The Taliban torture and imprison women protesters in Afghanistan, and they’re trying to silence the voices of those fighting for rights and justice. One of the brave women who stood up for their rights, Zarifa Yaqoubi, talks about her experiences of detention and torture by the Taliban.
A Feature By Somaia Valizadeh
I regularly monitor the news on Social media. On Third of November 2022, I read the news of the arrest of Zarifa Yaqoubi, one of the defenders of women’s rights, on X (formerly known as Twitter). Right away, I felt unwell. The women protesting in Afghanistan are real heroes, who protest under the barbaric regime and plead for equality and justice. Zarifa is a member of the Afghan Women’s Movement for Equality, one of the central movements still struggling in the country. A time of painful silence followed. Like many others, Zarifa Yaqobi seemed to have disappeared. After many protests for her release, Arifa Yaqobi, a sister of Zarifa, and some other women’s rights activists confirmed her release to RFE/RL’s Radio Azadi on December 12, 2022. After a duration of more than a month, what was the situation she encountered during her detention? Would it be invading her personal space to inquire about it? I just asked her when I found out she was leaving Pakistan for the US recently. She was prepared to share the atrocities she had faced. They are not private, but they are violations of human rights that should be heard by everyone. We spoke over Zoom. I would like to summarize what I learned.
Zarifa Yaqobi- a strong advocate for women’s rights in Afghanistan.
She holds two bachelor’s degrees. One in natural sciences from Khadir district in Daikand province and one in political science from one of Kabul universities. Before the Fall of Kabul to the Taliban, shh worked in the administrative departments of several ministries connected to development. She founded the Afghan Women’s Empowerment Movement with a group of females in Kabul. They aimed to support and defend the rights of women. Organizing street protests in Kabul against gender discrimination in Afghanistan by the Taliban was part of this movement. Yaqoubi was pursued numerous times by the Taliban intelligence, yet she remained steadfast in her struggle and concealed herself.
Period before Detention-the days of protest
When Afghanistan fell on August 15th 2021, Zarifa Yaqoubi was in Kabul. This day has been a dark one for her and many Afghan people.
After a certain period, when the Taliban regime established its cabinet and systematically restricted women’s access to government and non-government positions, it became unbearable for Zarifa and other advocates for women’s rights.
She asserts that she and a group of other human rights advocates have established a movement known as the Afghan Women’s Movement for Equality. Their objective is to organize and lead street protests to uphold women’s rights and combat gender discrimination. She further explained that the Taliban prevented the women from protesting in the streets of Kabul by firing bullets and releasing tear gas. Even though this was subtle, Yaqoubi didn’t give up, with several women and started protests in closed buildings and places. Because of this, the Taliban threatened to kill her numerous times.
November 2023 in Kabul, despite the ban on protests, the Afghan Women’s Movement for Equality protested the detention of women rights activists
Yaqoubi has also fought against the genocide of Hazara in Afghanistan. There was an explosion at the Kaj girls’ school in the west of Kabul, where members of the Hazara minority live, on September 30, 2022, which resulted in more than 50 female students being killed and numerous young people injured. Zarifa and other women went to the hospital to give blood. But the Taliban stopped them from doing so and threatened them. Zarifa said that she didn’t return to her residence that day because of the Taliban’s threat, instead heading to the home of a relative.
22.10.22, Dasht Barchi, The Afghan Women’s Movement for Equality protested against the bombing of the Kaj girls’ school anmd the genocidew on the Hazara
Detention and Human Rights Abuses
Nonetheless, the Taliban seized her along with her sister and three colleagues following a press conference they held on November 3, 2022, in the west of Kabul’s Dasht Barchi area. According to Yaqoubi, the Taliban forced them out of their car, their hands were handcuffed by three male and three female Taliban affiliates, and they were arrested. When she refused to enter the van belonging to the Taliban, a female intelligence officer slapped her and covered her and her coworkers’ faces in black plastic to keep them from seeing.
After spending three nights in the Taliban prison, Yaqoubi was subjected to interrogation by the 040 intelligence unit of the Taliban and subjected to torture.
Yaqoubi claims that female employees of the Taliban intelligence beat her to obtain a false confession in favor of the Taliban group. They were forcing her to confess that she had been working for foreign powers. She and her colleagues were deprived of access to food, sanitary amenities, and medical facilities within the Taliban prison.
“They didn’t care about who we were or what we did. They were using their power to make you say what they wanted to hear.” When this brave woman recalls moments of deep humiliation and mistreatment, tears are rolling down her face for the first time. Her mental health was damaged during those weeks. She quickly regains her strength and shares her experiences with abuse in detention.Yaqoubi points out that her cell was changed twice in 41 days, and the prison’s rooms were not suitable or clean. She says that even animals aren’t kept in those places. After 15 days in prison, she was allowed to take a shower. “Ignoring needs like sanitary pads were one of the mistreatment we faced.” The Taliban didn’t let their families see them in jail.
Release and intimidation
Family attempts to free Zarifa from the Taliban prison were unsuccessful. Zarifa Yaqoubi asserts that the international and human rights institutions played a significant role in her release. However, she is uncertain about the specific arrangement that these institutions facilitated with the Taliban to get her released from the Taliban prison. By recording a video of Zarifa, the Taliban compelled her to cease protesting against the Taliban regime on social media platforms. “One of the tactics used to break you is to force you to make false statements in front of a camera.”
Zarifa was released from prison on December 13, 2022. The Taliban got her family to promise that she wouldn’t protest against the Taliban government. After her release from prison, Zarifa Yaqoubi spent more than three months in Kabul, remaining silent. She was apprehensive of oppression. She says that after she was released from prison, many women protested in Kabul. She didn’t take part in the protest, but the Taliban arrested her again. They questioned her once more for a duration of four hours, after which they released her. On April 11, 2023 she finally was able to travel to Islamabad, Pakistan with her sister’s family. “I have been experiencing nightmares for several months,” she emphasizes during our conversation.
Scars on the soul
Yaqoubi claims that already her father was killed by the Taliban during the first decade of their regime in the 1990th. Her father was a military commander and a member of the Afghan Unity Party. He disapperaed one day and they couldn’t even find his body. By September 1996, the Taliban had captured Kabul, killed the country’s president, and established the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan. The Taliban’s first move was to institute a strict interpretation of Qur‘anic instruction and jurisprudence. In practice, this meant often merciless policies on the treatment of women, political opponents of any type, and religious minorities. The Taliban held sway in Afghanistan until October 2001, when they were routed from power by the US-led campaign against al-Qa‘ida.
After her move to Pakistan Zarifa was unable to achieve personal peace. She was concerned that the Taliban would attempt to harm her again with the support of the Pakistani authorities. Despite this, she started protests in Pakistan for the release of protesting women from Taliban prisons, and she started her fight against gender apartheid in Afghanistan.
In December 2023, Zarifeh received an American visa and relocated to Virginia. Zarifa Yaqoubi asserts that she will persist in her efforts to combat systematic violence and inequality in Afghanistan. She’s going to roll out fresh initiatives to promote the rights of Afghan women.