Nargis Nehan and Yalda Royan on Afghan Women Fighting for Their Rights

Recent Features

Interviews | Society | South Asia

Nargis Nehan and Yalda Royan on Afghan Women Fighting for Their Rights

“After the collapse of the state, everything changed for Afghan women.”

Nargis Nehan and Yalda Royan on Afghan Women Fighting for Their Rights

Afghan girls attend a class in an underground school, in Kabul, Afghanistan, Saturday, July 30, 2022.

Credit: AP Photo/Ebrahim Noroozi

When the Taliban seized Kabul in August 2021, everything changed for Afghanistan’s women. And yet, more than a year after the collapse of the Afghan Republic government, women in the country (and those who have been forced to flee it) continue to mobilize and fight for their rights. Catherine Putz, managing editor of The Diplomat, spoke to Nargis Nehan and Yalda Royan about the challenges facing Afghan women and what the international can do to support them. 

Nargis Nehan is a founding member of the Afghan Women’s Advocacy Group (AWAG) and a lead researcher for VOICE, an organization dedicated to eradicating gender-based violence and holding the humanitarian aid community accountable. Yalda Royan is the Afghanistan Technical Team Lead at VOICE. Earlier this month, VOICE released a new report — “Taking Myself out of the Darkness: Afghan Women Human Rights Defenders’ Fight for Recognition” — which documents the lives and activism of Afghanistan’s women’s human rights defenders.

How is life under the Taliban different for Afghan women than in the previous era, under the Republic government? What challenges are similar, and what’s most different? 

Yalda: Life has changed significantly for women who led the country’s security a year ago, who were at the top ranks of governance and decision-making, who reported through media, who were defense lawyers, and those who sat in the court as judges. It also changed for girls over grade 6 and civil society activists. While women in Afghanistan have always fought against cultural barriers, lack of resources, and being undermined, they still had the choice to decide, act, and do things. Now they don’t have any freedom, from mobility to access to opportunities to the right to live a human life. They are now either hiding or struggling to feed their families.  

Local media report increases in cases of suicide and murder of women. I hear from local sources about the disappearances of women, as well. Child and forced marriages have increased dramatically, too.  

Nargis: Life has totally changed for Afghan women under Taliban rule. During the Republic, we had an elected government, constitutional order, and a government that was highly corrupt and inefficient but still responsible for the citizens’ wellbeing. Besides the constitution, most of our legislation had affirmative actions supporting women. For example, having specific quota seats for women in parliament and provincial councils, requiring at least 30 percent of civil servants to be women, and many more. We had institutions such as the Ministry of Women’s Affairs, the Human Right Commission, and the Elimination of Violence Against Women Directorate of the Attorney General with a clear mandate for supporting women. Women actively participated in all societal affairs through civil society, media, and the private sector besides politics and governance.  

After the collapse of the state, everything changed for Afghan women. Most women leaders and activists are evacuated to different countries living in exile. Those inside Afghanistan are living under a lot of pressure. Even when they protest for their rights, they are abducted, detained, and tortured. I cannot see anything to be the same for Afghan women as they were before 15th of August [2021].

Why is the issue of schooling — the ability of Afghan girls and women to attend school beyond primary education — critical to the future of the country? 

Yalda: School is not only about reading and writing; it is about socializing, confidence building, and learning many other means of coping with challenges in life. It is about contributing to the country’s development and growing a generation of better human beings. An uneducated mother, at best, could bring up a child who can read and write but can’t help with the ideology and mindset. As long as people in Afghanistan are not fully educated, there will never be peace and democracy. Any extremist group could misuse and brainwash them. So, it is important for women to get an education to help themselves and generations beyond.  

Nargis: Afghanistan is a poor country, with more than 80 percent of its population living in poverty. Furthermore, Afghan society is highly male-dominated and masculine, where women are seen as commodities owned by men who can decide everything for them. They decide what women should wear, where they can go, whether they should have any relationship with their families after marriage, whether they can obtain their inheritance, etc. The only way that women could be empowered and become independent is through education. The current protests of women demanding their rights demonstrate the leadership, courage, and resilience education can provide to women.

