Sacrificing His Core Supporters in a Race Against Defeat
Life under the Taliban is the worst women’s rights crisis on the planet. When the Taliban returned to power last August, they imposed immediate and brutal restrictions, the harshest of which were reserved for women. They quickly imposed a ban on girls’ secondary education, which remains in place despite domestic and international demands to lift it. They also placed restrictions on women’s movement, requiring women to be accompanied by a male family member while traveling, and women’s dress, ordering women to cover their faces in public. Girls and women are also no longer allowed to play sports.
Afghan women working for the government, with the exception of those doing jobs in the education and health sectors, were told to stay home and not report to work. The Taliban have also dissolved the Ministry of Women’s Affairs and the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission, an institution that I led until January. These moves have left female victims of domestic violence with no legal remedy or support at a time when there are reports of increased forced marriages, including child marriages. The Taliban have excluded women from appointments in government and participation in major national events, including a large political gathering in June to discuss the country’s future. When a reporter asked Abdul Salam Hanafi, the Taliban’s deputy prime minister, about the lack of women’s participation, Hanafi said that women would be participating, in a way, because their sons would be attending. This kind of rhetoric, along with the new rules, promotes a demeaning narrative about women and their place in society and nullifies two decades’ worth of positive changes in public attitudes about the social and political roles that should be available to women.
The international community’s response to these events has been pitifully insufficient. Members of the UN Human Rights Council, as well as countries that have explicitly feminist foreign policies, such as Canada, France, Germany, and Sweden, have done little more than make statements of condemnation. The same is true for leaders in the Islamic world. Even imposing a travel ban on Taliban leaders has been a struggle, because Russia and China have blocked it at the UN Security Council. The UN Human Rights Council has yet to establish a strong, well-resourced accountability mechanism for Afghanistan despite repeated calls from the human rights community. Diplomats, including those from the United States, continue to engage with Taliban leaders at international conferences and in bilateral talks that exclude Afghan women and members of Afghan civil society. As a result, for the Afghan women at the forefront of the nonviolent resistance to the Taliban, a disturbing truth has sunk in: they are mostly on their own.
This total abandonment requires those working for women’s rights in Afghanistan to question their assumptions about the will and influence of the international community to help. Understanding that foreign partners are not going to show up requires changing the approach of those working in diaspora and on the ground. The focus for the Afghan women’s rights movement should be to strengthen its cohesion and prevent any divisiveness between the diaspora and activists inside the country. The Afghan women’s rights movement also needs to cultivate new allies inside the country and in the region. These should include Afghan writers, cultural activists, and moderate religious thinkers. Afghan women’s rights organizations need to strengthen their partnerships with organizations in Iran, Pakistan, Qatar, and other countries in the region to increase their engagement beyond the Western world. The women’s rights movement should invest in long-term social and cultural change in Afghan society through producing and disseminating content about women’s rights in local languages, strategic engagement with the Afghan media, and finding resources for educational and cultural exchanges for Afghan youth. Although the women’s movement needs to maintain a degree of engagement with Western countries and international human rights bodies, expectations for the international community should be based on a clear-eyed assessment of its near-nonexistent response over the past year.
After the Taliban takeover last summer, Afghan women’s lives changed dramatically. For young women across the country, the situation presents a complete absence of hope. I know teenage girls who are suffering severe depression due to the closure of secondary schools. Although universities have not been closed to women, the classes have been separated for women and men and women’s clothing is policed. These restrictions have caused some female university students to abandon their studies. They have also lost their motivation to attend school because there are no employment opportunities waiting for them when they graduate. Households where the woman was the top earner now struggle as women have been sent home from their jobs or have had to shut down their businesses. Although the restrictions on women’s clothing and movement are not always enforced, they have created an environment of intimidation and fear where the act of leaving one’s house now requires immense courage.
As women confront this new reality, they are also reckoning with the severe humanitarian and economic crises that are threatening Afghanistan. An estimated 97 percent of households are unable to meet their basic needs. Tens of thousands of children are suffering malnutrition and being admitted to hospitals every month. Women and girls have been hit the hardest by the humanitarian crisis and lack of access to income, food, and health-care services as most women in the public sector have lost their jobs, and there has been an increase in reports of families selling their daughters into marriage.
Despite their anger, frustration, and loss, women are the only group inside Afghanistan consistently protesting the Taliban’s policies. Female activists have marched in the streets in Kabul and other cities, demanding the restoration of their basic rights. They have organized public events and spoken about the right to education and the need to reopen schools. Just as they did in the 1990s, when the Taliban were last in power, Afghan women have set up secret schools for girls so that they can continue to learn. The Taliban’s response to this civic activism has been a brutal crackdown. Female protesters have been violently dispersed, abducted, and held in illegal detention. They have also been subject to forced confessions. The Taliban have further tried to delegitimize female activists by claiming that they have staged their own abductions to seek asylum. Following the Taliban’s crackdown, the protests have become less frequent and now mostly take place in Kabul—and only if participants can ensure that some international media will be present, in the hope that it will offer greater protection. On some occasions, women gather inside their homes and release protest videos from there.
