KABUL, Afghanistan â€” Despite the threat of violent beatings and retaliation, hundreds of women marched in the streets of Kabul on Tuesday morning, calling for the Taliban to respect their rights and making it clear that they would not easily surrender the gains they have made over the past two decades.
But as the crowds grew, with the women joined by hundreds of men, protesters were met with blows from rifle butts and hit with sticks, according to witnesses. Then shots rang out. The crowd scattered and for the second time in less than a week, the Taliban used force to crush a peaceful demonstration.
Even as the Taliban continued to fight to destroy armed opposition in the country, seizing control of the restive Panjshir Valley on Monday, and planned to announce a new government that they have promised will be inclusive, the breakup of the demonstration on Tuesday was yet another indication that they would use a heavy hand to stifle peaceful dissent.
It was also a remarkable display by women, who suffered brutal subjugation the last time the Taliban were in charge. Those who took to the streets in recent days fear the group has not changed.
The protests have come even as the Taliban cement their military grip on the country. They have said they want to integrate members of the former Afghan army into the nationâ€™s new security forces, and they planned to offer more details on that process at a news conference on Tuesday afternoon.
While the Taliban have a near-monopoly on the use of force, the demonstrations underlined the challenges the former insurgents face as they try to win the hearts and minds of a generation of Afghans who never lived under Taliban rule, particularly those in urban areas.
The Taliban face an uphill struggle to gain legitimacy, not only at home but also abroad, amid a spiraling humanitarian crisis. Basic services like electricity are under threat, while the country has been buffeted by food and cash shortages.
And thousands of Afghans are still desperately trying to flee the country, even as the United States works to evacuate dozens of its citizens.
At a news conference in Doha, Qatar, on Tuesday, Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken said U.S. officials were â€œworking around the clockâ€ to ensure that charter flights carrying Americans can depart Afghanistan safely.
Mr. Blinken, who appeared alongside Defense Secretary Lloyd J. Austin III and their Qatari counterparts, said that Taliban leaders had recently reaffirmed their commitment to allowing American citizens and others with valid travel documents to leave the country freely.
But the Taliban have raised objections to charter flights that combine people with and without valid travel documents, Mr. Blinken said.
He added that he was unaware of any â€œhostage-likeâ€ situation at the airport in Mazar-e-Sharif, where some advocacy groups and members of Congress say the Taliban is blocking the departure of charter flights. Mr. Blinken added that he believes around 100 American citizens remain in Afghanistan, including â€œa relatively small numberâ€ seeking to leave Mazar-e-Sharif.
For the vast majority of Afghans, there is no escape. Only uncertainty.
But the fact that women have been prominent participants in many of the recent protests has underscored their willingness to stand up for their rights even in the face of rifle butts, tear gas and retribution.
During the two decades before the Taliban retook power, women were active in Afghanistan and, among other things, held political offices, joined the military and police forces, played in orchestras and competed in the Olympics.
Many Afghan women, who have benefited from education and the right to freedom of expression over the past twenty years, fear a return to the past when women were forbidden from leaving the home without a male guardian, and faced public flogging if they breached morality rules by, for example, not covering their skin.
Since coming to power last month, the Taliban has sought to rebrand itself as more moderate, inviting women to join the government and saying that women will be allowed to work and girls will be allowed to be educated.
But the group has yet to codify any new laws or offer specifics on how it plans to govern. Early signs from around the country have not been promising, including the Taliban warning women to stay home until the rank and file of Taliban fighters can be taught how not to hurt them.
Understand the Taliban Takeover in Afghanistan
Who are the Taliban? The Taliban arose in 1994 amid the turmoil that came after the withdrawal of Soviet forces from Afghanistan in 1989. They used brutal public punishments, including floggings, amputations and mass executions, to enforce their rules. Hereâ€™s more on their origin story and their record as rulers.
The protests on Tuesday were the second demonstration involving women in the nationâ€™s capital in less than a week, and it was also the second to be crushed violently.
Rezai, 26, one of the coordinators and organizers of the latest protest, only gave her first name for fear of retribution. She said the demonstration was organized in close coordination with national resistance forces.
â€œWe invited people using social media platforms,â€ she said. â€œAnd there were more people than we expected. We are expecting more rallies tonight because people do not want terror and destruction. The Taliban have had no achievements since they have taken power except for killing people and spreading terror. So it was an utterly self-motivated protest, and we just coordinated and invited people to participate.â€
As they marched on Tuesday morning, they carried a banner with a single word: â€œFreedom.â€
The women chanted the same word as they walked, the Taliban watching closely. They were joined by men, many condemning Pakistan for what they view as its support for the Taliban and interference in Afghan affairs.
â€œWe are not defending our right for a job or a position we will work in, we are defending the blood of our youth, we are defending our country, our land,â€ one woman said, according to video posted on social media.
Witnesses reported Taliban fighters beating demonstrators with clubs and rifle butts. Tolo TV, a leading Afghan broadcaster, said that one of its cameramen covering the protests was briefly detained by the Taliban.
As a photographer for The Times approached the demonstration on a street outside the presidential palace, known as the Arg, a convoy of at least a dozen Taliban pickup trucks raced toward it.
As soon as the Taliban fighters dismounted their trucks, they started shooting â€” mostly into the air, it seemed. There were no immediate reports of severe injuries or fatalities.
The people â€” which appeared to number several hundred â€” started running.
The large gathering was over. A short while later, when some of the male protesters gathered in a small group and started shouting pro-resistance slogans, the Taliban chased them away.
After the crowd dispersed, Jamila, 23, said it had been a peaceful demonstration.
â€œThe people just went to the streets and protested,â€ she said. But she worried that the Talibanâ€™s tactics to break up the crowd could lead to bloodshed.
Michael Crowley, Sahak Sami, Walid Arian and Farnaz Fassihi contributed reporting.