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Lived With Their Violence, Won’t Live Without Our Rights: Afghan Women On The Taliban

“We have lived with their violence, but we won’t live without rights,” said Hadia Ibrahimkhel, a 20-year-old college student, majoring in Management Information Systems (MIS) and Economics at Kabul University. Hours before speaking with us, Ibrahimkhel said that she had heard from her friend in Badakhshan, around 400 kilometers to the north of Kabul, about… Continue reading Lived With Their Violence, Won’t Live Without Our Rights: Afghan Women On The Taliban

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An internally displaced Afghan girl, who fled her home due to fighting between the Taliban and Afghan security personnel, peers from her makeshift tent at a camp on the outskirts of Mazar-e-Sharif, northern Afghanistan, Thursday, July 8, 2021. AP/PTI Photo

“We have lived with their violence, but we won’t live without rights,” said Hadia Ibrahimkhel, a 20-year-old college student, majoring in Management Information Systems (MIS) and Economics at Kabul University.

Hours before speaking with us, Ibrahimkhel said that she had heard from her friend in Badakhshan, around 400 kilometers to the north of Kabul, about a new Taliban decree in the northern province, asking for the names of unmarried women and widows whom they would marry to their fighters. 

“I was in an okay frame of mind until I heard that. Now, I’m not. How can they think about taking women from families? It is inhuman. It is too horrifying to even imagine. We are living each day like it is our last.”

As the United States withdraws the last of its troops from Afghanistan, large swathes of the war-torn country are falling to the Taliban, a quarter of a century after they had imposed their barbaric rule in the name of Islam. In the areas where the Taliban has wrested control from the Afghan security forces, there are reports that their barbaric rules are back. Women have been told to cover from head to toe and to not step out without a male relative. Men have reportedly been told not to shave their beards and pray five times a day. 

Ibrahimkhel’s father was a retired colonel who died of esophageal  cancer in December 2020. Her brothers, employees of the US government in Afghanistan, had migrated to America for safety. So, if Kabul was to fall, and the Taliban were to once again prohibit women from stepping out of the house without a male relative, Ibrahimkhel said that she had no one to step out with, and even if she did, she would never follow the decree. 

“It is terrifying but we have to be fearless. If people like us leave Afghanistan, we will undo everything that Afghan women have worked so hard to achieve in the past 20 years,” said Ibrahimkhel. “We have to think about all Afghan women. We must go forward, not back in time.”

We spoke with three Afghan women in their early twenties — Ibrahimkhel, the college student, Zala Zazai, a police officer, and Shahrzad Koofi, an entrepreneur —  about how their lives would change if the Taliban were to defeat the Afghan security force and regain control of the country. They told us that they do not want to leave Afghanistan, and it is heartbreaking for them to contemplate a future where they would have to flee to save their lives and the lives of their loved ones. 

If people like us leave Afghanistan, we will undo everything that Afghan women have worked so hard to achieve in the past 20 years. 

All three women were infants when a United States-led coalition invaded Afghanistan, one month after Al Qaeda attacked the World Trade Centre in New York City on September 9, 2001. They have no memories of life under the Taliban who had hosted the then Al Qaeda chief Osama Bin Laden. But they have heard stories of the infamous public executions in the Ghazi football stadium in Kabul, the public lashing of women, the ban on women getting an education and working outside their homes, and the ban on music and television. And they have lived through the violence unleashed by the Taliban these past 20 years.

In April, US President Joe Biden announced a complete withdrawal of security forces by 11 September 2021, even as human rights activists warned of tragic consequences if the Taliban were to regain control of the country or enter a power sharing agreement with the one led by President Ashraf Ghani. The fact that the US government has been negotiating for peace with the Taliban since 2018 is seen by many as legitimising their role in the future of the country. 

More than 37 million people live in Afghanistan, almost 50% are women. Human rights activists have asked the US State Department to provide 2,000 visas for vulnerable Afghan women. 

There are those who argue that the Taliban in 2021 are different from the men who used religion and violence to keep women illiterate and drive them into poverty.

In an interview published in Ms. (magazine) on 24 June, Fatima Gailani a Board Member of the Afghan Red Crescent Society, and one of four women members in the Afghan government delegation negotiating for peace with the Taliban in Qatar — said, “They deal with us, they converse with us, they argue with us the same way they do with our male colleagues. So this is very important. They see that women are the reality of a future Afghanistan.”

