An Afghan Woman Activist’s Visit to Taliban-Ruled Afghanistan

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An Afghan Woman Activist’s Visit to Taliban-Ruled Afghanistan

Zerka Malyar and her team sought to confront the Taliban on the critical issue of women’s rights.

An Afghan Woman Activist’s Visit to Taliban-Ruled Afghanistan

Zerka Malyar receives flowers from a young girl during her trip to Kabul.

Credit: Zerka Malyar

Amid Afghanistan’s turbulent transition under Taliban rule, Zerka Malyar, a former Kabul prosecutor and advocate for women’s rights, embarked on a bold mission. On April 13, she flew to Kabul with a 12-member anti-war delegation, all hailing from the Afghan diaspora in England and the European Union, to engage directly with Taliban leadership. Their objective: to advocate for the resumption of girls’ education in the country and confront Taliban officials on critical issues of women’s civil liberties. 

For Malyar, a graduate of Kabul University’s esteemed School of Law and Political Sciences who now lives in Vienna, her return to Afghanistan was an emotional and difficult homecoming. She found herself in a city where women and girls, who once thrived in sciences, literature, and history, were now barred from their fundamental rights, like going to school beyond sixth grade. Despite the tragedy and the absurdity of the situation, she donned a black scarf, spectacles, and a long overcoat with a smile on her face as she set foot once more in the city that was once her home. 

Malyar and her team sought to confront the Taliban on the critical issue of women’s rights, including their freedom to work and exercise civil liberties in her homeland. They were uncertain of the reception they would receive from the Taliban’s strict leadership.

However, during their two-week stay in Kabul, they had the opportunity to meet with several key members of the Taliban’s Islamic Emirate, notably acting Minister of Interior Khalifa Sirajuddin Haqqani, acting Minister of Defense Mohammad Yaqoob Mujahid, and acting Minister of Foreign Affairs Amir Khan Muttaqi. The trio, all influential figures within the Taliban movement, embody distinct dynamics of power, political influence, and representation among the Afghan masses. While they have occasionally engaged with foreign female political delegations, and some have met high-profile female journalists like Christine Amanpour, their willingness to meet with an independent Afghan woman was unprecedented and positively surprising to Malyar. Such an occurrence was unheard of during the Taliban’s previous regime (1996–2001), perhaps indicating a shift in attitude within the movement.

“None of them expressed opposition to the reopening of schools for girls,” she stated. In fact, she said, several Taliban mid-level leaders conveyed concerns about their own daughters’ futures, fearing they wouldn’t have access to modern education after sixth grade.  

In our meetings, some of the Taliban leaders, and other men cried as I spoke about the tragedy faced by Afghan girls and women. However, I remained composed, feeling the need to stay strong,” she said. Witnessing such vulnerability from individuals within a powerful Taliban force and, moreover, from men in a strictly patriarchal society like Afghanistan was unexpected. Malyar found herself amused by this unexpected display of helplessness.

But the most profound moment was not her meetings with some of the most powerful men in the country. Instead, it was a group of schoolgirls who brought her fresh flowers.

“It was an emotional moment. They had come because they knew I was there to fight for their right to get back to school,” Malyar shared in a voice message over WhatsApp. She noted that the girls had journeyed from Khost, a predominantly Pashtun ethnic province that adjoins Pakistan, enduring hours of driving through heat and dust on a bumpy and perilous road to reach Kabul.

“It was difficult to hold my tears back, but I did not cry; I stayed strong for them.”

Since assuming power in August 2021, the Taliban have imposed severe restrictions on women and girls in Afghanistan. They have banned girls from pursuing education beyond the sixth grade and shuttered universities. Additionally, women are prohibited from participating in politics or holding positions in the government. 

Despite permitting a number of women to work in certain sectors and in limited capacities – such as police searches, the health sector, and banks – the Taliban’s policies continue to erode access to education, employment, public spaces, and other basic freedoms for girls and women. These restrictions are subject to frequent updates, further exacerbating the challenges faced by Afghan women.

These actions have elicited condemnation from the vast majority of the Afghan public and have raised serious concerns globally among rights groups. Such restrictions are viewed as blatant and egregious violations of basic human rights.

However, it remains imperative to note that the ultimate decision-making authority lies with the Taliban’s supreme leader. According to the Crisis Group, the Taliban’s supreme leader, Hibatullah Akhundzada, who is largely hidden from the sight of the Afghan public, remains steadfast in his dedication to these policies. His motives seem to arise from personal beliefs and a drive to solidify his control over both the movement and the nation. Despite facing significant global criticism and legitimate concerns regarding these measures, there is little indication of an immediate change in Akhundzada’s ideological position or his pursuit of authority.

Were the Taliban leaders Malyar’s group met in Kabul sincere in their support for girls’ education? Malyar does not have a definitive answer, but she knows that a Taliban representative traveled to Kandahar with a list of their suggestions to present to the supreme leader, and others have promised to continue the conversation.