Women are the only group inside Afghanistan consistently protesting the Taliban’s policies.
Women in the Afghan diaspora have also mobilized, writing and speaking to shed light on the situation in Afghanistan and pressing Western officials and diplomats to take a variety of actions, including setting up independent monitoring mechanisms to make sure that humanitarian aid reaches Afghan girls and women, increasing political pressure on the Taliban to ensure girls’ access to education and women’s right to employment, and keeping in place targeted travel bans on Taliban leaders. Sanctions placed on the Taliban by the UN Security Council in 2011 banned 135 members of the group from traveling outside the country. But 13 Taliban leaders were granted an exemption so that they could meet officials abroad and travel to talks with the United States in Doha during the administration of U.S. President Donald Trump. That exemption was renewed regularly until it finally expired in early August. Now, no Taliban leaders are allowed to travel outside the country. China and Russia are pushing to change this, but Western countries have argued that the number of leaders allowed to travel should be smaller and the approved destinations fewer.
Western support for the travel bans is heartening, but too often the international response to the plight of women in Afghanistan has been hollow condemnations. Although officials from the United States, the EU, and the UN have held many meetings with women activists, there has been little if any concrete follow-up. Women’s rights activists have called for the UN Human Rights Council to establish an Afghanistan fact-finding mission, which would investigate human rights violations, but they have received only partial support from the council members. In October 2021, the council appointed Richard Bennett, a longtime human rights official at the UN, as a special rapporteur to monitor and report on the human rights situation in Afghanistan. Bennett traveled to Afghanistan in May and visited women’s rights activists, families of victims of various attacks, and members of Afghan civil society. He has said that the Taliban “is unparalleled globally in its misogyny and oppression.” His report is expected to be released in September. The work of a rapporteur is important, but Bennett is not paid for his work and his team members are not UN staff. Given the ongoing and widespread violations of human rights in Afghanistan, much more is needed. A more robust response would require a fully mandated and resourced investigative mechanism, such as a fact-finding mission or a commission of inquiry, both of which would require mandates from the UN Human Rights Council.
This is not the first time that the demands of Afghan women are falling on deaf ears. Throughout the U.S.-initiated talks with the Taliban, which began under the Trump administration and lasted from 2018 until February 2020, Afghan women campaigned, wrote, and organized mass gatherings to demand an inclusive peace process. But their appeals went unheeded. I attended a round of talks with the Taliban in Doha and heard firsthand their worryingly vague and general statements on women’s rights “within Islam.” Following this, in many interactions with U.S. officials, including Zalmay Khalilzad, the U.S. envoy who negotiated the Doha deal, I raised concerns about the lack of participation of women and victims of war in the talks and the emptiness of the Taliban’s reassurances. None of these concerns or warnings were taken seriously. Instead, I and others in the women’s movement were constantly told that the Taliban have changed.
Additionally, a convenient counternarrative took hold, pushed by male diplomats and male commentators, who claimed that the demands of Afghan women’s rights activists were not representative of rural Afghan women, and instead represented a Western imposition and were therefore not legitimate. In the end, the Doha agreement excluded any references to women’s rights, human rights, or civilian protection, key areas of concern for all Afghan people. Even while the United States and its allies made proclamations committing to protect the women of Afghanistan, they let the Taliban set the conditions of the talks. They participated in a process that would decide the fate of millions of Afghan women but that included zero Afghan women at the negotiating table.
This has meant that in addition to standing up to the Taliban and battling patriarchy inside Afghanistan, advocates for the rights of Afghan women have also had to contend with condescension, gaslighting, and marginalization at the hands of Western officials and alleged experts on Afghanistan. Women activists who fled Afghanistan after the Taliban took control last summer have had to endure this while also navigating the bureaucracies of various Western countries as they try to gain legal asylum. Although Western leaders have talked for the last two decades about supporting Afghan women, at critical junctures, where women’s rights activists’ rights and lives are on the line, Western countries have provided limited support for them or their cause, exposing a deep hypocrisy.
None of this is to say that the situation in Afghanistan is an easy challenge to solve. The Taliban won the war, and nobody wants to stand by and watch Afghans starve in a humanitarian crisis. So outside powers and organizations must deal with the Taliban regime in at least a limited way.
