After 20 years of considerable gains and with much more still to do, Afghan women’s rights activists are battling rage and disappointment as they enter another chapter in the fight for gender rights. But the Taliban has still not provided clarity on its inconsistent statements and they fear that will come too late, when the world stops paying attention.
Not long after the Taliban blew up the ancient Buddha statues in Bamiyan back in March 2001, Sunita Vishwanath and a group of Afghan women in New York founded the NGO, Women for Afghan Women (WAW). Over the past 20 years, she has kept at the job as WAW expanded to become one of the largest women’s organisations in Afghanistan, running domestic violence shelters, as well as education and vocational training centres across the country.
Working on women’s rights can sometimes be a matter of life and death in Afghanistan and Vishwanath is no stranger to the dangers of the job. Women fleeing domestic violence can face death threats or fear abductions by family members determined to deliver them back to abusive husbands or in-laws.
Security has been a very serious issue for the 1,200-strong WAW staff, one that is assessed and adapted for the changing needs on the ground. If a provincial capital risks falling to the Taliban, for instance, staff and shelter residents are immediately evacuated to the capital, Kabul, until the situation calms down and operations can resume in affected cities and regions.
Nothing could have prepared Vishwanath for the perils of the past week. “It’s the grimmest moment since we started 20 years ago. I see a humanitarian catastrophe coming,” said Vishwanath in a phone interview with FRANCE 24 from New York, where she has been frantically trying to secure her Afghan staff and the women under WAW’s protection.
The sudden fall of Kabul – despite Taliban assurances that it would not enter the Afghan capital until a transitional government was in place – has sparked panicked scenes that have dominated international news coverage for over a week.
For Vishwanath, it has posed unforeseen risks for her staff – including some outspoken anti-domestic violence campaigners – and vulnerable domestic violence survivors. “This crisis didn’t happen overnight, we knew there was fighting all around and the takeover of Kabul was something we thought might happen – although not quite so quickly,” she added. “So, in the past few months, we’ve been evacuating from all the provinces where we have staff and clients to Kabul because we thought Kabul would take the longest to fall.”
Her priority right now is evacuating a list of around 500 highest priority cases. “These are clients and front-facing staff that are prominent names, well-known people, and our focus right now is to try and work with the US government to get them out,” she explained, her words tumbling out with urgency against a backtrack of pings and telephone rings demanding her attention.
‘Fear? Fear of what?’
Thousands of miles away, in the heart of the crisis zone, Mahbouba Seraj, one of Afghanistan’s leading women’s rights activists, says she is not budging from Kabul.
In a phone interview with FRANCE 24 from the Afghan capital, the founder of the Afghan Women’s Network and several other NGOs insists she has nothing to fear: “Fear? Fear of what? That they’re going to kill me? Why? What have I done wrong? The best part of my life is behind me. I’m 73 years old, I’m full of energy, I want to finish the projects and the work that I started, and I want to be here for my Afghan sisters in Afghanistan,” said Seraj defiantly.
The veteran activist is quick to deflect the focus from her personal security to that of others and she concedes that many Afghans feel threatened under the Taliban. “At this point, there are women belonging to the women’s rights movement, to civil society – lawyers especially – they are very worried because their lives are in danger. If they want to get out of the country, please help them get out,” she said.
Not for the first time, her pleas were ignored. On Tuesday, President Joe Biden decided not to extend his August 31 deadline for completing the US-led evacuations of Afghans fleeing the Taliban takeover.
Disregarding calls by European nations as well as veterans and refugee groups, Biden stuck with the August 31 timeline, in effect bowing to a Taliban warning that the group will accept “no extension” of the deadline.
“Afghan women’s rights at risk” has been a warning ever since former Afghan president, Hamid Karzai, established the now defunct Afghanistan High Peace Council in 2010 to begin negotiations with the Taliban.
It turned into cliché as the talks dragged on, losing impact for audiences inured to the bad news from Afghanistan and resigned to the fact that Afghan women’s rights will be collateral damage in the political race to end America’s “forever war”.
The phrase is not a warning anymore, it’s a fait accompli. And yet nobody quite knows exactly what that spells for the future of Afghanistan’s women and girls.
Still to be defined ‘Islamic framework’
More than a week after the fall of Kabul, activists such as Vishwanath and Seraj are in a holding pattern, desperate to save lives and programmes on the ground.
“My programmes are still running, the safe houses, transit houses, GBV [Gender Based Violence] programmes, WASH [Water, Sanitation and Hygiene] programmes, they’re still going on. I will continue to be here, to keep an eye on it. If Afghan women and men need help, we are here, and I want to be there for them,” said Seraj.
The question though is whether the Taliban is there for them – and whether it will permit women’s rights groups to continue their operations, and under what guidelines or restrictions.
Over the past few years, the Taliban has sought to deflect international concerns by insisting the group will respect women’s rights “within an Islamic framework”. Since the August 15 fall of Kabul – and the Taliban’s quest for international recognition that would unlock Afghanistan’s bank accounts frozen by the US – that rhetoric has picked up pace.
At a press conference in Kabul last week, Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid finally revealed himself, ending over a decade of speculation over whether he existed or if the unlikely name was just a moniker for the group’s communications wing. “We are going to allow women to work and study within our frameworks,” said Mujahid. “Women are going to be very active within our society.”
