‘We did not think that we would return alive’: Interview with a protester

  ‌‌By Zahra Mousawi 

Zan Times is documenting the experience and analysis of female activists who are resisting the Taliban. For the start of this series, we interviewed Robaba, a women’s rights activist who was imprisoned by the Taliban for participating in peaceful protests in Mazar-e-Sharif in Balkh province. (She spoke under pseudonym because of the danger involved in talking to the media.)  

Before August 2021, she was the editor-in-chief of a newspaper and owned an art gallery in Balkh province. That life ended when the Taliban returned. The newspaper closed down and they destroyed her gallery. “All my artworks were torn to pieces,” she recounts. “They broke everything. It was a kind of vindictive blatant sexism.” But Robaba wouldn’t be intimidated. In September 2021, the activist helped organize a series of large protests in Mazar-e-Sharif that threatened the Taliban and their grip on power.  

Note: This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.  

Zan Times: Dear Robaba, thank you very much for giving Zan Times the time and opportunity for this important conversation. Who is Robaba? Tell us about yourself?  

Robaba: I am 29 years old, a storyteller and lecturer. My area of work is women’s literature.  

ZT: In your opinion, when we talk about the general issue of women in Afghanistan, what exactly are we talking about? 

Robaba: Women from deprived classes and rural areas were always deprived. Even though there was a constitution, there was a parliament, there were international monitoring bodies, there was still a high rate of sexual and gender-based violence. In my opinion, we should not forget that women in Afghanistan have always been an oppressed and vulnerable social group. 

However, in the past two decades, the existence of women was not denied. Now, the mere existence of a woman is problematic. The Taliban emptied women’s breadbaskets. This is where the women came to the street. Women came to the street to say loudly: “We are here, and we want ‘Work, Food, Freedom.’” Resistance exists in many forms. 

ZT: As we know, women’s resistance to the Taliban began in the provinces of Herat, Balkh, Bamyan, etc. What lessons can be learned from this? 

Robaba: In Afghanistan, we have a minority, an affluent class that is always in comfort. Most of them had easy access to higher education and other social and economic privileges. But the marginalized women were deprived and surrounded by all kinds of patriarchal restrictions. These women always had to work harder to access the most basic rights.  

Women protests began in provinces and then arrived in the centre [Kabul]. Although women’s resistance against the Taliban began in the provinces, it fell apart due to the intensity of violence and repression. There was not much media coverage. Marginalized women in the provinces displayed their awareness early and paid huge prices.The women of the centre were able to continue the protests longer because the media coverage slowed down repression. International organizations have not withdrawn all their workers from Kabul and their attention was also on the developments in Kabul.  

ZT: Did you know what kind of situation you were getting into when you became an activist?   

Robaba: Yes, we knew, and I honestly told all my friends that we should all say goodbye to our homes before setting foot on the street. My prediction was that the Taliban would fire at us. That’s why I even thought of wearing a shroud.  

We knew what kind of group we were facing. We did not think that we would return alive. We knew that if we were not killed, we would definitely be arrested sooner or later. We even thought that after the protest, they might kidnap us, kill and torture us. Unfortunately, this prediction came true. Our friends were arrested. Some died under torture. Some were secretly shot dead. Out of the 50 people who came to the street, only eight or nine of us managed to escape and survive. All of us experienced imprisonment. 

ZT: Tell us about the women’s protests in Mazar-e-Sharif in September 2021 and their after math? 

Robaba: After the Taliban regained power on August 15, and after the protest of women in Herat, we staged a protest in Mazar-e-Sharif on September 3. We first gathered in front of a police station. The Taliban put the barrels of their guns on our necks. They said that we cannot stand there. From there, we went to the Bakhtar Tower with the slogans “One-sex city, it stinks”, “Women’s rights violation, human rights violation” and “Work, Food, Freedom.” The Taliban surrounded us there. The Taliban took reporters hostage.  
Our main destination was the governor’s office. When we reached it, they completely surrounded us. We could feel the shafts of their rifles on our waists and backs. We thought they could shoot us. Meanwhile, one of their commanders came and asked to talk. They made each protester, male and female, walk in front of their cameras on the pretext of talking with us; they identified and recorded all of our faces. The person who read our resolution was Z. M. 

That same night, the Taliban attacked her house. Fortunately, she had taken the security protocols seriously and had changed her place. We all did not go home that night.  

After the next protest on September 6, Q. who was the group coordinator, and N, who was media liaison, received threatening phone calls.  

On September 7, in a larger gathering, male friends also joined us. The Taliban arrested the men and we women stayed in the streets.  

On September 8, we came on the streets to demand the release of our friends. We informed the media about their disappearance. That day, the Taliban gathered all the protesters and took them away. I and a few others were hiding behind a vehicle and a wall. After a while, we were back on the sidewalk. The Taliban stopped me, but, because I had a cane in my hand after having an operation on my leg, I gave the excuse that I was going to the hospital nearby. They searched my shoulder bag and found medical documents. Because of my physical condition, they believed that I was not in the protests 

That day, I saw with my own eyes how the Taliban brutally threw all my friends, who were holding banners and placards, into pick-up trucks and took them away. That scene was so traumatizing that we were all disoriented. The Taliban denied responsibility for the disappearances. Within a week, dead bodies started appearing – in city water canals, in the ruins, even in the desert outside the city. We heard numerous names of women and men who were taken away by the Taliban that day, and later their dead bodies were found somewhere. Some had died under torture and some had been shot dead. I know of nine female and male protestors who died under torture.  

