Alarm after Taliban arrests girls’ school activist amid crackdown

Matiullah Wesa, an advocate for girls’ education in Afghanistan, is arrested as the Taliban cracks down on women’s rights activists.

Afghans volunteers of Pen Path Civil Society distribute books during an educational awearness camapign in Kandahar.
Volunteers of Pen Path distribute books during an educational awareness campaign in Kandahar on January 7, 2017 [Muhammad Sadiq/EPA]

On the fifth day of the holy month of Ramadan, Matiullah Wesa, an advocate for girls’ and women’s education in Afghanistan, went to a neighbourhood mosque in Kabul for asr (evening) prayers. As the 30-year-old left the mosque with his younger brother, Samiullah, he was surrounded by a group of armed men who said they were from the General Directorate of Intelligence, the Taliban’s intelligence unit.

“When my brother Samiullah asked them for their IDs, they showed their weapons instead and took [Matiullah] away,” Attaullah Wesa, Matiullah’s elder brother, told Al Jazeera.

The following morning, 24-year-old Samiullah was also detained, along with another brother, Wali Mohammad, 39, when members of Taliban security raided their home in Kabul. Attaullah evaded arrest as he went into hiding.

“They beat my brothers and also took our devices, such as phones and laptops,” said Attaullah, 37, from an undisclosed location.

Matiullah’s arrest on Monday has alarmed activists. The United Nations has called on Taliban authorities to make his whereabouts public and allow him access to legal representation.

“We are alarmed by the ongoing arbitrary arrests and detentions of civil society activists and media workers in Afghanistan, in particular the targeting of those who speak out against the de facto authorities’ discriminatory policies restricting women and girls’ access to education, work and most other areas of public and daily life,” Jeremy Laurence, the UN Human Rights spokesperson, said in a statement on Wednesday.

Matiullah Wesa, a girls' education advocate, reads to students in the open area in Spin Boldak district in the southern Kandahar province.
Matiullah Wesa interacting with students as part of his education campaign in Spin Boldak district in the southern Kandahar province last May. [Siddiqullah Khan/AP Photo]

Critic of Taliban curbs on girls’ education

Matiullah has been a critic of the Taliban’s restrictions on education for girls and women and has repeatedly called for the ban on their education to be reversed.

Since the Taliban returned to power in August 2021, high schools for girls remain shut, and in December, universities were made out of bounds for women as part of the group’s clampdown on women’s rights.

“We knew something like this would happen sooner or later,” Attaullah said, referring to Matiullah’s arrest. “If you are struggling for the fundamental rights of the people, such a consequence is possible.”

Matiullah has been the face of an education organisation called Pen Path, set up by the Wesa brothers in 2009 to improve and promote education access across Afghanistan, including in remote areas affected by decades of conflict.

The Wesa siblings would travel on motorbikes to the remotest parts of the war-torn country, taking mobile libraries with them, distributing books and campaigning about the importance of education.

Their arrests, which are seen as being part of a crackdown on dissenting voices, have provoked criticism from Afghans and the international community.

“The Taliban first started with abusing, abducting and detaining women protesters,” said Sahar Fetrat, Afghan researcher with the Women’s Rights Division at Human Rights Watch. “Now they have started to intimidate and abuse men for joining peaceful activism.”

“The Taliban fear Afghan men and women standing together and fighting for a better Afghanistan,” she told Al Jazeera.

Afghan women and girls protest against a ban on girls’ schools in Kabul on March 26, 2022 [Mohammed Shoaib Amin/AP Photo]

Arbitrary arrests and detentions

The Wesa brothers are only the latest in a series of arrests made by the Taliban targeting civil society activists and protesters who have spoken out against the closure of high schools and universities for girls and women in the country.

In its most recent quarterly report, released in February, the UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan documented 28 instances of arbitrary arrests and detentions of civil society actors and human rights defenders in the past three months.

At least three women protesters identified as Roqiya Sai, Fatima Mohammadi and Malalai Hashemi were arrested on Sunday after they participated in demonstrations in Kabul demanding the reopening of high schools for girls.

The women were released the following day, but several other activists arrested earlier have been held for longer and have alleged torture and abuse at the hands of Taliban officials.

Tamim, another Afghan activist who requested his name be changed because he fears repercussions from authorities, says he was detained and beaten in custody for attending International Women’s Day celebrations.

“The intelligence officer came to our house and put a black bag on my head and took me to their department,” Tamim said. “They kept me there for four days and in that time didn’t tell my family where I was.”

“I was beaten badly and tortured every day,” he said. “They have no mercy.”

Tamim, a prominent human rights activist since the days of the previous Western-backed Afghan government, shared photos of his injuries with Al Jazeera. “Even talking to you about it now brings tears to my eyes,” he said.

Tamim’s family was eventually informed of his arrest, but he was held for a week before being released on bail.

Matiullah Wesa
In this photograph taken on May 17, 2022, Matiullah Wesa, head of Pen Path and advocate for girls’ education in Afghanistan, speaks to children during a class next to his mobile library in Spin Boldak district of Kandahar Province [Sanaullah Seiam/AFP]

Taliban defends the arrest

While the Taliban has not commented on any of the other detentions, senior Taliban leader and spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid did address Matiullah Wesa’s case. He told local media that Matiullah had been arrested for organising meetings and instigating the public against the Taliban system.

In another interview with the Voice of America, Mujahid accused the Wesa brothers of “illegal activities” without providing any details.

Al Jazeera reached out to Abdul Haq Hammad, the director of publications at Afghanistan’s Ministry of Information and Culture, for comment but had received no response by the time of publication.

Hammad said in a tweet on Wednesday in an apparent reference to Matiullah: “His actions were suspicious, and the system has the right to ask such people for an explanation.”

Attaullah said the armed men who raided the Wesa brothers’ family home in Kabul questioned them about their work with Pen Path.

“They were upset about our campaigns for girls’ education but also interrogated my family about the foreigners we regularly interact with as part of our advocacy,” he said.

Matiullah had recently returned from a trip to Europe before his arrest.

“They asked my brother which embassy we’re taking funds from. They were also upset about our use of the Afghan national flag,” Attaullah said, referring to the tricoloured flag adopted by the previous republic government instead of the Taliban’s white flag.

Source: Al Jazeera