Journalists have sought details on what exactly the Taliban’s version of an Islamic framework entails, but to no avail. Islamic scholars have debated whether the Taliban’s harsh rule in the 1990s – which included no female education or employment rights – contravened Sharia law and if so, under which school of Islamic jurisprudence.
Efficient tax gathering, spotty girls’ education policies
For many Afghans, the time for theoretical debates is over and they have been voting with their feet, thronging the Kabul airport, getting killed in stampedes and in at least one tragic case, dying after falling off an evacuation aircraft.
Most Afghans are painfully aware of the disconnect between what the Taliban says on the international stage and what it says and does back home.
Long before Kabul fell to Taliban control, the group’s governance in the areas it controlled was inconsistent. Like other jihadist groups that have administered terrain – such as Somalia’s al Shabaab and the Islamic State (IS) group – the Taliban had efficient tax and levy-gathering mechanisms.
On female health and education, the record was spotty and confusing, driving families to simply keep their girls from attending school. While some Taliban commanders said education was permitted for girls under puberty, others in the same district said no female education was permitted, according to a 2020 Human Rights Watch study.
While Seraj maintains she wants to continue her programmes, she admits that before the August 15 fall of Kabul, she never succeeded in running programmes in Taliban controlled areas. “We couldn’t reach the Taliban areas because they were unsafe. So many times, we asked, we tried, but we couldn’t,” she explained.
Women will ‘go back into domestic violence’
With the fall of Kabul, the Taliban faces perhaps the biggest challenge in its nearly 30-year history: administering a country that has been back on the international stage for two decades and with an overwhelmingly young population accustomed to the freedoms of democratic governance.
The stakes are high for the Islamist group and it has adjusted its gender tolerance messaging accordingly. But even in Kabul, where, unlike the provinces, the Taliban have been on its best behaviour, the reports of abuses have been mounting over the past week.
Days after a female anchor was allowed on air on the private Tolo TV station, three female presenters at Afghanistan’s state RTA TV said they were banned from working after armed Taliban men stormed the station’s Kabul headquarters and ordered them to leave.
Meanwhile a family member of a journalist at the German Deutsche Welle group was killed last week after Taliban fighters arrived at his house demanding to see the journalist, who was in Germany.
Afghan activists, who have a lower public profile than local journalists, have gone into hiding en masse, fearing for their lives. Amid credible reports of the Taliban using surveillance technology for house searches, many activists have switched off their mobiles. Phone calls by FRANCE 24 to around half-a-dozen local women’s rights activists inside Afghanistan went unanswered.
Their silence is being filled by Afghan activists who are out of the country and desperately trying to get their loved ones out.
Ali Hussein*, an Afghan student activist currently in India, predicts a grim future for his female colleague and five sisters back home. “I hope my sisters manage to get out. My sister who is a teacher in Jaghori [a district in the eastern Ghazni province] will lose her job. She will go back into domestic violence if she’s not earning. A lot of Afghan women have been earning incomes that have been very critical in so many households. Now they will have to go back indoors and domestic violence will rise and we won’t even hear about it,” predicted Hussein in a gloomy interview from New Delhi.
‘Destroying what we worked so hard for’
Over the past 20 years, Afghan women made significant strides, despite the poverty and patriarchy in a conservative country. In 2001, no girls were enrolled in formal schools and there were only one million boys enrolled, according to the World Bank. By 2020, 3.5 million girls were enrolled in a country of around 38 million people, with the literacy rate increasing to 43 percent, according to UNESCO.
Despite the conflict and violence, Afghan women worked as lawyers, doctors, engineers, government employees, business owners, police officers and members of the military. By early 2018, nearly 4,500 women were serving in the Afghan defence and security forces and parliament had a higher percentage of female representatives (27.3 percent) than the US Congress (15.2 percent) and British Parliament (19.7 percent).
These were some of the gains Seraj referred to in an August 15 interview with Turkish Radio and Television Corporation (TRT). The clip, which went viral on social media, sees the feisty activist lashing out at world leaders for “abandoning” Afghan women. “We talked to you, we demanded, we asked, we did everything, and nobody paid any attention. They just made decisions with their gut feelings or whatever, all of these men of the world, in power, and they are destroying what we worked so hard for,” she fumed.
Like many Afghans, Seraj is enraged by the ill-conceived and hastily implemented US troop pullout based on a four-page February 2020 US-Taliban agreement that did not include Afghanistan’s democratically elected government.
But from her home in Kabul, the veteran women’s rights activist has an urgent message for the international community. “The world needs to watch the Taliban to see how it is behaving. They’re being all lovey-dovey right now, but they won’t stay that way, they will change. We need the world to keep a watchful eye on what’s happening – and please, don’t stop the humanitarian help and all the projects the people of Afghanistan need,” she pleads.
Vishwanath also hopes that WAW can continue its operations in Afghanistan. “We have paused operations and hope with all our hearts to continue working. We will need to assess whether we can continue our work once we know what is allowed under the laws of this new Afghanistan,” she said.
Right now though, Vishwanath is focused on trying to evacuate her most endangered staff and clients – with no success. Her fury is not targeted at the Taliban, but at her own government.
“I would have thought the US government, our largest funder, would have got us out, but that’s not the case,” she fumed. “It’s cruel joke that at this most critical time, our best talent on the ground have just been making [evacuation] lists. My deep concern is turning to panic.”
(*Name changed to protect identity)