Female Activists Allegedly Detained by Taliban Speak Out
Two women share their experiences of being detained by the Taliban while protesting the takeover.
**Please note: this article mentions sexual assault and violence. Afghan Witness has also changed the names of the individuals and removed specific details where necessary.
Since the return of the Taliban in August last year, women activists have continued to protest against the group’s rule and restrictions imposed upon women.
Just days after the takeover, women campaigners took to the streets of Kabul and Mazar-i-Sharif, the capital city of Balkh province. However, with a quasi-ban on protests – which came into effect less than a month after the Taliban returned to power – campaigners who continued to demonstrate against the group have in some cases faced violence, with multiple incidents verified by Afghan Witness (AW), and many others reported.
Some female activists have reportedly been arrested and detained, most notably the cases of Tamana Zaryabi Paryani and Parawana Ibrahimkhel, whose alleged detentions attracted global media attention. Despite the Taliban denying their arrests, Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid also stressed the group had the right "to arrest and detain dissidents” shortly after their disappearance.
Rights groups and media outlets have raised the alarm over mounting evidence of reprisal arrests and killings against activists, journalists, and former Afghan government officials and security forces, though the Taliban deny these and claim they are investigating reports of violence and disappearances.
AW has spoken to two women who allege that they were detained by the Taliban after participating in protests in the weeks following the takeover.
Marjana, not her real name, describes herself as a lawyer, women’s rights activist and writer. Previously, she worked in different capacities within governmental and non-governmental – as well as international – organisations in Afghanistan.
Marjana says she was among the first to march on the streets and protest against the Taliban in the days following the takeover, first in protests organised in Kabul and later in Mazar-i-Sharif.
“It was the second day of the Taliban [takeover] in Kabul that I heard a group of women were protesting in front of the Presidential Palace,” Marjana says. “With little money I had in hand, I bought placards and wrote slogans, and then went to join the protests.”
Several days later, Marjana joined another protest in Kabul, but says her father asked her to return home to Mazar-i-Sharif after learning of her activism. Back home, despite facing opposition from her family who worried for her safety, Marjana decided to join another women-led protest in Mazar-i-Sharif on September 6. According to news reports at the time, some protesters faced violence as the Taliban allegedly beat a number of participants and smashed their mobile phones.
On September 7, Marjana again joined both male and female protesters who marched on the streets of Mazar-i-Sharif. This time, the protests ended with over 60 protesters being arrested, according to Marjana. News reports from the time state similar figures, with the Independent Persian reporting that 70 protesters were detained between September 7 and 8.
“Unfortunately, there were women from within our groups who shared our information and identity with the Taliban’s Department of Information,” Marjana claims. “This is how the Taliban succeeded to identify us and later detain us.”
According to Marjana, the Taliban took women protesters to three different places after their arrest: “Some were taken to the Taliban’s Intelligence Office, some were taken to the political office of the former Balkh governor, Atta Mohammad Noor, and some were taken to a place called Khan-e-Ghous.”
Arrested for speaking out
Sughra – not her real name – is a business woman who was previously involved in politics and journalism, and has a similar story to Marjana’s. When Kabul fell to the Taliban, Sughra had the opportunity to be evacuated, but decided to stay in Afghanistan as she didn’t want to leave her family behind. Sughra had been very vocal of her views on the Taliban and says her brother erased many of her posts from Facebook for her protection. However, this didn’t stop her from participating in demonstrations.
“I joined a protest where thousands of other men and women took to the streets and chanted against the Taliban,” she tells AW, adding that the Taliban arrested “300 people near the Embassy of Iran.” AW cannot confirm this, though news articles from the time report that the Taliban used gunfire, detentions and beatings to disperse and discourage large groups of protesters in Kabul, as well as journalists attempting to cover the demonstrations. Sughra believes that if the protest continued, “it would have marked the end of the Taliban”.
Soon after the protests, Sughra says she moved to a new address and was there for around twenty days. At this point, she was planning to leave the country. “Whenever I [left] home, I wore a face mask and covered myself entirely so no one could recognise me,” she says.
Despite moving house, Sughra, like Marjana, was concerned her address had been shared with the Taliban. She decided to call her employer, who explained that her details may have been shared with the Taliban by her former colleagues who were allegedly tortured.
“On the same day, when I returned home a few hours later in the evening, the Taliban were at the door,” Sughra recalls. “When the Taliban entered the house, they started beating three of my brothers, and I was hiding inside the house. They handcuffed my brothers to take them somewhere – I could not stay hidden, and I came out.”
Sughra says she hadn’t realised the Taliban had already taken her younger brother after blindfolding him. She was asked about her work, why she attended the protest, and the other protesters involved. Sughra says her young son, who was barefoot at the time, was taken away from her for questioning.
“There were around 30 Taliban fighters, and none of them were female – all of them were men,” Sughra recalls. “They collected our belongings like jewellery and other expensive goods – they thought we were wealthy because we worked with foreigners.”
Inside the Taliban detention centres
“I can't remember the exact time, but I guess it was around 11 or 11:30 am when Taliban vehicles dispersed protesters on September 7, 2021 and started arresting us,” Marjana tells AW. “I was running and threw away my phone, when suddenly, the Taliban covered my face with a black covering and threw me inside a car.”
That day, Marjana says she was taken to one of the Taliban's detention centres - AW cannot specify the exact place due to security concerns.
“Inside the vehicle, I was pleading with them to release me, but they called me ‘a whore’ and told me ‘to shut up’ and were hitting me on my shoulder with their weapons,” she says.
