In a recent article and video documentary, Japanese newspaper Nikkei Asia explores all that has been lost for Afghan women and girls since the Taliban seized power a year ago.
The piece highlights Afghan women leaders including former Member of Parliament Shinkai Karokhail, Co-Founder of the Afghan Women’s Chamber of Commerce and Industry Manizha Wafeq, and Founder and Executive Director of LEARN Afghanistan Pashtana Durrani, and includes commentary from Mina’s List’s Founder and President Tanya Henderson. It reveals the devastation imposed on women by the Taliban regime – but also the determination of Afghan women to continue to fight for their rights.
When the Taliban captured Kabul on August 15, 2021, it immediately began threatening the thousands of Afghan women political leaders, human rights defenders, and women’s rights activists who had spent two decades advancing the cause of women’s rights in Afghanistan. The speed of the Taliban’s takeover was shocking, as former Afghan MP Shinkai Karokhail explained in her interview:
“We never thought that the government would totally collapse, or be given to the hand of the Taliban without any condition or guarantee of women’s rights.”
Mina’s List worked with a global consortium of NGOs and women’s rights groups to find evacuation routes for Afghan women most at risk. Recognizing that women political leaders in particular were “at the top of the Taliban’s hit list,” as Ms. Henderson said, Mina’s List worked specifically to help evacuate women MPs.
Thanks to these and other efforts, 61 out of 69 of Afghanistan’s former women MPs have now been evacuated and resettled in countries around the world. For the millions of women and girls who remain in Afghanistan, however, the situation has reached crisis levels.
Despite promising to protect women’s rights “within the framework of Sharia law,” the Taliban has imposed a system of gender apartheid across Afghanistan, including bans on girls attending secondary school and restrictions on women traveling without a male guardian. Such policies are unsurprising, journalist Andrew North told Nikkei, given the group’s fear of educated women and track-record of human rights abuses. “The Taliban sees educated women as a threat… because they will challenge the way that they operate.”
In most sectors, Afghan women have had their jobs taken away and been told to stay at home – reversing decades of progress, as co-founder of the Afghan Women’s Chamber of Commerce and Industry Manizha Wafeq explained:
“We had done some really major and fundamental work for improving Afghanistan’s businesswomen’s opportunities. We created over 130,000 jobs. Even when women were at home, ‘in the background,’ they were major economic producers. They would make products with all the women artisans in their village and sell them in the cities.”
Now, she said, Afghan women are struggling to run their informal businesses because they are not allowed to travel more than 72km without a male guardian and cannot be seen in public without an “acceptable” form of hijab. These rules have left many reticent to leave their homes for fear of retribution, Ms. Wafeq added:
“Street harassment has increased with the Taliban’s policy on hijab. We have a lot of stories of women who were stopped at various checkpoints, at various points in Kabul, telling women ‘you don’t have the correct covering, go home’ or ‘you have make-up on, go home and change.’ Of course, once these restrictions are in place, women themselves feel more fear than at any other time to go out.”
Despite all they have suffered over the past year, women like Ms. Wafeq and Pashtana Durrani, Founder and Executive Director of LEARN Afghanistan, are still working tirelessly to give Afghan women the opportunities, education, and dignity they deserve. Ms. Wafeq and her colleagues at the Women’s Chamber of Commerce and Industry set up an e-commerce platform allowing Afghan businesswomen to sell their goods and products online, while Ms. Durrani runs a “secret school” teaching Afghan girls biophysics, chemistry, mathematics, and digital skills. “This is a sort of resistance to the Taliban’s policies,” Ms Durrani said. “We’re not picking up arms or creating any bloodshed; we have enrolled over 400 girls in our schools. All the women who are working on this project are working illegally and could be put in jail or murdered. But we are here and we have to accept those challenges.”
Afghan women are also continuing to protest in the streets and mobilize resistance to the Taliban on social media, Ms. Henderson said. These women face detentions, arrests, and torture “every time they speak out,” she added, but have nevertheless stayed strong in the fight for their rights. “Afghan women are fighters,” Ms. Karokhail concurred. “They are strong enough to tolerate what’s going on, and one day will overcome all the challenges they are facing,” because ultimately, she added, “a government cannot run without women’s inclusion, without women’s support, or by violating women’s and girls’ fundamental rights.”
As international resources and attention shift to the crisis in Ukraine, it is vital that we do not forget all that is facing Afghan women. “What happens to Afghan women matters to women everywhere,” Ms. Henderson concluded. “We have continually failed Afghan women, but it is not too late. This doesn’t have to be the future. But if we stop paying attention, and think that it’s only ‘their problem’, then I am deeply fearful of what the future holds for Afghan women and girls.”
Watch the full Nikkei Asia piece here.