Speaking Out with Carrie N. Baker and Juliet Schulman-Hall: Crimes against Afghan women and girls

  • Internally displaced Afghan women from northern provinces, who fled their home due to fighting between the Taliban and Afghan security personnel, receive medical care in a public park in Kabul, Afghanistan, Tuesday, Aug. 10. AP

Published: 8/25/2021 8:21:40 PM

“Everybody’s really, really scared,” said Farzaneh, an Afghani woman now living in the U.S., who asked us not to use her real name out of fear for the safety of her family back home with whom she’s speaking daily. “None of my female cousins are going outside the house because they’re terrified of the Taliban. There’s a lot of talk about the Taliban forcing women into sexual slavery ... I’m a strong woman, and I believe in women’s rights ... But all it will take a Talib to silence me is one bullet. That’s it.”

When the Taliban took control of Afghanistan in the 1990s, they severely restricted the rights of women and girls, banning them from education and employment, requiring them to wear burqas, and prohibiting them from leaving their homes without a male escort.

When Allied forces removed the Taliban from power in 2002, education and employment opportunities for female Afghanis increased significantly. Over the last 20 years, millions of women and girls attended school and pursued a wide range of careers. Now, with the Taliban back in power, all of this progress is at risk.

“I fear for my Afghan sisters,” says Malala Yousafzai, the youngest-ever Nobel Peace Prize laureate and global activist for girls’ education. “When the Taliban took over my hometown in Pakistan’s Swat Valley in 2007 and shortly thereafter barred girls from getting an education, I hid my books under my long, hefty shawl and walked to school in fear. Five years later, when I was 15, the Taliban tried to kill me for speaking out about my right to go to school.”

The Taliban now claims they will respect women’s rights “within the limits of Islam,” but this is highly unlikely say experts. According to a 2020 Human Rights Watch report, very few Taliban officials are actually permitting girls to attend school past puberty and others do not permit girls’ schools at all. Since former president Donald Trump’s deal with the Taliban in February, the Taliban has shut down girls’ schools and blocked them from education in areas where they have taken control.

“Everybody is really disappointed in the U.S.,” said Farzaneh. “The U.S. government starting with the Trump administration set up the Afghan government for failure. People are shocked that the U.S. would allow something like this to happen.”

U.S.-based women’s rights advocates are calling on the Biden administration to act now to help Afghani women and girls. In an open letter sent last week, over 100 feminist leaders and advocates urged the administration not to agree to a deal that includes recognition and support of a Taliban regime, and they called for immediate action to save the lives of Afghan women’s rights and human rights leaders and advocates. Signatories of the letter include Ellie Smeal, Delores Huerta, Gloria Steinem, Cecile Richards, Russ Feingold, and others leaders and activists, who are also using their own resources to get Afghani women out.

Another open letter signed by nearly 500 prominent policy experts, activists and celebrities, including poet Amanda Gorman, urges the Biden administration to take four concrete actions to secure the rights and freedom of Afghan women and girls: 1) provide direct evacuation flights for women who are under imminent threat, 2) expand Special Immigrant Visas to include a category for at-risk women and raise the refugee cap, 3) allocate resources for livelihood assistance and resettlement, and 4) protect and invest in women who remain in Afghanistan. An organizer of the letter, NGO Vital Voices, has created an emergency fund at bit.ly/HelpAfghaniWomen to support women and girls in Afghanistan.

“As Afghanistan suffers, America has to take a long look at how we’ve perpetuated horror & how we can provide healing,” Gorman tweeted on Tuesday. “We must welcome refugees & at last become the country we say we are. Today is the day to take in the tired, the poor, the huddled masses yearning to breathe free.”

But Farzaneh has little hope much can be done. “Women have lost everything they have gained in the last 20 years. I don’t think by and large there is really anything that the Americans can do that’s going to actually make a significant or substantial impact on the lives of these Afghan women,” she told the Gazette. “The Biden administration has lost almost all of its leverage, but it could still influence the Taliban to a certain extent if the Taliban leadership chooses to care about international legitimacy or the economy. ”

While some on the left applaud the end of nation building in Afghanistan, Americans need to take responsibility for our role in enabling Taliban persecution and violence against women and girls and join governments and organizations around the world to protect their human rights.

Juliet Schulman-Hall is a senior at Smith College majoring in English language & literature, minoring in sociology, and concentrating in poetry. Carrie N. Baker is the Sylvia Dlugasch Bauman Chair of American Studies and a professor in the Program for the Study of Women and Gender at Smith College.


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