer revealed due to the security risks. And there are many. In the mornings, Raihana dons an abaya, an all-black robe worn in Gulf countries that has made its way to Afghanistan. Their office car, with female and male colleagues, takes different routes each day to avoid Taliban checkpoints as they make their way to work, offering essential humanitarian services that the Taliban fails to provide Afghans.
The differences between the women-led protest movements in Afghanistan and Iran extend to the scope of their demands, according to Barnett Rubin, a leading Afghanistan expert and former special advisor to the late US Ambassador for Afghanistan, Richard Holbrooke. “The Iranian demonstrations are centrally against enforcement of hijab and then more broadly “freedom.” Education of girls and women is a non-issue in Iran. In Afghanistan, women are protesting about issues of basic rights and survival and not, so far, about hijab,” explained Rubin in emailed comments to FRANCE 24.
Spillover effect – or not
From her home in Kabul, Raihana says she is closely monitoring the situation in Iran. “If the protests work, if the Iranian government makes changes, if the restrictions on hijab change, I think the Taliban will see it. They will learn that if they continue like this, it could happen here,” she said.
But Asey is not as optimistic. “My assessment and reading of the situation is that the Taliban barely cares about the women’s movement in Iran. They’re not afraid of a spillover,” he maintained.
As a former deputy defence minister, Asey explained that Kabul’s main concerns with Tehran are focused on border issues, including drug trafficking and migration.
Protests in Iran have indeed spread to the impoverished province of Sistan-Baluchistan – which borders Afghanistan and Pakistan – including a September 30 “Black Friday” massacre, when Iranian security forces opened fire on protesters, killing at least 66 people.
But the unrest in the remote Iranian border province involves longstanding governance and religious rights issues between the predominantly Sunni Baloch ethnic group and Shiite authorities in Tehran, explained Asey.
Despite the odd border clashes and demonstrations over the mistreatment of Afghans in Iran, the Taliban have managed a working relationship with the Islamic Republic of Iran since the August 2021 takeover of Afghanistan.
Both administrations are wary of the West, particularly the US. When it comes to women’s rights, the situation in Iran may not be as bleak as in Afghanistan, but the two Islamic administrations are joined in their bid to silence female voices – and blame the West’s “corrupting influence” when that fails.
“I understand that the Taliban and Iran have some connection. There are meetings, discussions between them,” said Raihana. “Also, the Taliban stopped the protest in support of Iranian women outside the Iranian embassy in Kabul. It shows some support for each other.”
But Afghan women are also drawing moral support from their Iranian sisters across the border and are determined to keep up the pressure for their basic human rights.
*Name changed to protect identity