Marjana tells AW that in the detention centre she was taken to, there were no women personnel and the rooms were cramped and close together. Marjana says she was left alone in a room for twenty minutes with the black covering still over her face.
Civil society and women’s rights activists AW has spoken to previously have spoken of similar conditions, expressing concerns over the absence of female police officers, detainees' lack of access to water and food, and their vulnerability to sexual harassment and abuse.
“I was thinking they might bring more of my fellow women protesters to the room, but they did not, and I was the sole person in that room. After two to three hours, two men came and started their interrogations,” Marjana tells AW.
“The first thing they asked me was why I joined the protests. I told them I have no affiliation with any political groups and I only demanded my rights,” she adds. “During the interrogation, the Taliban beat me with the handle of their weapons on my legs and with a plastic pipe on my shoulders and hands.”
Marjana says the interrogation lasted around 30 minutes, in which the Taliban kept beating her and asking her about alleged affiliations to particular political groups and if she was being paid by any of them.
“They then shut the door and denied my request to contact my family. The room had only a door and no windows. I could hear voices of men detained in other rooms and their shouting as they were being tortured,” Marjana recalls. “ I was only given a glass of water, and I spent the night with no food and I obviously could not close my eyes for a second to sleep.”
The next day, the Taliban’s interrogation team came to Marjana again. This time, they searched her bag and asked about her Facebook profile and WhatsApp number.
“I did not want them to know my real name, but they learned about it from the two identity cards I had in my bag. They then searched my Facebook profile but could not find anything as my profile was locked,” Marjana tells AW.
Sughra and her family – including her son – were detained somewhere in Kabul, at around 8:00 PM at night.
“My whole family were taken to a house that the Taliban turned into a prison,” Sughra recalls. “My mother was taken to the basement, and I was taken to the second floor. They collected the phones of our family members, including my own phone.”
Sughra says she had two phones on her and was able to hide one that contained materials she describes as being “against the Taliban”.
“The second night when the Taliban came to ask me questions, I asked them what the time was, and they replied: ‘10 at night’,” Sughra says. “They started interrogating me and asked questions like: ‘where have you worked?’ ‘Are you connected with the National Resistance Front [NRF]?’ ‘Do you know the people who are part of the NRF?’”
“During the interrogation, the Taliban member used slurs such as ‘shameless’, ‘Kafir’ [unbeliever], and asked why I did not support them over the past 20 years,” Sughra adds.
In another room in the detention centre, Sughra says her brother was tortured by the Taliban. "If the Taliban did not take my brother, they'd torture me instead, but they refrained from doing so because I was with my son,” she tells AW.
“Early in the mornings, they'd wake me up and tell me to pray. I was never able to sleep properly because I was thinking about how they would kill me – would they put a suicide vest on me? Will they shoot me? Will they kill me out of torture? I could never sleep because of the fear I had every moment.”
Released, but not free
Marjana says she was released after signing a letter committing to halt her activism and agreeing not to talk to or appear in the media. She tells AW that she was lucky as the Taliban released her after two days and one night of interrogation due to limited evidence against her. She alleges that some of her fellow protesters were severely tortured, raped, and even killed after being detained.
“I personally knew Frozan Safi – whose dead body was found later – and I heard of another friend of mine who was killed by her father as she got pregnant after she was raped in the Taliban detention centre,” she explains.
In order to be released, Sughra says she had to agree to similar terms. “The Taliban told me… ‘you must repent from what you have done, and then we can release you,” she tells AW. “I said: ‘Of course, a thousand times’ – I said that out of mental torture and because I wanted to get free. Then they said: ‘You must serve us and promote our cause. You should not tell anyone that you were with us.’"
Sughra tells AW that her brother was still detained, so she didn’t speak against the Taliban after her release. However, she was given further instructions:
“The Taliban gave me their phone number and told me to call my director – not mentioning I was detained – and send his address to [them],” she explains. “They said: ‘We want you also to give us the whereabouts of the two other protesters who were with you – if you help us, God will reward you.’"
Sughra was released the next day around 4:00PM, but only after being blindfolded and dropped off in a random location. However, when she managed to return home after calling one of her brothers, her problems did not end.
“My family did not let me go out for at least two days. Still, my brother was detained - I no longer knew where he was,” Sughra says. “We tried hard to find him. I tried to contact the Journalists' association that I was part of, and they wrote a letter to Zabihullah Mujahid, the Taliban's spokesperson.”
After days of trying to locate her brother, Sughra says her family made contact with a member of the Taliban’s intelligence, who explained her brother’s detainment was due to an alleged asylum claim. Sughra’s family convinced the contact that there was no such thing.
“However, the real issue was that this specific unit of the Taliban thought we had enough money,” she says. “All they wanted was money. After 14 days, they released my brother, but they did not return the jewellery they took from our house.”
Following the Taliban takeover, Sughra describes experiencing four months of “torture, fear, and risk.” She says that during one of the Taliban’s door-to-door search operations – which have taken place several times since the takeover – she changed her location and hid her documents.
“I was hopeless and counting the days before my death,” she adds.
Despite this, Sughra considers herself one of the lucky ones: she was contacted by Journalists Without Borders, who arranged for her and her family to be evacuated from Afghanistan.
Marjana was not so lucky. Like many other activists, journalists, and former Afghan government and security personnel, she remains in Afghanistan and lives in fear. She tells AW that she has been estranged from her family and lives in hiding in various locations due to concerns over her safety.
“I have nothing more to lose,” she says. “I lost my work, my family support, my activism… I lost everything and am now incarcerated amongst the walls of a house which is not even mine.”
7 Jun 2022