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Afghan Women’s Woes: Beyond and Before the Taliban

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The Debate | Opinion

Afghan Women’s Woes: Beyond and Before the Taliban

Even under the previous government, horrific cases of violence against women occurred with startling frequency.

Afghan Women’s Woes: Beyond and Before the Taliban
Credit: Depositphotos

The resurgence of the Taliban brought renewed attention to the plight of Afghan women, shining a spotlight on the pervasive nature of gender-based violence and discrimination in the country. However, it is crucial to acknowledge that the challenges Afghan women endure extend beyond the actions of the Taliban alone. Until the underlying causes, such as conflict and poverty – a direct result of the country’s nearly global isolation and restrictions – are addressed, true and meaningful progress toward gender equality will remain elusive for Afghan women, casting a shadow over their hopes and aspirations on this International Women’s Day.

On March 19, 2015, during one final news hour at Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty’s broadcasting for Afghanistan, I encountered a surreal moment while moderating the show. As the program drew to a close, a studio technician discreetly passed me a note. Initially, I couldn’t fathom the contents of the message: A woman had been brutally beaten, set on fire, and killed in Kabul, a city I thought I knew so well.

Initially, I brushed off the information, unable to comprehend that such a horrifying incident could occur in the city of my birth, especially on an ordinary day and under the watchful gaze of everyday Kabulis. Shopkeepers, teachers, students, professors, police, God-fearing men – none came to the aid of Farkhunda Malikzada, a 27-year-old woman who was accused by a man of speaking against Islam. Instead, they all rushed to kill her without pausing to question the validity of the accusation.

I couldn’t shake the feeling of disbelief and horror that gripped me upon reading this gruesome news. The mob killing had taken place close to the Shah-e-Doshamshira shrine, a place I had frequented in the past.

This sacred place, where hundreds of women gathered daily to offer prayers and seek blessings for their wishes to come true, held a special significance for many women in Kabul. Among the myriad hopes and dreams whispered within its walls, I too had made countless wishes, each one a silent plea to a higher power. One wish, in particular, was to become a woman who could fend for herself without relying on anyone else – a desire for independence and freedom. I had fed the pigeons and offered sweets as tokens of gratitude. 

Yet, the tranquility of the shrine was shattered by the unthinkable – a heinous crime unfolding in a place I had always considered sacred and safe. The juxtaposition of innocence and brutality left me grappling with disbelief and sorrow.

Dismissing the note, I accused the technician of playing a cruel joke. However, reality swiftly set in when the program editor confirmed the veracity of the news. A young woman had indeed suffered such a gruesome fate in the heart of Kabul. This tragic incident highlighted the sobering reality that despite the presence of foreign troops and numerous local and international human rights organizations, activists, police, and defenders, grave injustices persisted unchecked.

This tragic incident, occurring well before the Taliban returned to power, serves as a stark reminder that supporting Afghan women’s rights is an enduring battle that transcends mere slogans or marketing efforts. As an Afghan, it is deeply intertwined with my identity, and I do not see the solution coming from some of the former government officials whose administrations failed to protect Farkhunda and thousands of others who suffered rape, abuse, and torture under their watch – some allegedly even within government facilities.

As a journalist covering human rights violations in Afghanistan, I was constantly struck by the glaring disparity between the lofty rhetoric surrounding human rights and women’s freedoms, particularly in Kabul, the capital city, and the harsh realities experienced by many Afghan women. Despite the Afghan government’s ostensible commitment to women’s rights, supported by substantial international aid, the lived experiences of women in the country often revealed a starkly different narrative.

The case of Aisha Mohammadzai, which came to light in 2009, was a poignant illustration of this dissonance. At just 18 years old, Aisha had endured unimaginable cruelty at the hands of an abusive husband for four years, resulting in her disfigurement. Her courageous journey, fleeing her forced marriage, enduring incarceration, and seeking refuge and medical assistance, captured global attention. The international outcry following Time magazine’s publication of her story highlighted the urgent need to confront the pervasive issue of gender-based violence in Afghanistan and to ensure the protection and empowerment of women.

No doubt, there was an urgent need for meaningful change and true action to safeguard the rights and dignity of vulnerable individuals like Aisha Mohammadzai.

Considering the slogans coming out of the country in 2009, I did not anticipate witnessing another grave and tragic incident five years later. The gruesome murder of Farkhunda Malikzada in Kabul sparked widespread protests across the country.