In the same interview, Fawzia Koofi — a two-time parliamentarian in the Afghan National Assembly and a negotiator —  said, “Twenty long years later, even the Taliban are on Zoom calls like we are. You sit with them now. You face them. You talk to them. Do they want what other people in Afghanistan want, what you want—a prosperous country?”

However, Fawzia Koofi warned of a regression in the civil and political rights that Afghan women had secured in the past 20 years. “In fighting with a military extremist group, like Taliban or others, they are more powerful in terms of using guns and using women, terrorising women, targeted killing as a tool of war. So if there is a negotiated settlement, yes, there are fears that we will lose some of those gains, but I think we will never go back because the society has really transformed,” she said

Human rights activists are worried. There have been instances of public flogging of women in the past 20 years in Afghanistan, one just three months ago. In the past few weeks, there are reports of the Taliban imposing their old strictures against women in the provinces where they have gained control. 

“Afghan women and girls are facing a terrifying future as Taliban control spreads across the country and it becomes increasingly clear from their actions just how unchanged their views on women are since 2001,” said Heather Brar, Associate Director of the Women’s Right Division at Human Rights Watch (HRW). 

“In Doha, Taliban representatives attempted to reassure the international community that they had evolved and would respect women’s rights, but we are seeing a very different picture now, and of course actions speak louder than words,” Brar said. 

“Afghan women and girls are facing a terrifying future as Taliban control spreads across the country…

Shahrzad Koofi, the 23-year-old daughter of Fawzia Koofi, told us that they were two kinds of Taliban “the civil Taliban” who came to the talks and “the real Taliban” who were asking for the names of single women and widows in her hometown of Badakhshan. 

In August 2020, before the start of the negotiations between the Afghan government and the Taliban in Qatar, Fawzia Koofi was shot at by gunmen. The Taliban said it wasn’t them, but the family isn’t convinced.

“They stone, whip, and kill women,” Koofi, the daughter, said. “I’ve never been told what to do, and the idea that some random man with a beard and turban will tell me what to do is something that I cannot accept. No one should be telling women what to do.”

The idea that some random man with a beard and turban will tell me what to do is something that I cannot accept.

HRW’s Brar said that the Taliban’s control in the north was contributing “to the sense of insecurity and the feeling that nowhere and no one is safe.”

“In the last 20 years, a new generation of Afghan women and girls have grown up, enjoying freedom to study and work and pursue their dreams,” she said. “They will have heard about the Taliban time from their mothers and grandmothers and seen it as a dark shadow on their country’s past. How horrifying now for them to be forced to consider that this may be their near future.”

The three young Afghan women that we spoke with said that the Taliban wouldn’t exist if the people of Afghanistan did not let them. 

Zala Zazai, a 23-year-old police officer, told us that she had to leave Afghanistan for Tajikistan after her first assignment in Khost province ended with threats from the Taliban. But it wasn’t just the Taliban, said Zazai. Even the men in the Pashtun-dominated province could not stand a woman wielding any kind of authority.

Zazai, who wanted to be a police officer ever since she was a child, said, “These men were so angry. They could not tolerate a woman police officer. There were so many threats. I had to flee to save my life.”

Even her own families members opposed her joining the police force. Her relatives in Dushanbe won’t let her stay with them, said Zazai.

“Now, I’m here in Tajikistan, worried about my mother and sister who are in Kabul, while they are worried about me being alone in Tajikistan. I want to get back to them. We have to find a way to be together in Afghanistan,” she said. 

We have to find a way to be together in Afghanistan.

Hadia Ibrahim Khel

Afghanistan is battling the Taliban and the Covid-19 pandemic. 

Even as the country is wracked with violence, Ibrahimkhel said that Kabul is a strange mix of its bustling self, complete with overcrowded markets and traffic jams, and an eerie silence in parts where people are following the pandemic induced lockdown.  

Many people are trying to leave the country. Some are torn about the decision. Those without the means to do so are bracing themselves for a massive upheaval. While imagining the worst and hoping for the best, Kabul residents continue living their lives —  working, attending weddings, getting vaccinated and preparing for Eid. 