But it did not end here. [Robaba was arrested following the protest and was imprisoned for 11 days.]  In exchange for my release from my family, the Taliban confiscated two house deeds as my bail. The suppression was so planned and precise. After being released from Taliban prison, some were kidnapped again and killed for the crime of talking to the media. They sent a threatening warning – “We will hang you, whore and prostitute, in the same location that you protested so that it will be a lesson for others.” 
 

ZT: You’ve talked about the cost of this fight that is born by women, even as some deny the systematic and structural violence of oppression. What was your experience?  

Robaba: The experience of Taliban prison is understood by someone who has seen it once. It is a real hell in every way. A group of riflemen attack you first. To torture women, the Taliban put guns on children’s heads. Protesting women were subjected to mental torture many times by torturing their children. They would come at two o’clock in the morning and take girls and women for interrogation. Every night, three or four Taliban with rifles on their shoulders would interrogate us.  

At gunpoint, they forced us to speak against ourselves and give forced confessions. If we resisted, they would use other means of fear and terror and more pressure to force us.  

I remember a university professor in our prison who collapsed and was dying. They did not bring a doctor. They said, “Don’t worry, it will be fine.” One of our cellmates was shouting and asking Taliban to help the professor. Instead of taking the professor to a medical centre, the Talib wanted to shoot the woman who asked for help. 

We lost the distinction between day and night. We had no hope for freedom. They often came in with their hands on the triggers of their guns to take us for interrogation. Then, during the interrogation, they always said that we killed or shot so-and-so. 
 

ZT: None of our generation have memories of how the Taliban acted when in power the first time. Do you think that if the collective memory was more active and there was more written history then some of this tragedy in Mazar could have been prevented? 

Robaba: Of course! Not only in Mazar, but in the whole country, a lower cost would have been paid. We are people who don’t learn from history because we don’t read books and every time history repeats itself in this bitter and heavy way. For example, I was a child – maybe five or six years old – when the Taliban took power in the nineties. If the written and documented history of the crimes of that period were available to me and my generation, and if women like me knew what crimes were committed by the Taliban in Mazar, maybe we would have acted more cautiously.  

Or if my mother’s generation had stood up to the Taliban when they were last in power, maybe my generation would not have paid a heavy price, maybe the price of our struggle for our rights would not have been the life of my friends and peers. If they had stood, maybe I would not experience the torture and Taliban prison. Sometimes I do think about this historical shortcoming. My best friends were killed in front of my eyes. I could do nothing. Those were the worst nights and days of my life.  

ZT: Why do you think the common lived experience among women and their common suffering has not yet been able to create the necessary trust to draw common goals?  

Robaba: In the last two decades, most of the women in the ruling apparatus were not aligned with the interests of the people. Their priority was to secure first world interests in a third world country. Their positions were written everywhere in bold and colorful lines: “gender.” They had no priority to do something for women in the farthest part of Afghanistan.  

ZT: Do you think that elitistism affected how some perceived the women’s independent resistance in the past year? 

Robaba: No group, including the international community, predicted that the Afghan woman would stand against the Taliban with her history and little experience of her symbolic presence in power. So far, women are the only social group that has stood up against an international terrorist group that allegedly defeated 300,000 soldiers and pushed NATO out of the country. This is not small.  

From the very first days of Taliban in power, the street became the trenches of the struggle of Afghan women. Women were and are the main soldiers of this unequal war. Taliban armed to the teeth with guns and women armed with paper, slogans and banners. So far, women have broken all traditions by coming to the streets.   

ZT: Given everything women have endured, including this past year, what do you think will be the future of Afghanistan from the point of view of women? 

Robaba: No matter how hard and difficult a reality is, it cultivates its own opposite force. Any time you put too much pressure on a surface, you create resistance.  

No matter how much you keep the person hungry, you have awakened the power of finding bread in the person. Limitations have always been the mother of creativity. The world’s greatest egalitarian movements are more than anything the product of oppression and deprivation.  

I was not the first political woman in the world to be imprisoned, and I certainly will not be the last. No matter how much the Taliban increases the intensity of oppression of women and people, it has guaranteed to create a wave of resistance. The day is coming when all of Afghanistan will fight against the Taliban with the slogan of “Food, Work and Freedom.”  

Already the signs of this rebellion are obvious. Afghanistan’s economic cycle is practically paralyzed. There is no security. There is no employment. No training. The country is practically dying.  

Why is the Taliban’s whole plan about suppressing women? Because they know that with the awakening of women, the awakening of the whole society takes place. The Taliban is afraid of the idea of women’s consciousness.  

ZT: Thank you very much for taking the time to talk with us. 

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