The Taliban leader lives in Kandahar province, while the rest of the de facto authorities remain in the capital, Kabul. 

Malyar remains hopeful. “Regardless, we will go again, and this time to Kandahar, to meet with the esteemed leader of the Taliban,” she told the BBC.

Since their return to power, the Taliban’s heavy-handed rulings have prompted many aid organizations to halt operations, exacerbating fear and hardship in a country already grappling with widespread poverty and unemployment. Western donors, alarmed by these developments, have threatened to reduce aid and further isolate Afghanistan’s struggling economy. 

The dire situation at home has not only deepened poverty and a pervasive sense of disillusionment among the populace, but also driven thousands of Afghan youths, many of whom are skilled and educated, to emigrate to other countries, often resorting to illegal routes and accepting underground jobs under extremely harsh conditions. 

Given the current state of affairs, it is crucial to alleviate the tension between the Taliban and the understandably frustrated international community in order to prevent a humanitarian catastrophe.

Afghanistan’s representation in the United Nations, crucial for fostering a better global understanding of the country’s current situation, is currently upheld by representatives of the former government, who are severed from the country. The team’s staunch opposition to engaging with the Taliban is widely recognized, adding another layer of complexity to Afghanistan’s dire situation, characterized by one of the world’s most severe humanitarian crises and the looming threat of terrorism.

The Islamic State in Khorasan Province (ISKP) poses a significant threat to the region, particularly Afghanistan. In a recent incident, a gunman attacked a mosque in Herat province, near the border with Iran, resulting in the reported deaths of six individuals. Subsequently, ISKP claimed responsibility for the attack.

Despite the Taliban’s attempts to secure access to Afghanistan’s United Nations seat and international recognition for their government, official acknowledgment from any nation appears improbable, in part due to their harsh limitations on women.

In discussions about the future of Afghanistan, the fact that the country comprises not just the Taliban as a political movement, but also an estimated 35 to 40 million human beings, including women and children, is generally conveniently overlooked. Afghanistan remains in near-total global isolation. No country has officially stepped forward to recognize the Taliban government, and the country’s central bank assets are frozen. Indeed, the Afghan people lack a direct means of communication with the outside world. 

Karen Decker, chargé d’affaires of the U.S. mission to Afghanistan, recently told The New Humanitarian that Washington has come to understand “the hard way” the destructive consequences of isolation. She emphasized that such isolation is detrimental not only to the Afghan people but also to the wider region. “Isolation is ruinous. It’s ruinous for the Afghan people. It’s ruinous for the region.” 

Easing sanctions and integrating Afghanistan into the global community through political negotiations would provide a lifeline for the millions of Afghans trapped in isolation. Afghanistan, one of the youngest countries in the region, is home to millions of young men and women who currently lack hope for a future. Re-establishing contact with Afghanistan will also provide a direct avenue to reach out to the millions of Afghan women and girls who are not only barred from accessing education or employment but also face a reported increase in domestic violence and soaring rates of suicide. 

In the April 30 daily press briefing, Vedant Patel, the deputy spokesperson for the U.S. State Department, emphasized that the United States views engagement with the Taliban as a chance not only to safeguard U.S national interests but also to support the Afghan people. According to Patel, speaking directly with the Taliban allows for direct discussions on the Taliban’s commitment to counterterrorism. It also provides an opportunity for the U.S. government to advocate for the ”immediate and unconditional release of U.S. nationals in Afghanistan, including those we have determined to be wrongfully detained.” Patel affirmed that human rights in Afghanistan always remain on the agenda during these discussions.

Having witnessed Afghanistan’s highs and lows over the past two decades, Malyar advocates for prioritizing dialogue, diplomacy, and collaboration. She wants to see more independent Afghans courageously step forward and drive change that could potentially save lives in Afghanistan’s socioeconomic and political context, thereby averting a potentially greater disaster in the country – the return of yet another conflict.

Recognizing the urgency of the situation in her home country, Malyar and her team opted not to wait for the world to take action. Instead, they took matters into their own hands and adopted a traditional approach, labeling their initiative a “jirga.” This term refers to a customary assembly or council of elders with a rich history of decision-making and conflict resolution within Afghan communities. With deep roots in Afghan political history and tribal culture, the jirga has served for centuries as a platform for addressing governance, justice, and social matters. Decisions reached within a jirga typically rely on consensus and hold significant respect among community members. 

Despite their jirga not receiving an unequivocal response or a final decision from the Taliban, Malyar emphasized the crucial role of independent voices in rebuilding trust with disillusioned Afghans. Against the backdrop of decades of conflict and military interventions, she asserted that their self-funded trip aimed to build bridges and foster mutual trust.

“We will return repeatedly, as long as there is breath in our bodies. This nation deserves peace and the right to live with dignity. We do not want another war on this land,” she told journalists in Kabul.