At a recent meeting of the Book Club that she hosts, Ibrahimkhel said that people sounded pessimistic about the future, and were devastated at the thought of being uprooted from the lives they had built despite the endless waves of violence. 

Ibrahimkhel has seen that violence up close. In November 2020, she was there when her classmate was shot in the savage attack on Kabul University that claimed the lives of dozens of students. (Islamic State claimed responsibility). 

But living with violence was different from living without rights, and Ibrahimkhel said that she had never imagined losing the freedom that was innate to the way that she lived her life.

After finishing college in Kabul, Ibrahimkhel said that she plans to go to Austria where she has been accepted in a Master’s program to study Management Information Systems (MIS). She intends to return to Kabul University, where she said that the MIS Department was closing due to lack of expertise and professionals. 

“I want to get back and become a lecturer and start the MIS Department again,” said Ibrahimkhel. 

“I want to represent the Afghan women that faced challenges but never gave up. The worse they behave with Afghan women, the more they want to chain us, the more fearless we become,” she said. 

I want to get back and become a lecturer and start the MIS Department again.

Ibrahimkhel is determined to stay, but with her father deceased and brothers having to flee to America, the 20-year-old says that she cannot wind up dead or incapacitated because there is no one else to take care of her mother and sister.

“I know how important my life is because I have to take care of my family. I have this feeling for my family that I have to be there for them, taking care of them, supporting them, financing them. My mother counts on me. She says, ‘You are the hero of my life.’”

I know how important my life is because I have to take care of my family.

Zala Zazai 

For Zala Zazai, the police officer who was forced to flee to Tajikistan, the Taliban has been an oppressive force for a long time. When she was 19-years-old, her father, a conservative man who had railed against Zazai and her sister getting an education, insisted that they marry two Taliban men that he chose for them. 

All her life, Zazai said that it was her mother who had fought with their father and ensured they complete their education. When he insisted on them marrying the Taliban men, Zazai said that her mother divorced him. 

“My mother is the big hero of my life. Everything I am today is because of her,” she said. 

Zazai’s sister also became a police officer, but she decided to leave after Zazai started getting death threats. 

Among the many stories that she has heard about the Taliban, the one that has haunted her is of the public executions in the Ghazi football stadium in Kabul. If the Taliban reach Kabul, Zazai believes that she will meet a similar fate. 

“They will kill me. They will kill women police officers,” she said. “The mind of the Taliban has not changed. They do not want women to go to schools and colleges, they don’t want them in public life. They only want them to stay at home and raise children. Every Afghan woman wants to fight them.” 

Zazai wants nothing more than to put on her dark green uniform and return to her job as a police officer in Afghanistan. 

“I want to go back and work for my country. I do not want to live in another country,” she said. “I’m a police officer. My dream is to work for Afghan women. It is my duty. It is my life.”

I’m a police officer. My dream is to work for Afghan women.

Shahrzad Koofi 

For Shahrzad Koofi, the Taliban is not Afghanistan. The 23-year-old says that the soul of Afghanistan is people like her mother, Fawzia Koofi, who has stared down a lifetime of adversity, eventually becoming the first woman Deputy Speaker in Parliament. She was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize in 2020.  

“My mother has worked all her life to build this country. Why would we leave it?” said Koofi. “We don’t want to live like immigrants.”

Growing up with a living example of courage and resilience had made her unafraid, said Koofi. 

While the Taliban may not have been in power for the past 20 years, Koofi said that Afghan women were pitted against a deeply patriarchal society every day. 

“I cannot drive here without getting catcalled or harassed. That doesn’t stop me from doing it,” she said. “I’m someone who loves going out for coffee, finding new coffee shops, meeting people, exchanging ideas. No one will tell me that I can’t do that.” 

Even if she could leave, Koofi said, “What about the women who cannot people who don’t have the money, resources or passports. Even in my own family, there are relatives who cannot leave.” 

Koofi, who went to college in the U.S., majoring in Economics and Business Administration at Montclair University in New Jersey, said that her plan was to start a clothing line capturing Afghan traditions, and built by an all-women workforce.

“I want to empower women economically so that they can make their own decisions in life,” she said. “We have to build on everything that women have achieved in the past 20 years. Things should go forward not backward.”

I want to empower women economically so that they can make their own decisions in life. 

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