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Ruchi Kumar is an Indian journalist based in Mumbai who covers South Asia.

After offering midafternoon prayers at a Kabul mosque in late March, Matiullah Wesa was surrounded by armed men. They claimed they were members of the General Directorate of Intelligence (GDI), the Taliban’s intelligence group, and forced Mr. Wesa into a vehicle, even as his brother Attaullah attempted to question them.

We still don’t know why he was taken. But what we do know is that the two brothers co-founded Penpath in 2015, an Afghan organization that has been mobilizing local communities to restart schools in areas hit by four decades of conflict. More than a month later, and despite countless international campaigns calling for his release, the condition and whereabouts of Matiullah Wesa remain unknown. His brother has gone into hiding to escape the same fate.

Today, Afghanistan – under the rule of the Taliban, which returned to power in August, 2021 – is the only country in the world where girls over 12 years of age cannot pursue education. The ban on schools and universities is part of a broader Taliban campaign suppressing women’s rights and freedoms, which has included restrictions on women’s employment, political participation, travel, and even entry into parks and public baths.

In response, women in Afghanistan have risen up in protest, chanting the slogan “nan, kar, azadi” (”bread, work, freedom”), similar to the slogan being used by women in neighbouring Iran who are fighting their own battle against political patriarchy. However, unlike in Iran, few Afghan men can be seen accompanying the women in their demonstrations, which often end in violence, abuse, or detention for the women involved.

This isn’t to say that Afghan men do not support the women’s rights movement. On the contrary, many, such as the Wesa brothers, have dedicated their lives, at great personal cost, to campaigning for women in spaces where they are no longer allowed, and some have joined women in their rallies against the government. What prevents more Afghan men from joining in, however, is the Taliban’s criminalization of support for women. Male allies have been threatened, jailed, and even tortured for the mere act of expressing support for their female compatriots.

In December last year, for instance, more than 60 Afghan male professors resigned from their positions across private and public universities in protest of the Taliban’s decree banning women from higher education. Among them was Ismail Mashal, a lecturer at Kabul University, who made global headlines when he tore up his degrees on national television, in protest. “Until you allow my sister and mother [back into universities], I will not teach,” he said in the interview. Less than two months later, Mr. Mashal was arrested by the Taliban while handing out free books on the streets of Kabul. He was released a month later in poor health, and has since been hospitalized for physical and mental issues.

The Taliban have also passed laws that weaponize and strengthen the existing patriarchy. The Taliban’s Ministry for the Propagation of Virtue and Prevention of Vice decreed that the mahram (male guardians) of any women found violating the Taliban’s rule on clothing will also be punished. According to the ministry’s statement, “If a woman is caught without a hijab, her mahram (a male guardian) will be warned. The second time, the guardian will be summoned [by Taliban officials], and after repeated summons, her guardian will be imprisoned for three days.”

But disempowering women hurts everyone. Women’s exclusion from the Afghan economy, for instance, results in an estimated loss of US$1-billion a year, according to the United Nations Sustainable Development Group. Specific sectors that permit women workers, such as public health, have seen significant drops in the employment of female professionals, resulting in a severe health crisis. The absence of women is also being felt in Afghanistan’s development sector, where the Taliban have prohibited international NGOs from hiring women, thereby affecting access to support for women-led households.

The Taliban have successfully created an atmosphere of distrust among Afghans, dismantling even the most natural alliances among persecuted communities. As a result, Afghan women – who have lost the most – remain isolated in their struggle against a deeply regressive, violent and armed group.

It is a testimony to the strength of Afghanistan’s women that, despite the lack of allies and with mounting pressures, they still step out on the streets and lead their protests against the loss of their freedoms. Their acts of bravery should hopefully be reason enough to continue to inspire brave men to support a mutual cause of liberation.

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