In what ways are Afghan women fighting back against the Taliban’s oppressive policies? 

Yalda: Afghan women are not only fighting against the Taliban. They have to fight against men in their families, U.N. agencies that ignore women, the United States and other countries that facilitated the takeover of the Taliban and continue to engage and support the Taliban. This fight needs a lot of energy and resources, which Afghan women lack. 

Yet, women have taken to the streets inside Afghanistan and raised their voices. They have conducted protests in closed areas and have written against injustice through social media and other platforms. Women leaders in exile have met with policymakers and influential, high-level platforms such as the U.N. to speak about the realities happening inside Afghanistan.  

Nargis: Women have mostly adopted two approaches to fighting against the Taliban’s oppressive policies. One approach is that they take a high risk and keep protesting. Recently, girls in the far province of Badakhshan protested when they were not allowed to enter the university. The second approach is that some women groups try to resume their activities in the private sector, media, and civil society. With the support of some male actors in these sectors, they get approval for their activities. 

However, many of them face challenges and end up stopping their work. The women are using social media very smartly to disseminate information and raise awareness about the situation of women in Afghanistan. Furthermore, the women in exile have also formed different groups and platforms continuously advocating for Afghanistan and Afghan women to different governments, parliament, and the U.N.

In those efforts — for example, protests — are Afghan men engaged too? What can Afghan men do to better support Afghan women in the quest for greater equality? 

Yalda: Unfortunately, no, men have left women alone in this fight. One of the reasons Afghan women are silenced is because they are alone. The Taliban have silenced them, and if there is a voice, the world does not tend to listen to them. Afghan men should stand beside women and support their fight because women’s call for “Food, Work, Freedom” is for themselves and the whole country. Men should feel more responsible because what the Taliban are doing does not harm women alone. It is affecting the entire country.

Nargis: The main reason men are not supporting women’s protests is security, as the restrictions and pressure on men are also high. Secondly, men do not see women’s rights as their responsibility, but there is a significant community of men who support women. Like women, they also use social media very actively to support women. The space for civic movements and activities has shrunk, especially for protesting against the current regime. 

It is important that men continue supporting women by writing more on social media, hosting dialogues, and providing more platforms for women to speak and raise their voices. Afghan women are also trolled mercilessly on social media by some men. At least those men who believe in women’s rights can take a stand supporting Afghan women on social media. 

What is the international community doing to support Afghan women, and what can it do better? 

Yalda: I have no hope that the international community will consider Afghanistan a priority anymore since they have so far only issued statements that have never been taken into account by the Taliban. They can still support women by extending the travel ban, not engaging with the Taliban unless they respect women’s rights, and putting sanctions on the Taliban. 

It is not only the Taliban that’s harming women in Afghanistan: the international community plays a significant role too, by leaving women alone, engaging with the Taliban without any preconditions, and decreasing funds for the fight against violence and women, peace, and security agenda.  

Nargis: Besides closing their offices and embassies, the international community also terminated all their projects related to women’s peace and security. Within a few months after the collapse of the state, more than 80 percent of civil society organizations and media outlets run by women were closed due to a lack of funding. While the Taliban were traveling freely in chartered planes to attend different meetings and conferences, women were still stuck with their documents in different countries, missing most of them due to visa restrictions. Furthermore, in most of the international conferences and events, they invited those working closely with the Taliban.  

The international community is not providing the kind of platform and support it should for Afghan women. The best example is girl protesters who took so many risks protesting for their rights, but none of them got any recognition or award. Women leaders and politicians have written letters and called urgent meetings in support of our sisters in Iran, which is great, and we really appreciate that, but the question is why they are not taking such initiatives in support of Afghan women. The lack of attention and support for Afghan women clearly demonstrates the West’s weaponization of women’s rights for political purposes.