Despite brutal repression, Afghan women demand the right to go to school and work

Afghanistan's women saw two decades of progress vanish when U.S. forces withdrew in August as the Taliban took back control of the country. The group's arch-conservative interpretation of Islam pushed women out of the workplace, and cast most young women and girls out of school. But as Jane Ferguson and videographer Eric O'Connor report, some women in Afghanistan are not taking this lying down.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    In a moment last August, Afghanistan's women saw two decades of progress vanish, as the Taliban took back over the country.

    The group's arch-conservative interpretation of Islam pushed women out of the workplace and cast most young women and girls out of school.

    But, as Jane Ferguson and videographer Eric O'Connor report, some women in Afghanistan are not taking this lying down and are raising their voices in protest.

  • Jane Ferguson:

    This is the last time anyone saw 25-year-old Tamana Zaryab Paryani, terrified, pleading for help on a Facebook live last month, while men try to force their way into her apartment. She had recently attended a protest in the Afghan capital, calling for women's rights to go to school and work.

    The Taliban denies they are holding her. Despite the group's crackdowns, women like her have persisted. They may well be the world's riskiest feminist movement, and these Afghan women among the bravest, on the streets to demand their rights. They are defiant, in full view of Taliban gunmen.

  • Woman (through translator):

    We try to find ways and make sure to film the protests, so it makes the news, and the world knows.

  • Jane Ferguson:

    These women know that, as long as the cameras are rolling, Taliban fighters are less likely to shoot them dead. The men here not only have guns. They now have an entire government to back them.

    What have these women? iPhones, their voices, and the hope the world hears them.

  • Woman (through translator):

    When we specify a location to protest in, armed forces move to limit access to that location. We do not go there as a group. We must get ourselves to that specific location in groups of two or even sometimes by ourselves. We mention this in the invitations that we send out.

  • Jane Ferguson:

    This is the voice of one of the protest leaders, speaking to the "NewsHour" by phone.

    We are protecting her identity.

  • Woman (through translator):

    They wouldn't allow journalists to cover us under any condition. The journalists have tried to photograph and film us from far-off distances. So we are forced to become both the protesters and people covering the protests as well.

  • Jane Ferguson:

    In Kabul, we saw this for ourselves.

    After getting word the women were going to launch a rally, we rushed to the area, aware they often only have a few moments before the Taliban show up.

    They don't want them talking to us. What we're doing is writing my name and cell phone number on little pieces of paper to give to the women, so that we can slip them in their pockets, hoping that they can contact us.

    As soon as we arrived, we were forced back into our car at gunpoint. One young woman who came to speak with us.

  • Woman:

    It is very dangerous, but we should do it. It is very hard for a woman. They cannot go to school, university. And they also lock them.

  • Jane Ferguson:

    She barely gets a few sentences out before the Taliban gunmen order us to stop filming.

    The women, just about 30 feet from our car, filmed this footage on their phones that day. They are surrounded by Taliban gunmen, unable to move.

    The rights of women in Afghanistan have been decimated since the Taliban takeover in August 2021. Education for girls over 12 is restricted, and women are increasingly pushed out of public and economic life. Those fighting to hold on to the hard-fought gains they achieved over the last 20 years face international abandonment and a violent patriarchal movement.

    The United Nations now calls the Taliban's actions against women and girls collective punishment.

    Storai Ahmadi, Women for Women International: They are not allowed to have economic activities, not only having economic activities. They are not allowed to travel by their own.

  • Jane Ferguson:

    Storai Ahmadi works for Women for Women International. She says the strict limits on women's businesses and professional lives are only intensifying the current economic crisis.

  • Storai Ahmadi:

    It's mostly poultry that they can do from home, the kitchen gardening, the tailoring that their neighbors and people in the community know about them that this woman, this woman is a tailor. So they are bring their clothes to them or coming to buy the products of the poultry or agriculture.

  • Jane Ferguson:

    Since the fall of Kabul and Taliban takeover, Afghanistan's economy has largely collapsed, and the country has descended into the world's worst humanitarian crisis.

    Nowhere among its people is it felt more than women and girls. We traveled to the west of the country to Herat. Drought here has caused harvests to fail, making life even harder for women to feed their children.

    "We cannot buy anything. We cannot buy even potato," this woman told me at an emergency food distribution set up by the World Food Program. We spoke with women here about their gravest concerns.

    Even as she struggles to eat, this widow mourns the loss of her four daughters' education the most.

  • Woman (through translator):

    They don't have any future. We cannot afford private education. I wanted them to go to university and get a job. We had a lot of hopes, but they all vanished.

  • Jane Ferguson:

    Back in Kabul, the female protesters have changed tactics. After being detained and threatened for the protest we attended, they moved indoors to a book store. They invited as many journalists as they could to film and photograph their book club.

    Today's reading? A work on protest and civil resistance.

  • Woman (through translator):

    We demonstrated despite their opposition, and we will continue. Our participation here today shows that we will not surrender to their oppression. We will continue our resistance.

  • Jane Ferguson:

    We met with the same young woman who spoke with us in our car before she was chased away. She, like many of the young women here, is a college student at a state school.

    Only a year or two away from graduation, when the Taliban took power, their dreams of finishing their degrees vanished, like this young woman, only months away from the most important day in her education.

  • Woman (through translator):

    I was in the last year of university. I prepared my thesis and was about to celebrate my graduation. I wanted to take my family to the graduation ceremony. I wanted them to watch it. I wanted to celebrate that happy day.

  • Jane Ferguson:

    Despite the dangers, the defiance in this quiet, dignified gathering is intense.

  • Woman (through translator):

    I want to fight for my rights. We should continue even if it costs our lives. We will not let anyone deprive us of our rights.

  • Jane Ferguson:

    These women are the ones that stayed after the Taliban took power, those who couldn't or wouldn't evacuate in the chaotic, panicked U.S.-led exodus from the country last summer.

    In a matter of days, thousands of Afghan women's rights activists, lawyers, and civil society leaders fled the country, at risk of retribution by the Taliban. These women, some of the country's best educated and most vocal rights advocates, are now scattered around the world, trying to help those left behind from afar, like Storai Ahmadi for Women for Women, who was forced to flee to London with her family.

  • Storai Ahmadi:

    In beginning, it was very much difficult to talk with them, because I was feeling that I am not with them, I am far from them.

    But now, when I talk with them, when I work with them, holding meeting with them, I feel like I have — I feel like I have to do a lot of work. I should do something for them. I should be very active. I should help them.

    So, it's — yes it's very difficult and good. Like, and here, it's very difficult. Like, you always want to do something for them, help them.

  • Jane Ferguson:

    That help must include the global community, say the women we spoke with throughout our reporting.

    Their only hope, they told us, is international pressure on the Taliban to give women greater rights, while they continue their work inside the country.

  • Woman (through translator):

    Our goal is to institutionalize civil activism wherever we can now. Different groups have been created by the people who have the courage to raise their voices.

    We are hopeful that our voices are heard by the international community and the United States.

  • Jane Ferguson:

    Leverage over the Taliban remains limited since the U.S.-led withdrawal from Afghanistan.

    Yet the women we met remain hopeful keeping the world's eyes and ears on their cause can make a difference, their protests, in whatever form they take, however small, a profound danger, their courage unbreakable.

    For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Jane Ferguson in Kabul, Afghanistan.

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