One Year After Tabassum, Afghan Women Search for Their Own Voice

The beheading of seven ethnic Hazara in 2015 saw unprecedented numbers of women across Afghanistan demonstrate for their rights. But in a country where they have so few, even the language of the protest movement is masculine, says Afghan researcher Nazifa Alizada.

Written by Nazifa Alizada Published on Read time Approx. 4 minutes
One year ago, women joined the Tabassum protests in unprecedented numbers, standing alongside men to call for justice for the beheadings of seven ethnic Hazara citizens.AP/Massoud Hossaini

On November 9, 2015, seven ethnic Hazara civilians – two women, four men and a 9-year old girl – were beheaded by the so-called Islamic State (ISIS).They had been abducted in Ghazni province, eastern Afghanistan, a month prior, and their bodies were later found in Zabul province. Following the beheadings, massive protests were staged in Kabul and the country’s other major cities.

In the face of direct threats from ISIS and the Taliban, Afghan women participated in all stages of the Tabassum protests, named after the 9-year-old victim, in enormous numbers, demonstrating their firm stand for their hard-earned rights. A year later, the protest can be viewed as the start of positive changes in gender relations in Afghanistan. But the protest also highlighted the stereotypical reinforcement of patriarchy and the masculinization of popular movements that continues to stymie the political involvement of women in Afghanistan.

ISIS’s beheadings were a direct warning to Hazara women to curtail their mobility. Over the past 15 years, women of this community, one of Afghanistan’s largest ethnic minority groups, have generally enjoyed a greater level of liberty and shown an increasing rate of participation in civic society and politics compared to Pashtun, Tajik and Uzbek women. More girls in Hazara-dominated areas attend school compared to those in the five southern, Pashtun-dominated, areas. Also, most Hazara women aren’t required to seclude themselves from men as strictly as women of other ethnic communities.

Although the Taliban and ISIS fight hard to marginalize Afghan women and eliminate them from public spaces, the beheadings motivated hundreds of women to consciously breach the distinction between public and private, and take a stand at the forefront of the demonstration. On November 11, 2015, hundreds – from diverse age, educational and ethnic groups – marched in the protest alongside men and chanted slogans against ISIS and the Taliban.

The involvement of women did not remain limited to Kabul and rapidly spread out to other cities, among them some of the most difficult places in the country to be female. Women wearing niqab or fully covered in burqa marched beside men in the streets of Nangarhar, despite the fact that a few months earlier, ISIS had openly distributed pamphlets throughout the city enforcing the burqa and restricting any activities by women that were not approved by Sharia law. In Ghazni, Balkh and Herat provinces, too, crowds of women joined in the protests.

In every city, many women felt the need to obscure their identities, wearing veils or hiding their faces with masks or protest posters. The protests took place at a time when women are being beheaded by razor or burned, lashed or stoned to death in broad daylight, on a regular basis. Women joined the protests knowing that they get almost no form of institutional support from the unity government and that ISIS and the Taliban are making strenuous efforts to seclude women around the country.

Women were also actively involved in organization and leadership during the protests. A small number of women even sat across the negotiating table when President Ashraf Ghani invited the protesters’ representatives to the presidential palace on the night of the protest for a peaceful discussion over rising insecurity.

One year later, the Tabassum protests have helped women to further develop leadership roles during social mobilizations. One example is the Enlightenment Movement, launched after the government rerouted funding meant for a multi-million-dollar energy project. The organization, which has six women on its leading council, considers the decision to delay the project a continuation of the marginalization of ethnic Hazaras and wants the decision reversed. Two large-scale protests organized by the Enlightenment Movement in May and July 2016 showed how attitudes toward women’s political participation are slowly changing. According to Zahra Yagana, women’s rights activist and protest organizer, many of the women joined the Tabassum protests in 2015 despite intense disagreement from their families; while in the Movement protests in 2016, men realized it was important to involve their female family members. “The protest has opened the space for women’s social participation,” she says.

But taking a stand and taking to the streets is not enough. Even as women have become more empowered in the sphere of political activism, their efforts are still painted in terms of patriarchy and masculinity. During the Tabassum protests, posters on social media and at the protests stressed the need for “brotherhood” rather than including all subsets of society in the cause. In Nangarhar, women held posters reading “Hazara wa Pashtun baradar and,” meaning “Hazara and Pashtun are brothers.” While the sentence is meant to unify, it entirely alienates women and their active presence in the protests. In Kabul, the pamphlets inviting people to join the protest stated that “finding the reason for my beheading is your responsibility, brother.” Such language conforms to the traditional notion that women need a brother, a male, to protect them.

To ensure that women’s rights will never again be curtailed, such means of patriarchal reinforcement should be replaced with more inclusive ones. Femininity and womanhood should not stand for incompetence and weakness, and women’s efforts should be valued equal to those of their male counterparts. Women should be holistically included in all sociopolitical spheres of life in Afghanistan.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Women & Girls Hub.

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