The terrifying plight of women and girls left behind in Afghanistan

The terrifying plight of women and girls left behind in Afghanistan

If there’s one person who knows first hand the horrors of finding themselves on the wrong side of the Taliban regime, it’s Malala Yousafzai.

The young Pakistani’s campaign for the right of girls to receive an education was met with violent resistance from the Taliban. She survived being shot in the head by a member of the deadly regime on a bus ride home one afternoon, woke up ten days later in a hospital in the United Kingdom, and went on not only to obtain a degree from Oxford University, but was also the youngest person to receive the Nobel Peace Prize at 17 years of age. 

Malala is uniquely equipped to comment on current developments in Afghanistan. 

This week she expressed her shock and worry on social media:

“We watch in complete shock as Taliban takes control of Afghanistan. I am deeply worried about women, minorities and human rights advocates.”

Malala was fortunate to escape Pakistan and has benefited from the opportunities afforded to women by the United Kingdom including the freedom to work, be educated, and participate in political life. 

Many women and girls have not been so lucky, and have been unable to flee Afghanistan in the face of the United States’ withdrawal and the takeover by the Taliban.

The international community has begun to highlight the perilous plight of women and young girls left behind in Afghanistan, whose lives are in grave danger at the hands of the Taliban, who have indicated their intention to revert back to the regime as it was 20 years ago. 

When the Taliban was last in power in Afghanistan, from 1996 to 2001, it enforced a strict interpretation of Islamic law, including “banning women from studying or working, forbidding them from leaving home without a male guardian and requiring them to wear the all-enveloping burqa.”

Women were stoned to death for accusations of adultery and public executions were common.

The prospects for women and girls now in the country with the takeover of Taliban rule are terrifying:

In early July, Taliban leaders, who took control of the provinces of Badakhshan and Takhar, issued an order to local religious leaders to provide them with a list of girls over the age of 15 and widows under the age of 45 for ‘marriage’ with Taliban fighters. It's not yet known whether they've complied.

If these forced marriages take place, women and girls will be taken to Waziristan in Pakistan to be re-educated and converted to ‘authentic Islam’.

Furthermore, the Taliban have signalled their intention to deny girls education past the age of 12, to ban women from employment and reinstate the law requiring women to be accompanied by a guardian.

Female professionals are particularly concerned about the situation once the Taliban takes over:

Journalist Sodaba Herari [predicted that the US leaving would no doubt result in] ‘restrictions  [being] imposed’ on women, especially in the fields of work and education. 

“Women will be marginalised after this withdrawal, as they were excluded from all social discourses in the past," she said.

The story of Zarifa Ghafari, a 29-year-old Afghan woman, who at age 26 became one of Afghanistan’s first female mayors in Maidan Shar (a town south west of Kabul), is chilling.  Ghafari has met the news of the Taliban’s takeover with resignation, acutely aware of the futility of her situation:

“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.”

She is sad about the loss of 20 years of sacrifice and gains made which will be wiped out in a moment:

“For the gains that we had, that came with a big, big amount of sacrifice. We paid a price with our hard work, we got it with our blood. It was not only 20 years, it is not only women’s rights, it is not only human rights, it is not only education and progress. It is about the lives that have been sacrificed for the progress that has been made in these 20 years.”

What can be done about it? 

Malala calls for “global, regional and local powers [to] call for an immediate ceasefire, provide urgent humanitarian aid and protect refugees and civilians”.

Vrina Narain, Associate Professor in the Faculty of Law, Centre for Human Rights and Legal Pluralism at the Max Bell School of Public Policy, McGill University, has called for the lifting of sanctions against the Taliban to be conditional on their commitment to upholding women’s rights. She has suggested that the European Union, as well as the United States, who are currently the largest donors to Afghanistan, “must make aid conditional upon women’s rights and their access to education and employment.” The EU has made statements to this effect, declaring that they will only work with the Taliban if they respect women’s rights.

In the end, it comes down to the responsibility that the United States and its allies have to the Afghan civilians. As Australian refugee lawyer and human rights advocate Atika Hussain argues:

It is unethical and irresponsible for the United States and allies to withdraw from Afghanistan without ensuring protection of Afghan civilians — particularly minorities, who are the preferred and easy targets.

Nations that have been in Afghanistan for the past 20 years cannot leave without considering the implications — that they have a moral obligation to ensure protection of the most vulnerable.

Women’s rights had been severely repressed during the Taliban’s period of dominance. It had become taboo even to discuss the rights of women and girls. The last twenty years have seen progress in some areas, largely due to the activism of women’s organisations in Afghanistan. There was a sense that even though the difficulties facing women were deeply entrenched in Afghan society, it was possible to hope for change. The return of the Taliban will wipe out two decades of hard work on gender equality.”

But the brave women of Afghanistan are not backing down without a fight. 

Take for example, the Minister of Education Rangina Hamidi, who refused to leave the country and has vowed to remain in Kabul and to keep trying her best to give women access to education. 

“I might face consequences that I never dreamt of. I guess, that's the price we have to pay for trying to make this world a little better," Hamidi said as she hoped for her safety as the Taliban took control of the country on Sunday.

What is clear is that we have a responsibility to not abandon these brave women who have blazed a trail for their fellow women. We must provide whatever assistance we can as a nation and as an international community to ensure their safety as a matter of priority.