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Afghan women graduates celebrate after receiving their diplomas from the American University of Afghanistan (AUAF) in Kabul, Afghanistan, on May 21, 2019. (Photo: Scott Peterson/Getty Images)
Afghan women graduates celebrate after receiving their diplomas from the American University of Afghanistan (AUAF) in Kabul, Afghanistan, on May 21, 2019. (Photo: Scott Peterson/Getty Images)

SocietyAugust 19, 2021

What now for the women and girls of Afghanistan?

Afghan women graduates celebrate after receiving their diplomas from the American University of Afghanistan (AUAF) in Kabul, Afghanistan, on May 21, 2019. (Photo: Scott Peterson/Getty Images)
Afghan women graduates celebrate after receiving their diplomas from the American University of Afghanistan (AUAF) in Kabul, Afghanistan, on May 21, 2019. (Photo: Scott Peterson/Getty Images)

Within hours of the Taliban’s takeover of Kabul, shopfronts and beauty salons with pictures of women were painted over. But Afghan women refuse to have their place in society erased, writes Laura Walters.

The stories coming out of Afghanistan in recent weeks have struck fear into the hearts and minds of women around the world. Now the return of the Taliban regime threatens to once again engulf Afghan women and children in what Iranian-Kiwi former refugee Golriz Ghahraman describes as a “black abyss”.

In recent weeks, as the US pulled out the last of its troops after a 20-year occupation, the Taliban swept the country, taking control of provincial capitals, followed by Kabul, and the presidential palace.

Scenes of people flocking to the airport and desperately clinging to airplanes caught the world’s attention. With this has come a series of horror stories from women, who are already being targeted by the Taliban’s oppression.

In Khandahar, the Taliban ordered women to leave their jobs in banks and escorted them to their homes at gunpoint. In other places, they have reinstated the rule of compulsory veiling. In a report on the BBC Persian website, two journalists visited the city of Balkh and couldn’t find any women without burqa. In many areas, women are unable to leave their home without a male escort.

In a piece for The Guardian, an anonymous university student wrote about how she and her sister had to hide their IDs, diplomas and certificates, of which they had always been so proud. She wrote about how some men were making fun of girls and women. “Go and put on your chadari [burqa],” one called out. “It is your last days of being out on the streets,” said another. “I will marry four of you in one day,” said a third.

One of Afghanistan’s first female mayors, Zarifa Ghafari, told the Independent she was forced to flee in fear for her life . “I’m sitting here waiting for them to come. There is no one to help me or my family. They will come for people like me and kill me.”

Meanwhile, Auckland-based former Afghan refugee Anita Azizi told Stuff she was scared for her family and friends in Afghanistan, particularly women.

“The fact that they might be married to someone five times their age or when they’re as young as 12, that boils my blood,” she said.

Afghan women in Kabul learn about the election process on October 4, 2004, the year Afghans first had the chance to vote in a direct election for president. (Photo: Paula Bronstein/Getty Images)

Massey University security studies senior lecturer Anna Powles noted one Afghan woman referred to education and the right to work as her “red line”. As long as the Taliban didn’t cross that red line, she would wear the hijab (as distinct from the burqa).

“I expect that the Taliban will cross that red line and that Afghan women will continue to resist and survive. But we can’t and shouldn’t accept that,” Powles said.

In the past 20 years, Afghan women have held some of the highest positions of public office, joined the police and armed forces, competed at the Olympics, gained global recognition for work in engineering and robotics, gained their driver’s licence, and become economically independent.

But the Taliban’s takeover puts these advancements in jeopardy, with women in Afghanistan fearing a return to the way things were before 2001.

When the Taliban ruled from 1996 to 2001, they barred women and girls from taking most jobs – other than the roles of social workers or nurses – going to school was almost completely prohibited, and corporal punishment was harsh, with the use of floggings and stonings – in at least one case, a woman’s thumb was cut off because she wore nail polish.

In its first news conference after taking Kabul, Taliban spokesperson Zabihullah Mujahid said Afghanistan was committed to the rights of women, within the framework of Shari’a law.

“The international community, if they have concerns, we would like to assure them that there’s not going to be any discrimination against women, but of course within the frameworks that we have,” he said.

International experts, including those who have spoken to The Spinoff, say the Taliban’s statement on women’s rights is purposefully vague. Regardless, all are deeply sceptical, and expect the rights of women and girls (and boys, who will likely lose a standardised education in favour of religious teachings) to suffer.

Burqa-wearing Afghan women in Kabul, Afghanistan, in 2012. (Photo: Daniel Berehulak/Getty Images)

Massey University associate professor of politics and international relations Bethan Greener said a kind of existential dread had fallen upon many women, herself included, in response to the news coming out of Afghanistan.

“Here in Aotearoa New Zealand the situation may seem far removed, but there is a feminist saying that ‘I am not free while any woman is unfree’,” Greener said.

“The Taliban may endorse an extreme form of misogyny where women’s agency is utterly destroyed, but we also need to recognise that this situation will resonate with many women because of the ubiquity of gender inequalities.”

