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Afghan women’s rights under threat – here’s how to help them


Photograph by Getty Images

Here’s what the Taliban takeover could mean for women’s rights in the country – and how you can help.

When the Taliban first took control of Afghanistan in 1996, Murwarid Ziayee was a student at Kabul University. A law and political science student, she took her studies seriously and was always the first to arrive in class. One morning, towards the end of her senior year, she woke up to learn that the militant Islamist group had taken to the streets of Kabul, the country’s capital. The Taliban did not allow anyone to leave their homes or go to school, and she remembers feeling disbelief. She decided to go out anyway because a classmate had borrowed her notebook and she needed it to study. “[I was] fully covered: all hijab from head to toe in black. I also covered my eyes, ”Ziayee said, adding that she didn’t know much about the Taliban or how they treated women.

Shortly after leaving her home, Ziayee was arrested and questioned by two men, who she later realized were members of the Taliban. They asked her why she was not wearing a burka (a traditional veil of modesty that covers her head and goes down to her ankles), why she was not accompanied by a male relative and what she was doing in walking down the street. Then they got violent. “They whipped my back twice and I ran,” she recalls. “I saw a cab driver pull over for me, I just got in the cab and I was crying all the time. The taxi driver said, ‘I saw these men whip you and I felt so bad. I’m sorry I couldn’t do anything for you, but I can take you home. ‘ She cried for days after that.

The Taliban retained power in the country for the next five years, which meant that Ziayee and women across Afghanistan were denied education, employment, and the right to leave their homes without a male guardian. She spent those years working for a Pakistan-based NGO, traveling across the country with her father to secretly provide humanitarian aid to Afghan women. After the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001, the United States invaded Afghanistan and ousted the Taliban from power. Once the Taliban was displaced, Afghanistan experienced what Ziayee describes as a revolution. In the following years, women worked, studied and were active in society because they were enthusiastic about rebuilding a new country. Things were changing for women in Afghanistan. “We were heading towards a truly progressive life,” she says. “Until last week.”

On August 15, the Taliban regained control of Kabul, consolidating their rule over the country for the first time in nearly two decades. The group had regained control of Afghan towns since May 2021 when US forces began to withdraw from the country. As Taliban militants moved closer to Kabul, the country’s president, Ashraf Ghani, fled. Without military resistance, the Taliban were able to quickly seize the country. In their march to the capital, militants destroyed medical facilities, killed civilians and displaced thousands of people Afghans. They too fired women home from work, telling them not to come back.

The occupation of Kabul by the Taliban marks the end of the United States’ longest war, which began when the country invaded Afghanistan after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. But the United States had been implicated in Afghanistan since before that date. In 1979, Afghanistan was invaded by the now dissolved Soviet Union, which wanted to support the country’s Communist government during the Cold War. After the Soviet invasion, the anti-Communist sentiments of the population led to the formation of Afghan rebel groups, called mujahedin, which were supported by the United States Once the Soviets withdrew from Afghanistan, a civil war ensued between the Mujahedin groups. The support and arming of US rebel groups during this war between the Afghan government and Afghan rebels created fertile ground for what has become the Taliban. Zaiyee says that during the US presence in Afghanistan from 2001 to today, not only have US forces failed to stop the Taliban, they have seen the formation of new terrorist groups in the country. Currently there are more 20 terrorist groups active in Afghanistan, including Al-Qaeda, who are suspected of being allied with the Taliban. The country ranked first on the global terrorism index in 2020.

Zaiyee moved from Afghanistan to Canada in 2018 and currently works as Senior Director of Canadian women for women in Afghanistan (CW4WAfghan), a non-profit organization that implements different educational projects, such as teacher training and literacy studies, for women in Afghanistan. After years of defending the rights of Afghan women, seeing the Taliban come to power seems like a nightmare, Zaiyee says. “Women are back to living an inner life [and] an uncertain future. Not only are our rights in danger this time, but our lives are too, ”she said. “We were so proud of the progress we have made and the achievements we have achieved, not [only] in our lives, but also for the whole country [and] for the new generation. And to see that it has been taken from us or that it will be taken from us is the most painful moment of my life.

When the Taliban held power from 1996-2001, they made a name for themselves for their violent government tactics. Women have been deprived of their most basic rights and communication flows to the outside world, such as television, music, video and internet use, were banned. The Taliban are now putting forward a narrative that they have evolved: claiming to be interested in forming an inclusive government, leading a peaceful transition of power and considering women’s rights. Recent reports have already pointed to another reality, however, with stories surfacing of young girls who are being forced to marry members of the Taliban – which to The Taliban denied.

But Ziayee heard these same stories firsthand. After speaking to CW4WAfghan contacts in Afghanistan, she says women feel a common sense of unhappiness. “We are concerned for their safety and their lives, so we have been in contact with them. And as soon as the Taliban arrived in their area, they were so worried that they were asked to hand over their daughters aged 15 and over, ”she said. Many women have abandoned their homes and settled in Kabul, in an effort to protect their daughters from sexual slavery, she explains. “This is the reality, these are the real stories we hear from our own relationships [to] the communities.

As for the recent Taliban promises to respect women’s rights, the outlook is bleak. “I wish I could trust them and believe them, but what they did in 1996 and 2001 is completely contrary to what they are saying now,” Ziayee says. The Taliban have said they support women’s rights under Sharia law, which is the legal system of Islam. But this law is to be interpreted, explains Ziayee.

“Sharia law doesn’t say what the Taliban say. Sharia law encourages everyone, especially women, to be independent and to study. There is no limitation on education and work. Their interpretation of Islam is totally different, and it is not acceptable to the majority of Afghans and Muslims, ”she said.

Afghan women are currently the most at risk. Since the last time the Taliban left power, women in Afghanistan have strengthened their power: the number of Afghan women in parliament has increased (with record numbers women candidates for parliament), millions of girls have started attending school and women have returned to work. But these advances put women in danger of being punished with the Taliban’s return to power, Ziayee warns. Anonymous reports showed that since taking power, the Taliban have started raiding homes and interrogating / targeting women’s rights activists and women in senior positions, such as teachers and journalists. “It’s not just about women – it’s about everyone [whose] lives are in danger [because] that they can’t send their daughters to school or college, ”Ziayee says. “The whole future of children is in danger. They will be an illiterate and uneducated population and will soon have to marry and contract forced marriages. “

The situation is dire, but Canada can help. Ziayee says the Canadian government should use its power to pressure the Taliban to form an inclusive government that is representative of women and other minority groups. It is also essential that Canada help implement immediate measures to resettle Afghans who have worked with Canadian organizations and are trying to find refuge, she said. As individuals, it is very important to stay informed and involved in what is going on, including posting important information on social media, in order to hold the Taliban accountable. If possible, donate to organizations who support journalists, women and civilians in Afghanistan.

“We thought we were in the middle of our fight before the Taliban [took power] – we still had problems, even if we [were] is making progress – but now I would say we have to start from scratch. We have to fight for those inside the country who will have no voice now, and we have to be their voices. We want our Canadian sisters to stand by our side and make their voices heard, ”says Ziayee. She stresses that we cannot let Afghan women disappear from public view or be forgotten during this crisis. “[Don’t] let the Taliban push them back for years behind the walls and take their lives away. Do not forget them.

Where to donate

Many organizations are working to help those who have been directly affected in Afghanistan. Here are a few you can donate to:

Support for international media

Women for Women International

Islamic Relief Canada

The International Committee of the Red Cross

Women For Afghan Women


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