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During the Taliban’s first stint in power, before being ousted by a US-led invasion in 2001, women and girls were mostly denied education and employment.

Burqas became mandatory in public, women could not leave home without a male companion, and street protests were unthinkable.

“We are here to ask for our rights,” Fereshta Taheri, one of the demonstrators, told AFP by phone.

“We are even ready to wear burqas if they tell us, but we want the women to go to school and work,” the photographer and artist added.

Herat, an ancient Silk Road city close to the Iranian border, has long been a cosmopolitan exception to more conservative centres, though some women already wear the burqa.

Fear and uncertainty

The Taliban, who seized power last month after a lightning military campaign, are in discussions about the make-up of a new government.

They have pledged their leadership will be “inclusive”, but many doubt women will find a place in Afghanistan’s new administration.

“We follow the news, and we don’t see any women in Taliban meetings and gatherings,” said Herat protester Mariam Ebram.

The group have now promised a softer brand of rule, pledging that women will be allowed to work but within the limits of Sharia law.

The rebranding is being treated with scepticism, with experts questioning whether it will be a short-term bid to seek international recognition and a continuation of vital aid.

“The talks are ongoing to form a government, but they are not talking about women’s participation,” Basira Taheri, one of the rally’s organisers said.

“We want to be part of the government—no government can be formed without women. We want the Taliban to hold consultations with us.”

She described how “most of the working women in Herat are at home”, out of fear and uncertainty.

Ebram said that those who had returned faced resistance from the new Taliban forces in control.

“Some women, like doctors and nurses who dared to go back to work, complain that the Taliban mock them,” Ebram said.

“The Taliban don’t look at them, they don’t talk to them. They only show their angry faces to them.”

Primary school age children including girls have returned to school, but the Taliban says further education is on hold until after the formation of a government.

Different aspirations

Protests against Taliban rule were inconceivable during their last reign.

Former government minister Nehan Nargis, speaking to the BBC late Wednesday from Norway where she fled to last month, said Afghanistan had changed from when the Taliban were last in power.

“People are much more aware, they have different aspirations for Afghanistan now, and expectations from government,” she said, noting social media now helped bring like-minded activists together.

“The Afghan people... have collectively raised their voice very strongly using the platform of social media for their issues and causes... and they will continue to use that,” Nargis said.

Basira Taheri said they would continue to protest until their demands were met.

“The women of this land are informed and educated,” she said. “We are not afraid, we are united.”

Herat’s demonstrators said they hoped their example would inspire others across the country.

“We will continue our protests,” Basira Taheri said. “We started it in Herat, it will soon expand to other provinces.”

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