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Monday, August 15, 2022

Hear the voices of the women of Afghanistan

Amid the violence in Afghanistan, the fate of women in what is already a de facto Islamic Emirate has received inadequate attention. To be sure, there are the usual platitudes about how the rights of Afghan women should be at centre of negotiations with the new rulers. But, so far, the Taliban has been opaque about its intentions.

I spoke to Mahbouba Siraj, president of the board of the Afghan Women’s Network and human rights activist who lives in Kabul. She said she doubted whether the Taliban would keep its word about “allowing women to be educated and work”. The group has spoken of how women’s rights will be governed by the Sharia, rather its version of the Sharia. Siraj was also not sure how much control the Taliban would have, given the violence emanating from “even more fundamentalist” outfits. “I worked with my countrywomen for the last 20 years as we slowly reclaimed our lives from the first Taliban rule. Make no mistake, it was the brave women of Afghanistan who worked with matchless courage all these years for our rights. Yes, we heard a lot of talk about human rights for women from world leaders but it was just that, talk.”

The Taliban says it wants to engage with the world. Many feel that this indicates the group may be more amenable to pressure than in its first stint in power, on the issue of women’s rights, among other things. But that remains to be seen.

“Everything the Taliban says today regarding women is questionable. Its idea of personal freedoms is at variance with that of most Afghan women,” says Samira Hamidi, Afghan country campaigner for Amnesty, South Asia. “Over the last 20 years, many women went abroad for studies and professional courses and came back to build a better Afghanistan. I am one of those women. They have expertise and had taken their rightful place in many systems across the political and social spectrum. Now all that is gone,” she says.

Many women’s groups believe that the United Nations and other human rights organisations can push much harder on the issue. Some suggest setting up an international force, somewhat akin to a peacekeeping mission, to attempt to safeguard women’s rights in Afghanistan. It may not work, but there has to be a concerted effort instead of a wait-and-watch approach when women stand to lose all their hard-won gains. World leaders must speak up, wishy-washy statements will not do.

Anita Anand, former director of Women’s Feature Service, who has been deeply involved in civil society movements in Afghanistan from 2004, says it is important to focus on the contribution of women to Afghanistan’s development over the past 20 years. “Nothing in the Quran says that women’s work or education is unIslamic. On the contrary, the Koran enjoins everyone to work for the good of society; and Afghan women have done this, side by side with men,” she says.

Many like Siraj, who have chosen to stay back, have displayed indomitable courage in a terrifying situation. “I don’t feel totally safe, but I don’t feel unsafe either at the moment. I will not leave my country, I have as much right to be here as the Taliban. I want to see it through, even if I don’t know whether I will live to do so.”

The world owes it to the thousands of women who have chosen to stay in Afghanistan, and those who have no choice but to stay, to use all the leverage it can to ensure that Afghan women don’t become just a footnote in the violent politics of the strife-torn country.


The views expressed are personal

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