Security officials shot into the air and used firehoses to disperse dozens of Afghan women protesting in Kabul Wednesday against an order by Taliban authorities to shut down beauty parlours, the latest curb to squeeze them out of public life.
Since seizing power in August 2021, the Taliban government has barred girls and women from high schools and universities, banned them from parks, funfairs and gyms, and ordered them to cover up in public.
The order issued last month forces the closure of thousands of beauty parlours nationwide run by women -- often the only source of income for households -- and outlaws one of the few remaining opportunities for them to socialise away from home.
"Don't take my bread and water," read a sign carried by one of the protesters on Butcher Street, which boasts a concentration of the capital's salons.
Public protests are rare in Afghanistan -- and frequently dispersed by force -- but AFP saw around 50 women taking part in Wednesday's gathering, quickly attracting the attention of security personnel.
Protesters later shared videos and photos with journalists that showed authorities using a firehose to disperse them as shots could be heard in the background.
"Today we arranged this protest to talk and negotiate," said a salon worker, whose name has not been published by AFP for security reasons.
"But today, no one came to talk to us, to listen to us. They didn't pay any attention to us and after a while they dispersed us by aerial firing and water cannon."
The United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) condemned the protest breakup.
"Reports of the forceful suppression of a peaceful protest by women against the ban on beauty salons - the latest denial of women's rights in #Afghanistan - are deeply concerning," it said in a tweet.
"Afghans have the right to express views free from violence. De facto authorities must uphold this."
In late June the Ministry for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice gave salons a month to close down, saying the grace period would allow them to use up stock.
It said it made the order because extravagant sums spent on makeovers caused hardship for poor families, and that some treatments at the salons were un-Islamic.
Too much make-up prevented women from proper ablutions for prayer, the ministry said, while eyelash extensions and hair weaving were also forbidden.
A copy of the order seen by AFP said it was "based on verbal instruction from the supreme leader" Hibatullah Akhundzada.
- Safe place -
Beauty parlours mushroomed across Kabul and other Afghan cities in the 20 years that United States-led forces occupied the country.
They were seen as a safe place to gather and socialise away from men and provided vital business opportunities for women.
A report to the UN's Human Rights Council last month by Richard Bennett, the special rapporteur for Afghanistan, said the plight of women and girls in the country "was among the worst in the world".
"Grave, systematic and institutionalized discrimination against women and girls is at the heart of Taliban ideology and rule, which also gives rise to concerns that they may be responsible for gender apartheid," Bennett said.
Akhundzada, who rarely appears in public and rules by decree from the Taliban's birthplace in Kandahar, said last month Afghan women were being saved from "traditional oppressions" by the adoption of Islamic governance and their status as "free and dignified human beings" restored.
He said in a statement marking the Eid al-Adha holiday that steps had been taken to provide women with a "comfortable and prosperous life according to Islamic Sharia".
Women have also mostly been barred from working for the UN or NGOs, and thousands have been sacked from government jobs or are being paid to stay at home.