‘I fought so hard for women’s rights’
‘I fought so hard for women’s rights’
Ritu Mahendru speaks to Afghan women. They are protesting against the Taliban, including on the streets.
Afghan women protest in Kabul, after the Taliban took over the country.
After the Taliban took over Afghanistan, they soon took away women’s and girls’ basic rights. The US and the international community now recognise the Taliban as a legitimate government after the US and its allies left Afghanistan, as a result of the so-called peace process.
Afghans lost their rights to democracy and now have a government they did not vote for. Women have now no right to an independent future. Secondary schools are open again, but only for boys. Teachers are not allowed to go to work, the Ministry of Women’s Affairs no longer exists, and UNICEF says that 2 million children are at risk of starvation. Afghans lived under the Taliban regime from 1996 to 2011. They feared the same situation returning and warned Joe Biden’s US administration and its international allies about it. But no one listened. Only 30 per cent of women can read in Afghanistan, but the right to education brought hope for a better future and changed the social status of many. For many women, the situation now feels like a betrayal and some have taken to the streets in protest, including 25-year-old Sorya Karimi.
Karimi first held a one-person protest in August 2021. She stood outside a police station in Kabul. She shared photos on social media and more women said they wanted to join her and they formed a protest group. The next protest had around 10 people; the following one, on 8 September 2021, had 80 women.
‘I had no plan to organise a protest,’ Karimi said. ‘I spoke to my friends and I decided I didn’t want to stay silent about losing women’s rights. I made a banner and stood with it outside the police station. At first, I was all alone, but suddenly I saw many women join me.
‘When the Taliban are in control of the country, protesting means being ready to die at any moment and to never return back home. We have accepted losing our lives through fighting and taking back what is ours. ‘We are not the people we used to be. We don’t have an identity. We can’t choose how to dress. We can’t speak up like before. I fought so hard for my rights but today I can’t even walk on the street. I have to cover my face. I can’t go to work. I can’t study anymore. I had to fight back.’
With the September protest came violence. Karimi says, ‘There were many national journalists who wrote about the protests. We saw the Taliban tried to arrest the male journalists. We – the young women protesters - made a circle and tried to resist their arrests, but we couldn't. The Taliban is not allowed to touch us because we are women, so they whipped us and injured many of us. We soon left the place. We were not armed but they stopped us from asking for what we wanted.’ As a result of the protest Karimi is now hiding, she is fearing for her life. ‘The representative of my local Guzar Assembly told me that the Taliban visited him with a picture of me from the protests and they asked him if I lived in the area.’
‘The Taliban has said the protests are illegal and they will arrest protesters. That is why for the moment we decided to stop but we are not going to be silent. We have our plans for the future. We continue our protests through writing and speaking with people.’
There have been many attacks against Afghan girls and women but for a long time they have worked for democracy and freedom. Afghan women negotiated anti-violence legislations such as the Elimination of Violence Against Women (EVAW) law, United Nations Security Council Resolution 1325. They saved lives by working as doctors and nurses, and ran the economy by working in farms and factories.
In the last two years, there have been deadly attacks in Afghanistan’s capital city. In May 2020, gunmen at a maternity ward killed 24 people – including 16 mothers. In November 2020, they killed at least 22 people at Kabul University. On 8 May 2021 they bombed an all-girls school in western Kabul and at least 90 people died. There have been hundreds of people injured in these attacks and Afghans are traumatized.
Now many reports say that, after the Taliban takeover, Afghanistan is near to a famine. The situation is going to get worse with an economic crisis. Half of the population of Afghanistan need humanitarian help.
Stopping women from working will have a terrible effect on their families, as Karimi says, ‘After many years of war we lost male members of the family and now many families have female heads. How are they going to feed their family? We have to work and earn money to feed our families.’
I asked about the future and Karimi said, ‘When we protest for women to be part of the government, we do not mean that the Taliban should bring in women covered with black niqabs supporting the Taliban – we don’t want this to happen. We want women we feel can represent us and our values.’
Recently, a group of about 300 Afghan women wearing black niqabs and burqas (full covering from head to toe) supported the new Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan (the Taliban) and its policies on gender segregation. Most other Afghan women criticised them because they felt this action did not represent the views of the majority. Samira Hamidi is an Amnesty International campaigner from Afghanistan and she now lives in Sri Lanka. She said, ‘The Taliban need to recognise that women are half of the population. They have been important. They need to stop accusing women of being the puppets of the West. When women were took action politically, it was because they wanted to.’
The idea that the new Taliban is better than the old one is wrong. And there is no reason to hope that the Taliban will change their policies and promote women’s rights, especially when women have been their main targets. It is likely that baadal (child and exchange marriage) and baad (giving away girls to settle disputes) will continue under Sharia Law.
While Karimi is hiding, many girls and women are continuing to take to the streets to protest against fundamentalism and extremism.
‘Afghan women are not the same as they were in 1990,’ says Hamidi. ‘Afghanistan was a broken country when the Taliban took over. Now, women have education. They know more about their rights. You need a lot of courage to stand in front of a group who can shoot you. Women are saying enough is enough.
‘Under this regime I see only darkness, fear, and terrible violence for women. I hope for better and that is why we are still standing and trying. I don’t know why the international community is silent. Do they want to walk on our dead bodies?’
The progress made by Afghan women in the past twenty years will only continue if the international community takes action on fundamentalism and helps to introduce democracy in Afghanistan. We must make sure that we do not recognise the Taliban as a legitimate government.
‘Afghan women are not receiving very much support,’ says Hamidi.
‘I am so tired and shocked. I ask myself, was it worth it? Was the 20 years old fight worth it? We have been asking for 10 years for help to stop what is happening now. We wanted peace for everyone.
‘The groups who give money to support us should say that they will only continue with support if there are rights for Afghan women such as women taking part in decision making roles.’ It is clear from that the Taliban hasn’t changed. But Afghan women have changed and it seems they will continue to fight for the progress they have made.
The women in this article said they want their names published.
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(This article is in easier English so it is possible that we changed the words, the text structure, and the quotes.)