Dressed in a long black abaya with her face mask secured, university professor Zahra Mosawi walked the streets of the ancient Afghan city of Mazar-i-Sharif to denounce incessant attacks on the Shia Muslim minority.
Mosawi, 28, carried with her a large yellow placard with the word “Azadi” – or freedom – scrawled across it as she joined more than 50 other colleagues and students in a demonstration on Monday against the recent attack on a learning centre in Kabul that killed 53 students, mostly young women.
It was just the latest horrific act of violence on a facility attended by Afghanistan’s ethnic Hazaras, who are persecuted by Sunni Muslim hardliners for their Shia faith. No group claimed responsibility.
“After Friday’s attack on innocent girls in the Kaj education centre, we said we have had enough,” Mosawi told Al Jazeera, referring to the institute in Kabul’s Dasht-e-Barchi area where a suicide bomber opened fire and then blew himself up.
In WhatsApp groups and on social media, Mosawi and other academics and activists mobilised to condemn the unrelenting violence on the Hazara as well as restrictions on women and minorities.
“We have to raise our voices and organise ourselves. This genocide against Hazara has to end,” she said.
The protesters also demanded the reopening of girls’ high schools in Afghanistan, which have been closed since the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan last year. “We raise our voices for justice and equality. We want the right to work, education, and the free life of women,” Mosawi said.
Similar demonstrations took place in Kabul, Herat and Bamiyan over the weekend, largely led by women from Afghanistan’s academia.
“We talked about the attack on Kaj centre in our classrooms on Saturday, and how Afghan girls are being prevented from education. These girls were killed because they wanted to learn,” said Soraya Alizada, 25, a student who joined the protests in central Bamiyan province.
She and her classmates led a demonstration demanding an end to the violence against the Hazara and the reopening of schools for girls.
“Because of these attacks, many families don’t allow their daughters to take part in the university entrance exam. In which part of the world are girls and boys killed for the crime of seeking education crime?” Alizada asked.
‘Beat the girls’
The peaceful demonstrations were met with a Taliban backlash. Witnesses told Al Jazeera that security forces fired warning shots, and video on social media from Herat and Kabul showed them violently dispersing protesters.
In Bamiyan, Alizada said the Taliban “beat the girls who were demonstrating, broke their phones, and called them ‘bitches’”.
“One Taliban pointed his gun at one girl threatening to shoot her, but we all stopped him from doing this”, she said.
In the town of Balkh, 20km (12 miles) northwest of Mazar-i-Sharif, demonstrators had it rough right from the start as Taliban members locked them up inside their campus, Mosawi said.
“The Taliban surrounded Balkh University from five directions and did not allow students to leave to participate in the protests,” she said, adding some eventually broke out and freed their classmates to join the demonstration.
Some protesters in Mazar-i-Sharif were also beaten, Mosawi said. “Because the journalists were not present, the protesting girls were themselves filming the protests,” she said. “But the Taliban first beat these girls and then broke their cell phones.”
Heather Barr, associate director of the Women’s Rights Division at Human Rights Watch, noted “how incredibly dangerous” it is to protest.
“The Taliban’s response has, predictably, been brutal, including new abusive strategies such as locking students in their hostels. The Taliban seem to have no tolerance at all for protests by women and girls, even when the protest is not specifically about their abuses,” said Barr.
Recent research found the Taliban has done little to protect or assist targeted communities when they face attack, she added.
The Taliban government defended the handling of the demonstrations.
“When they plan to protest they should have informed us in advance about the time, place and about the topic so we could prepare for possible threats. But unfortunately in Kabul, a number of our sisters started protesting without informing us, so the security forces tried to prevent them,” said Abdul Nafee Takoor, a spokesman for the interior ministry.
“A similar thing happened in Balkh today although the security forces there were informed prior to the protest. But the protesters refused to demonstrate at the place the security forces allocated for them. Instead they wanted to go to another location, and that is why security forces tried to stop them,” he told Al Jazeera.
Despite the Taliban crackdown on the demonstrations, Mosawi said she was encouraged by the large turnout, which included Afghan men.
“This is the first time that men stood by the women, although only a limited number joined. But I am happy it might inspire other men also stand with the women of their provinces,” she said.
“I have a message for those Afghan men who sit at home and just watch women on the streets,” Mosawi said. “How long will you remain silent in front of all these crimes and persecution against women? If today you choose to remain silent, tomorrow you may be faced with the same persecution.”