Yet Western officials have exercised poor judgment in picking their Taliban interlocutors and in setting the public tone of their engagement. Consider, for example, how Western governments and even the UN continue to deal with Sirajuddin Haqqani, Afghanistan’s acting interior minister and the leader of the Haqqani network, who remains on the FBI’s most wanted list because of his involvement in some of the bloodiest terrorist attacks in Afghanistan over the last 20 years. The world was reminded of his ties to al Qaeda earlier this summer when a U.S. drone strike killed al Qaeda’s leader, Ayman al-Zawahiri, who was living in Kabul in a house owned by a top aide to Haqqani, according to U.S. intelligence.
Western officials may have to meet with Haqqani, but they should be mindful of how their interactions further normalize him and whitewash his deeply problematic background. In June, in a tweet noting a “farewell meeting” between Haqqani and Deborah Lyons, the outgoing Afghanistan representative for the UN Secretary-General, the UN used the honorific term “al hajj” in referring to Haqqani, which is typically reserved for people who have completed a pilgrimage to Mecca and connotes a level of respect. The tweet referred to discussions between him and Lyons on issues including counterterrorism, which infuriated Afghan human rights activists who have worked with victims of the Haqqani network’s terrorist attacks for years.
It is possible to deliver foreign aid through Afghan and international nongovernmental organizations without having to cozy up to some of the world’s most wanted terrorists. The EU is one of the biggest contributors of humanitarian aid to Afghanistan, and EU Special Envoy Tomas Niklasson has continued to be outspoken about the human rights issues and violations by the Taliban. He also engages with Afghan women and men outside the Taliban’s leadership.
What has become excruciatingly clear is that Afghan women’s rights activists should not assume that the leaders of the democratic world will stand with them; such leaders and the institutions they represent no longer have much ability to protect Afghan women, nor much interest in doing so. Afghan women’s rights activists should also not assume that the leaders in Muslim-majority countries will pressure the Taliban into protecting even the most basic rights, such as girls’ access to education. It has been a year since the Taliban’s return to power, and not a single government leader from the Islamic world has issued a strong condemnation of the Taliban’s oppression of women, let alone applied any meaningful political pressure. Pakistani leaders, for instance, have continued engaging with the Taliban as if it is business as usual, while women in Afghanistan are imprisoned in their homes by the Taliban’s misogynistic and un-Islamic policies.
These are difficult realizations for the Afghan women’s movement. In the wake of the 9/11 attacks, many American politicians spoke about the protection of Afghan women as part of the “war on terror,” and a great deal of the progress that Afghan women experienced in the two decades that followed depended on the United States. Afghan women leaders learned to put pressure on foreign embassies and Western politicians to push the Afghan government to improve legal protections for women and to enhance its own performance on gender equality. In some cases, Afghan women invested more time cultivating relationships with donors and allies in the West than in the communities they intended to serve. This is one of the dynamics that needs to change to ensure the movement’s continued effectiveness and relevance on the ground.
The weak international response to the plight of Afghan women also reflects the ineffectiveness of the global human rights system. Afghanistan is a signatory to many treaties, including the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women, but none of these commitments are serving the needs of Afghan women and girls under the Taliban regime. International agreements on human rights often rely on naming and shaming wrongdoers. But the current situation in Afghanistan exposes the limits of that approach, as the Taliban themselves admit to widespread violations of women’s rights. They have no shame. Unless there are concrete punishments on them, such as banning their travel or excluding their leaders from regional and international platforms, naming them will do nothing.
Western officials have exercised poor judgment in picking their Taliban interlocutors.
Coming to grips with the international community’s limited commitment to human rights should not deter Afghan women’s rights activists from carrying on with their struggle. They must continue to demand the world’s attention, seek increased humanitarian aid, and push for a sense of urgency in responding to the economic crisis. And they should continue to call out foreign leaders and countries who normalize the Taliban’s oppression of women’s rights.
They must also remember, however, that this is only half the battle, and that little can be achieved without increasing regional and domestic pressure on the Taliban. Afghan women in the diaspora should align with and support the civil society in Afghanistan in that effort. Creating a broader domestic alliance in support of women’s rights will require creativity and patience. Afghan women should mobilize civil society in the region and in Islamic countries to more forcefully stand in support of Afghan women’s rights. This can be achieved by Afghan women leaders in the diaspora investing more time and resources in regional engagements and building strategic partnerships in the region. Women in the Afghan diaspora should act in solidarity with their sisters on the ground, amplifying their demands by providing platforms to activists in Afghanistan and facilitating their access to the networks and resources outside the country. The long-term strategic goal of the movement should be broader cultural and social change in support of women’s rights among Afghans, not just exerting external pressure on the Taliban.
The Taliban’s systematic oppression of women will have devastating implications for generations to come. To change the situation in Afghanistan, activists must go beyond knocking on the same doors and hearing only the same halfhearted statements of support. Meanwhile, if the international community continues its desultory approach to women’s rights in Afghanistan, it will lose its credibility on the issue across the globe.
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