Obviously, it was not the last horrific case. In November 2015, tragedy struck once again when a young woman was stoned to death in the central province of Ghor, about 292 miles to the west of Kabul. She had been murdered after being accused of adultery. 

In early 2016, I investigated a disturbing case of domestic violence in the Ghormach district of Faryab Province, situated in the northern region of the conflict-ridden country. Reza Gul, 20, had her nose brutally severed by her husband using a pocket knife. According to provincial police at the time, Gul’s husband tied her hands before committing the heinous act. From her hospital bed, Gul recounted to me the horrifying ordeal she endured, revealing that she had been married off as a teenager and had a 1-year-old child at the time of the incident.

These cases are just a handful of examples of the grave and outrageous incidents of violence against women that miraculously made their way into the media spotlight. However, it’s important to recognize that many similar cases went unreported. In Afghanistan, factors such as limited government control in certain regions, ongoing insecurity, and societal norms contributed to the underreporting of such incidents. 

Traditionally, violence against women had been viewed as a matter of honor, leading to the silencing or stigmatization of victims and preventing their stories from reaching the public. Additionally, the media’s reach in some areas of Afghanistan was constrained by security concerns, making it challenging for journalists to access and report on these cases. Consequently, countless women continued to suffer in silence, their voices unheard and their plight unnoticed by the wider world.

Addressing the issue of violence against women in Afghanistan requires a multifaceted approach, including legal reforms, increased access to justice and support services for victims, and efforts to challenge harmful cultural norms and attitudes. Moreover, greater media coverage and advocacy are essential to shed light on these injustices and hold perpetrators accountable. Only through concerted action could meaningful change be achieved to protect the rights and dignity of Afghan women.

However, even before the Taliban returned to power, efforts were insufficient. Widespread corruption within the government, the international community’s superficial approach, and their lack of accountability in holding the government seriously responsible, alongside the ongoing conflict, were some of the main reasons why women’s rights activism was largely constrained to the capital and some major provincial capitals. 

Worse, the Afghan government itself faced accusations of abusing women’s rights. In 2013, Human Rights Watch cited “numerous” media reports detailing instances of the rape of female police officers by their male colleagues.

In 2019, Keramuddin Keram, the former president of Afghanistan’s soccer association, received a lifetime ban from FIFA due to allegations of threatening and sexually assaulting players. He was fined approximately $1 million, and subsequently, authorities issued a warrant for his arrest. However, the then-Afghan government failed to bring him to justice. 

Based on this context, we can safely conclude that violence, abuse, and systemic discrimination against women in Afghanistan have a long history that predates and extends far beyond the Taliban’s recent restrictions on education, work, and civil liberties.

Richard Bennett, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Afghanistan since 2022, stated at the United Nations Human Rights Council on February 29 that the deteriorating human rights situation in Afghanistan is causing unacceptable suffering. He called for urgent action by the Taliban and the international community to halt this downward spiral and give hope to Afghans. 

“Women and girls are being erased from public life, peaceful dissent is not tolerated, and violence and the threat of violence are used with impunity to control and instill fear in the population,” Bennett said. That dire situation is “compounded by an economic and humanitarian crisis that results in the denial of economic, social, and cultural rights.” He called on the international community to prioritize the human rights of Afghans in any “normalization” of relations with the de facto authorities in Afghanistan.

Despite all challenges, it is an undeniable fact that Afghan women have made tremendous progress in the past two decades. Millions of Afghan girls have attended school, pursued higher education both at home and abroad, entered the workforce, and traveled. If bans continue, this progress will be entirely altered and erased. The restrictions against women must cease immediately. 

However, it is also a fact that, during the days of the Afghan Republic, women’s rights were not advanced through surface-level discussions, remote talks, or debates on social media. This remains true today. Violence occurs within a broader context, namely, the backdrop of war and conflict. Women are prime victims in the process. Therefore, the priority should be boosting peace in Afghanistan, lifting bans, and sustaining progress – not perpetuating wars and conflicts.

Real solutions could come from the international community engaging directly with Afghans in Afghanistan, including high-ranking authorities, and engaging in meaningful dialogue. The world must engage with authorities in Kabul, and representatives must meet there to end this sad stalemate, with a crucial step being the immediate reopening of Afghan schools and universities. There is a need to rally support from the international community and leverage all available peaceful means to establish peace first and facilitate the reopening of educational institutions in Afghanistan.