The murderous attack on students preparing for exams in a crowded hall AfghanistanThe country’s capital has sparked a wave of protests, with young women appearing to lead cries for justice despite the dangers of speaking out in a country controlled by the Taliban. Female students in several provinces protested Friday’s attack on a higher education center in Kabul which killed more than 50 people and left many others injured.
The vast majority of victims of the attack were young women and girls, according to the United Nations country office and officials of the KAAJ Higher Education Center that was hit by the suicide bombing.
The attack hit Kabul’s western Dasht-e-Barchi district, which is heavily populated by members of the Hazara Shite Muslim ethnic group. Afghanistan’s Hazaras have been targeted for years by the country’s ISIS offshoot and the Taliban, both of whom view the Hazaras as heretics. Many people consider the ongoing attacks on the community to be acts of genocide against the Hazaras, one of the largest but most oppressed ethnic groups in Afghanistan.
In recent years, Hazaras have suffered a series of massacres, including earlier attacks in Dasht-e-Barchi, targeting marriage halls, hospitals, sports centers, schools, educational centers and mosques.
The protests, mostly by women, saw people take to the streets over the weekend chanting slogans such as “Safety is our right! Education is our right! Stop the genocide!”
On social media, the Twitter hashtag “StopHazaraGenocide” garnered more than 1 million shares and was used by many members of Afghanistan’s former government, which collapsed in August 2021 as the Taliban returned to power.
“We must admit that our Hazara people have been killed many times in a systematic and deliberate manner in places of education, health, sports and mosques,” tweeted former vice president Abdul Rahid Dostum. “We have seen the massacre of Hazara students many times.”
One of the largest protests on Monday in Mazar-e-Sharif, the capital of the northern province of Balkh, was led by female students. Like every other demonstration in the country since the hardline group took power, it was met with a swift, armed response by Taliban security forces.
Videos on social media appeared to show Taliban forces locking several female students inside a dormitory to prevent them from participating in the demonstration.
“Silence is betrayal,” the women shouted in one video as they tried to break through a locked door to get out. Other women who arrived on the streets of Mazar-e-Sharif changed: “We are innocent, don’t kill us!”
“When you lock students in their dorms to silence them, it shows how afraid you are of women’s voices,” Heather Barr, women’s rights director at New York-based Human Rights Watch, said in a tweet that included the video.
Demonstrations in Herat and Bamyan provinces on Sunday, also in solidarity with the Hazara students killed in the KAAJ center attack, were also held by the Taliban. Armed members of the group beat women, fired shots into the air and threatened students with warnings that their university would be turned into a mosque if they did not stop, according to a female protester.
Videos shared on social media appeared to show one armed Taliban member grabbing a woman by the shoulder and pushing her away, and another pointing a gun at protesters with his finger on the trigger, issuing threats.
A demonstration in the capital Kabul also turned violent when Taliban forces fired shots into the air to disperse protesters. One of the women who took part in the protest, Parwin Nikbin, told CBS News that the Taliban had beaten people there, including one who had to be hospitalized.
“They used [rifle] blows and stun guns against us,” Parwin said. “They were very brutal and threatened to kill us if we didn’t stop. We want our rights. We want our security rights. Why are you killing us?’ Parwin asked.
The Taliban officially banned protests in Afghanistan after taking power more than a year ago, but brave women and girls have continued to protest despite the risk of arrest or violence to assert their rights.
“Disturbing scenes in Kabul today with women – who are calling for greater protection of their communities after Friday’s college attack in Hazara district – are being met with even more violence,” the UN office in Afghanistan said, calling on the Taliban “to ensure the rights of all Afghans and stop using weapons to prevent the right to peaceful protest.”
In the Dasht-e-Barchi neighborhood, a banner put up by the families of two female victims of Friday’s bombing was still hanging this week.
“Both dreamed of studying engineering to build, but their dreams remained unfulfilled,” the banner reads. She adds an appeal to the young women’s classmates to continue their education despite the dangers and fulfill their “unfulfilled dream”.