AFGHANISTAN – “Hear Our Cries”: What Terrifies an Afghan Women’s Rights Activist

An anonymous advocate for Afghan women, speaks out

In early August, after devoting herself for more than 12 years to various aspects of women’s rights, a woman, whose full name will not be shared for her protection, and her family fled her home in northern Afghanistan. The Taliban had seized the provincial capital. A district governor in the same province, a fierce politician in her own right, took up arms to fight the Taliban, but was recently captured by the militant group, and her whereabouts are currently unknown.

This woman and her family, including her two children, are in hiding. I spoke with her on August 20, just five days after Kabul fell to the Taliban. She was overwhelmed with emotions of fear, despair and betrayal, and emphasized the need for the “world to hear our cries”. As a mother, she was particularly afraid for the future of her country and the safety and security of her young children.

Unlike many of her colleagues, she has remained in Afghanistan. “We [my fellow women activists and I] are extremely worried about the future of Afghanistan, and we want to reassure our fellow Afghans that we are here for them, making their voices heard for the world. This is our moral responsibility.

“Together with countless other women’s rights activists, I have spent the last two decades investing in our home, our society, our children, and the girls of this country who face many obstacles. All of the advancements we have made are in danger of being reversed overnight. How can we remain hopeful when all that we have worked for is now under threat?

“As someone who has led various women’s rights initiatives, I am worried for myself, but also for the women who worked for us throughout the years. Their lives are in danger since many of them served as trainers with international organizations, working alongside male trainers. I fear that the Taliban’s conservative ideology will not tolerate such activities.

“Since the world’s eyes are focused on Kabul, maybe here women will be able to still present the news or enter the health clinics they worked in previously. But we are hearing reports from the provinces in which all NGO offices have been closed. My colleagues informed me that they have been ordered by the Taliban not to leave their homes without a burqa or a male guardian. These are the same women who led their own organizations and made careers for themselves, enabling some of them to singlehandedly support their families.

“A friend told me that store owners have been told not to sell to women who come and shop without either a male guardian or a male child above 12 years old.

“Such treatment of women is naturally worrying, and clearly demonstrates that the Taliban have not changed and plan to rule according to the same strict interpretation of Islam they professed 20 years ago….

“I reassure [my trainees] that I have not left Afghanistan and that I am still here looking for ways to support them. It is such a relief for them to know that they have not been forgotten, the same way that it is a relief for us when we hear that the international media has not forgotten about us and is interested in hearing from us….

“Civil society in Afghanistan was very hopeful of all the work that was taking place in the area of human and women’s rights. However, President Biden declared in a speech that, despite all of the work we have done, Afghans themselves are not doing enough for their own country. This statement made many of us lose hope, while it also implied that the work that my colleagues and I were doing and all that we achieved for women’s rights was invisible and insignificant. Those of us who have devoted years to rebuilding this country cannot afford to be silent as to what really is at stake in Afghanistan….

“Much of the Western media coverage is focused on the evacuation of journalists and members of the international community from Afghanistan. But if these observers leave, then who will hear us? Who will be able to truly see what is happening to us?

“My plea to the international community is to support us by enabling reporting from within Afghanistan. I ask international observers, journalists, and humanitarian organizations to document what is happening in the country… not just report from the major cities like Kabul, but to also go to outlying provinces to provide reports on women’s rights and their access to education, employment, human rights there and to publicize the situation there….

“Those of us who are familiar with the provinces can attest to the fact that the Taliban have not moderated their position with regard to women. We know that, for instance, the burqa is being made mandatory for girls 6th grade and above. The Taliban, over the past months, have been mandating restrictions in villages, towns, and provinces. It is simply a matter of time before larger cities see such restrictions. Therefore, it is critical to report on them now, before they become widespread and normalized….” [continues, including how at least some women’s lives have changed in the past 20 years and expressing fear whether this will all be reversed.]

On 2 September 2021, a report in the Guardian supported this description of what is happening. Beheshta Arghand, who made headlines across the world as the first female journalist to interview a Taliban leader after the fall of Kabul, fled the country in the days that followed, and described how the Taliban were already oppressing female journalists. Now in Qatar, she said militants started targeting women soon after takeover, and that many of her female journalist colleagues had left too. Despite the Taliban’s pledge to give women the right to study and work under their new regime, accounts from across the country tell a different story. in Kandahar, female presenters were banned from radio and television. Across the country, women have been prevented from going to universities, girls’ schools have been shut, female police officers have been threatened and women in some areas are no longer allowed out without a chaperone.

SOURCES: The Nation, by Mona Tajali, 25 August 2021 + PHOTO : Indranil Aditya / NurPhoto, protest in India, via Getty Images ; Female TV anchor who interviewed Taliban flees Afghanistan, The Guardian, by Hannah Ellis-Petersen and agencies, 2 September 2021

SEE ALSO: Statement from RAWA, an Afghan women’s group, 21 August 2021