All alone, 18-year-old Marwa stood in front of Kabul University with a placard to protest against the Taliban’s university ban for women, letting scorn and insults ricochet off her. “For the first time in my life I felt so proud, strong and powerful because I stood up to them and claimed a right that God gave us,” Marwa told AFP. She does not want to give her full name.
Protests by women have become less frequent in Afghanistan since the Taliban returned to power, especially since the arrest of leading women activists earlier in the year. Demonstrators face arrest, violence and social exclusion.
But Marwa is persistent. Her sister recorded a cell phone video of her silent protest from a car just meters from the entrance to the campus of Kabul University, one of the country’s largest and most respected institutions.
In one of their latest attacks on women’s rights, the radical Islamist Taliban banned higher education for women last week, sparking international protests. Some women in Afghanistan tried to demonstrate against the university ban, but they were quickly dispersed.
Marwa confronted Taliban guards at the gates of Kabul University on Sunday. She boldly held up a placard on which was written “Iqra,” the Arabic word for “read.”
“They said really bad things to me, but I stayed calm,” reports Marwa. “I wanted to show the power of a single Afghan girl and that even a single person can stand up to oppression.”
Referring to her fellow students, she says, “If my other sisters see a single girl standing up to the Taliban, it will help them stand up and defeat the Taliban.”
When the Taliban returned to power in August 2021, they initially announced that they wanted to be less harsh than during their first rule from 1996 to 2001. However, the militia has since imposed increasingly strict restrictions on women and practically pushed them out of public life.
On Saturday, the Taliban banned non-governmental organizations (NGOs) from employing women. According to a protocol, exceptions are made for foreign employees of the United Nations. Girls’ high schools have been closed for more than a year. Women who worked for the government lost their jobs and received part of the wages for staying at home.
In addition, women are no longer allowed to go to parks, gyms and public baths. The Taliban base the restrictions on non-compliance with the strict Islamic dress code, which includes wearing the hijab, which covers the entire body.
The country has become a prison for women, says Marwa, who dreams of becoming a painter. “I don’t want to be locked up. I have big dreams that I want to achieve,” she says. “That’s why I decided to demonstrate.”
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