Become the voice of Afghan women

Women’s rights activist Shukria Rahimi issues a rallying plea not to let Afghanistan and the plight of its people under the Taliban slide into obscurity and be forgotten

Several years ago, with the start of the talks in Doha between representatives of the Taliban and the US, Afghan women formed various committees and groups in the hope of conveying their interests and messages to the negotiators and thereby influencing the proceedings.

One of those groups was the Co-ordinating Council of Women Struggle in Afghanistan, which consisted of women’s rights activists based both inside and outside Afghanistan.

We were aware of the very real and imminent danger of the various Taliban wings merging to take power in the country — especially considering the previous dark experience of Taliban rule, which harmed the women of Afghanistan most and led to their exclusion from all fields of society; whether social, political, economic, and even educational.

From forced marriages and the stoning of women through to public flogging, we wanted to warn the world that the rights and freedoms of Afghan women should not be sacrificed on the altar of the peace negotiations.

Despite the promises of the Taliban’s representatives in Qatar and the seemingly widely held optimism internationally that they had somehow changed, we emphasised that not only had they not fundamentally changed, but they had also learned the dark arts of political deceit and to say what they thought their opponents wanted to hear.

Ever since the Taliban returned to power in mid-August 2021 and that relatively moderate image they promulgated during those early days — by announcing a public amnesty, promising to form an inclusive government, and to respect the rights of women and minorities in the hope of securing international recognition and legitimacy — the painful truth has gradually emerged as their lies have been revealed.

Since then, all social, economic and political areas have faced significant problems.

The Taliban government could not provide even the most basic of social services to the people. We have witnessed an increase in violations of human rights; the disappearance of former government/state employees; arrests and fierce repression of women; house-to-house searches; and widespread repression and violence against minorities.

The Taliban have further consolidated their grip on power in little more than a year by severely suppressing the media — threatening, arresting, beating and torturing journalists — as well as monitoring the work and activities of international organisations such as the UN, thereby turning Afghanistan into an information vacuum.

Despite the efforts of courageous activists, many of the Taliban’s transgressions and human rights violations are not even recorded, let alone reported.

Against this backdrop, the Taliban have committed countless crimes. Their fighters subject women and girls to inhumane and humiliating acts and, in predominantly non-Pashtun or mixed populations areas, have used sexual violence and forced marriage as weapons of war.

In recent weeks, numerous reports and horrific stories regarding the forced marriages of young girls, widows and even married women have been emerging in public media and on social networks.

Videos of women being publicly beaten for venturing outside the house without a chaperone — usually a husband or close male relative — talking on a mobile phone, or wearing brightly coloured clothes under their burqa, starkly illustrate the difficulty of life for women and girls in Taliban-controlled areas.

The Taliban have also suppressed all peaceful women’s marches since they arrived in Kabul.

Women’s rights activists have been tortured and imprisoned — and if they are not killed they are often left in a terrible mental state. The last year has been a catastrophe for the women and girls of Afghanistan.

From the outset Taliban restricted women’s access to work. In most government offices they did not have the right to be present at their workplaces, and they were only given a monthly allowance or stipend by presenting proof of employment.

Soon after they were forced to wear hijabs and headscarves, and were prevented from actually going to work without being accompanied by the aforementioned chaperone.

Strict veiling for women in the education system and removal of women’s right to study certain subjects was followed by an outright ban of women in education.

A ban on women travelling without a chaperone, attending amusement parks or restaurants — all normal ordinary life activities — is a reality for women in today’s Afghanistan.

The statement of the minister for women’s education that women are only created to serve men represents the fundamental outlook of the religious extremist groups — especially the Taliban.

This belief is deeply rooted and so powerful that such a hateful mentality goes unchecked.

It is clear that the rights and freedoms that Afghan women desire cannot and will not be granted by the Taliban regime.

People who are prepared to blow themselves up in pursuit of their ideological goals will not be swayed from their core belief of ownership over a woman’s body and mind.

They oppose women’s education because they are afraid of an informed woman, a woman who is independent, and who will raise children prepared to ask questions instead of blindly obeying orders.

This is the existential danger that threatens their belief system.

The attitude of an Afghan woman and the attitude of a Talib are incompatible. The Taliban ask: “Why should women work? Why should women study?” Women ask: “Why shouldn’t women have the right to work? Why shouldn’t women be educated?”

The women of Afghanistan have perhaps learned to temper their expectations of the international community, especially the US and its Western partners.

We do not covet invitations to the European Parliament and the UN, nor meaningless awards that pay lip service, nor headlines and photos on the back covers of Western magazines, as such measures are designed to act like a sedative, one that does not cure the pain but provides temporary relief.

Our question to the international community is how can millions of dollars continue to be deposited into the coffers of the Taliban if the world is genuinely concerned about the plight of Afghan women?

How can it be that the daughters of Taliban leaders go to their private schools in Qatar while we ordinary women are written off and continue to live in abject poverty?

I call upon feminists around the world, all those who believe in the equal rights of men and women, all those who cannot imagine their daughter living in such a society, to become the voice of the oppressed Afghan women.

If this trend continues here unchecked, Afghanistan will once more become a threat to the entire world.

Afghanistan and the plight of its people must not be left to slide into obscurity and be forgotten out of sight.

Ask your governments to stop offering financial aid and lending legitimacy by official recognition of the Taliban. Afghanistan should never be rewarded for their repressive campaigns against women.

The only solution to the country’s problems is the formation of a representative government of national accord — one in which Afghan women do not play a token role as in the past, but actually participate in the exercise of political power and are in a position to defend the millions of those at the forefront of bringing about progressive change in Afghanistan.

Shukria Rahimi is a women’s rights activist in Afghanistan.

First published in the Morning Star. Article arranged and edited by Liberation. Photos: Shukria Rahimi

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