Any woman who had experienced gender-based violence could empathise with the form of dread and powerlessness that Afghan women have stated they were feeling, she said.

Women and children are disproportionately affected by all conflict, but that’s particularly true in Afghanistan under Taliban rule.

According to the UN, 80% of the 250,000 Afghans forced to flee since the end of May were women and children. Meanwhile, during Monday’s urgent UN Security Council meeting, secretary-general António Guterres said he was concerned by the accounts of mounting violations against women and girls who feared a return to “the darkest days”.

Despite the growing threat, Greener said she was astounded and humbled by the strength Afghan women were already showing in planning to survive, in undertaking resistance, and in protesting for their rights to be protected.

“The least we can do is pay witness to those women’s acts and to try to find ways to support them where possible.”

While much of the news reports focused on the victimisation of women, there has also been a strong sense of resistance, both within the country and beyond its borders. Those in the country had been organising ways to get women out, and get money in. And the executive director of women’s rights organisation Madre said women in Afghanistan were also making longer-term plans for clandestine girls’ schools, clinics, and ongoing women’s rights work which would rely on the older generation’s experience from the 1990s and on strategies developed by women living under ISIS occupation in Syria and Iraq.

Others were using their voices to raise awareness in the global community.

Afghan MPs like Farzana Elham Kochai and Fawzia Koofi have spoken on social media, and through international news organisations, about the importance of women and girls maintaining their rights, as well as the vital role women play in peace and stability. They have both been forced to do this from undisclosed locations.

Meanwhile, Afghan teacher and human rights activist Pashtana Durrani told the BBC that she would continue to speak out about the reality facing women and girls under Taliban rule, despite the risk to her safety. “I have to put up a fight today, so the next generation doesn’t have to face all this conflict.”

Green Party human rights and foreign affairs spokesperson Golriz Ghahraman said last time the Taliban was in power, “a black abyss” was formed around Afghan women, and now there was a fear history would repeat.

“This is happening to ordinary women and girls, who have hopes and dreams and ambitions, and see themselves as equal to men. And they now can’t leave the house without a male escort.”

But like others who spoke to The Spinoff, Ghahraman pointed out how far Afghan women had come since then, in terms of their rights, knowledge and power. This empowerment, and the experience of the past 20 years, would make it harder for the Taliban to oppress women this time around.

“I’m always in awe of Middle Eastern women… Saudi women, Iranian women and Afghan women have seen some of the most intense violence from regimes. I’m in awe of their capacity for resistance. They will never give up. They haven’t given up,” Ghahraman said.

“This isn’t their culture, this isn’t their ideology, it’s being imposed by a bunch of men. And these are women who know their worth, they do have hopes and dreams, and they know they are equal to men, so they will never give that up.”

Those who spoke to The Spinoff said it was important to remember the Taliban’s ideology was not that of Afghan people. In fact, the group appeared not to have substantial support, with a 2019 survey putting the Taliban’s national popularity rating at just over 13%. And while some people saw the erosion of women’s rights as a consequence of Islam, what was currently taking place was a direct result of the Taliban’s explicitly anti-women ideology.

On the flipside, some research suggests the country does remain widely resistant to the advancement of women’s rights, with a 2013 Pew survey finding 85% of those surveyed believed stoning women to death was an appropriate punishment for adultery.

Like Ghahraman, Massey University senior lecturer in security studies Dr Negar Partow said much had changed for women since the 1980s, which would make it harder for the Taliban to oppress women. Especially if the international community, and progressive democracies like New Zealand, played their part in putting political pressure on the Taliban and raising global awareness.

In response to the immediate humanitarian crisis, experts and human rights watchers were calling for foreign governments to help get women out of the country, especially those who were particularly vulnerable due to their high profiles. And in hindsight, it has become clear extraction work should have begun sooner.

New Zealand has joined the international community in calling for international borders, airports and roads to remain open, and for the Taliban to allow for the safe and orderly departure of foreign nationals and Afghans wishing to leave the country.

On Tuesday prime minister Jacinda Ardern said there were 104 New Zealanders in Afghanistan. All had been provided with consular assistance. And a Defence Force plane would be sent on a month-long deployment to help New Zealanders, foreign nationals and Afghan allies, escape the country.

Beyond that, a number of those spoken to by The Spinoff said countries needed to continue to provide aid money – without it, women and children would be at a greater disadvantage.

However, Partow said development assistance could also be used as a bargaining chip. The Taliban needed aid money if it wanted to stay in power, but foreign governments should make the delivery of aid contingent on human rights, and the rights of women, being upheld.

Aside from extractions and aid dollars, New Zealand should be advocating for continued education in Afghanistan, resourcing women’s groups, funding student scholarships, and providing support to those with on-the-ground human rights advocacy, Partow said.

Those who spoke to The Spinoff said the public also had a part to play.

“The women and girls in Afghanistan deserve more than a 48-72 hour news cycle,” Powles said.

That meant people should seek out the voices of those on the ground, and highlight both the realities Afghan women are facing, as well as the resistance and community work they are undertaking in the face of an uncertain future. Members of the public could also seek out links to trusted organisations and women’s groups supporting the efforts in Afghanistan.

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