The Pulse

In Afghanistan, Women Give Up Freedom to Stay Alive

Recent Features

The Pulse | Society | South Asia

In Afghanistan, Women Give Up Freedom to Stay Alive

Far from seeing their rights as bargaining chips for aid, Afghan women live in a reality where the mounting restrictions also affect their ability to survive.

In Afghanistan, Women Give Up Freedom to Stay Alive

An Afghan woman leaves an underground school in Kabul, Afghanistan, Saturday, July 30, 2022.

Credit: AP Photo/Ebrahim Noroozi, File

The day after Christmas, the acting head of the United Nations mission to Afghanistan tried to persuade the Taliban’s leaders to remove their latest restriction on Afghan women: the ban on women’s ability to work for an NGO. Progress in talks to date has been almost non-existent. The Taliban have made no official concessions

Until recently, the U.N. had been quite vocal about how important it was to work with the Taliban to prevent famine, death, and displacement. Look no further than the speech given by U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees Filippo Grandi at the 2022 Nobel Peace Forum, where he stated that “staying and engaging was the right decision, one of which I’m proud, and which was supported by the U.N. leadership right up to the Secretary General.”

While some kind of engagement may be better than nothing, the U.N.’s past engagement with the Taliban encouraged the belief that women’s human rights could be traded for security and access to food and shelter. Some members of the U.N. Security Council are quite upfront about their opposition to human rights conditions on engagement. But the crackdown on women’s ability to serve as aid workers only adds to a mounting pile of evidence that women’s rights and humanitarian relief are not separate issues.

As one woman from the western city of Herat put it, “What we have in Afghanistan is fear and terror, and whether you like it or not, you are forced to give up your rights, give up your education, and give up your freedom to [stay alive].”

Far from seeing their rights as bargaining chips for aid, Afghan women live in a reality where the mounting restrictions also affect their ability to survive. We know this thanks to the thousands of women across 17 Afghan provinces who either responded to monthly surveys or participated in focus groups run by the local pollsters of Bishnaw. When asked “Do you think improving women’s rights should be as important for the U.N. as improving access to public services?” back in December, more than 80 percent of the 2,182 respondents agreed or strongly agreed. 

And the data has been consistent over 2022 on what Afghan women want from the international community: regular U.N. consultations with Afghan women, a reinforcement of the U.N.’s ability to fulfill its mandate in human rights (contrary to claims that these are secondary considerations), and that the U.N. Security Council must demand unequivocally that the Taliban repeal all restrictions on women’s rights.

They are clear that the international community should not bend over backward to accommodate the Taliban in the hope of a dialogue or a compromise. It should not lower its standards for what can be accomplished in the realm of human rights. Rather, the international community should create as many ways as it can to get Afghan women unrestricted access to humanitarian aid and on-the-ground mechanisms that will hold the Taliban accountable for their actions.

More than anything, women are especially calling for the restoration of their access to education and mobility, both essential for their ability to eventually provide for themselves and their communities.

It may be true that the Taliban vary in the way they govern region to region. But according to the women who suffer their rule, those differences are not significant enough to be seen as an open door to compromise. In their view, the Taliban rely on the autonomy of their local actors to maintain both unpredictability and a sense that one can’t expect too much from Taliban leaders. Different decrees come from different leaders with no centralized organ for political communications.

And many respondents feel almost as if the entire raison d’ȇtre of the Taliban regime is to mete out gendered oppression rather than actually do the hard work of governing coherently. “Instead of dealing with macro security issues, they are more concerned with restricting women,” said a Balkh province focus group participant. “The only thing which gives them peace of mind is stopping women if they go somewhere without a chaperone.” 

Far from creating oases of relative tranquility, the differences between the regional Taliban increase the atmosphere of fear and unpredictability. The rules are not carried out clearly or consistently. Following the rules is no guarantee of safety, according to respondents.

“I was going to one of the districts with my brother,” recounted one focus group participant from the Daikundi province in August. She described trying to follow the rule that women need a male family member to chaperone them outside the home. “They took us out of the car several times and they [did not believe] that it was my brother. They said that I should tell the truth. Otherwise it won’t be good for us. [We were questioned] for two hours.” 

While insecurity may no longer come in the form of bombs and war machines, Afghan women consistently report an atmosphere of fear enforced through targeted harassment, beatings, killings, and disappearances committed by the Taliban or other militant groups the Taliban have at best failed to deter and at worst enabled. And that’s without mentioning the intense targeted violence suffered by Shia and Hazara communities. Even by the narrowest definition of “security,” only slightly more than half of survey respondents to Bishnaw reported improvements. Focus groups quickly told the real story.

“Just because we are not hearing any terrifying voices of gunfire or explosions does not mean we have security,” said one participant from Baghlan. “When there is unemployment, poverty, and the school gates are closed for girls, this is called insecurity.” Taliban restrictions on free movement, secure employment outside the home, support networks, and even on what men can allow female family members to do has directly led to reduced household income, an increasing inability to meet basic survival needs, and a non-stop feeling of insecurity that ripples into household conflicts and a notable rise in domestic violence.

The gunfire and explosions haven’t truly gone, either. Respondents have noted that areas that used to fear crime more than war are seeing more war and areas that saw more war than crime are seeing less war but more crime.

This is what makes U.N. observations of greater security feel baffling to the Afghan women who hear them. There may not be largescale war uprooting the Afghan population, but its absence in no way should be read as an “open for business” sign from Afghanistan. U.N. observations of lesser corruption are also increasingly hard to swallow as reality shows that corruption has merely devolved into more archaic, less financially modern forms.

One respondent in Bamyan observed: “In a meeting with UNAMA, many of the participants mentioned that most of the international aid is being sent to the Taliban themselves and is sold in the markets by them.” The Taliban’s much-vaunted increase in tax revenue, meanwhile, is mostly being collected by fighters in cash, a method extremely vulnerable to exploitation. That the international community is so quick to leap on increased security and lower corruption as benefits of the current regime is worrying given the reality on the ground.

Mariam Safi, leader of DROPS, the organization that runs the Bishnaw polling project, is herself a proponent for a robust UNAMA mandate. Her view (like many of the women polled) is that the U.N. must judge the Taliban by their actions – their campaign of intimidation against women – and not by their words.

These messages “have only become more urgent,” she explained. “UNAMA’s current mandate that we all fought so hard for must be preserved and it needs the U.N.’s full support in order to be implemented. The international community must condition any further engagement with the Taliban on the regime reversing policies that violate the rights of women and girls.”

Both Safi and the thousands of women Bishnaw consulted are urging the UNSC to actively and regularly consult with diverse Afghan women and let their views directly inform decisions about engaging with the Taliban. “This will be particularly important in the coming weeks as we reach the UNAMA briefing in March,” says Safi. “The international community should not waste its time or financial support on any political process lacking [women’s voices].” 

Guest Author

Samina Ansari

Samina Ansari is an Afghan-Norwegian lawyer and speaker, as well as the manager and founder of Avyanna Diplomacy. Samina has experience working with women's economic and political empowerment in Afghanistan, for the U.N. and other organizations. Follow her on Twitter @viasamina

Guest Author

Elliott Memmi

Elliott Memmi is a French-American writer and editor who has contributed to U.N. and EU publications on sustainable development and human rights. He has a Master’s degree from Science Po Paris in international public management, diplomacy, and North American foreign policy.