December 15th, 2021
By Rehan Piracha
Afghan activists have said women and girls holding protests in Afghanistan were demanding reopening of schools, refuting claims by the Taliban government’s permanent representative to the United Nations that such protests were linked to foreign funding.
In an exclusive interview with Munizae Jahangir on December 13, Suhail Shaheen, the Taliban government’s permanent representative to the United Nations, said certain Afghan women held protests over the cancellation of their projects. “10 to 15 women protesting over the cancellation of their external projects do not represent entire Afghan women,” Shaheen said in the Spotlight with Munizae Jahangir show.
Responding to Shaheen’s claims, Afghan women activists said the women protests were mainly about the reopening of schools and universities to female students in the country.
Qazi Marzia Babarkhail, activist and former Afghan judge, accused Shaheen of putting out statements based on the usual Taliban strategy of “misleading the world with lies”. She said there was an enormous gap between what is being said and what is being implemented.
Every single person who is out on the streets of Afghanistan protesting for their rights represents millions of other Afghan women, Babarkhail said. “None of these women protestors have any foreign funding, they are all fed up with being stepped upon and not considered as an important part of the society.”
Mahbouba Seraj, a noted human rights defender and executive director of Afghan Women Skills Development Center, also disputed that the protests were related to the cancellation of foreign-funded projects. “There were girls who came out in the streets to demand reopening of schools,” said Siraj of the protests across the country.
The protests were based on the demand for education of girls by the local communities, said Dr Orzala Nemat, an internationally known Afghan activist and scholar. “The demand for girls’ education is not of the donor-funded external projects but of the people of Afghanistan, she said.
In the interview, Suhail Shaheen said girl schools had reopened in many provinces while women students were also attending private universities in the country. “Only state-run universities have not opened in Afghanistan,” Shaheen said, adding that the international media was not reporting the ground realities in the country.
Responding to claims of reopening of girl schools, Dr Orzala Nemat pointed out that there were only six to seven provinces where girls were going to schools because of pressure from local communities over the local authorities.
“Sooner or later, the people will win and the Taliban government will have no choice to open schools and universities to all girls across the country,” she added.
According to Seraj, girl primary schools had opened in eight out of the 35 provinces. “The schools in the rest of the provinces including Kabul are still closed,” Siraj said, fearing that female students were at risk of losing out a year of education due to the closure of state-run universities.
According to Dr Orzala Nemat, a vast majority of boys and girls completing high schools opt for admission to state-run universities which provide free education. “The most talented of the Afghan students especially females are denied of education due to closure of state-run universities,” she said.
The Afghan scholar called on the Taliban government to take urgent action so that female students do not miss out a year’s education
Speaking about Afghan women’s access to jobs, the Taliban government representative to the UN said ministries of health and education have asked female employees to report back to work. However, the women activists said a vast majority of women still had no access to their previous government jobs in Afghanistan, adding to their miseries in face of hunger and starvation.
According to Babarkhail, employees of only low-ranking positions like teachers had been called back to work. “The women in government sectors, activists, police force and other ranks have not been able to go to work,” she said, adding that even doctors had not been able to return to work.
Siraj said a majority of Afghan women had a lack of access to basic needs like food, shelter, clothing, and health services. “The international sanctions on Afghanistan are badly hurting the population,” she pointed out.
Dr Orzala Nemat said health workers including paramedics, nurses and doctors had reportedly rejoined work in the country as well as women working in the police force and passport offices. “You cannot showcase one ministry and ignore access to women employees in the rest of the ministries,” she pointed out.
The Afghan scholar said there was a significant number of households headed by women in the war-affected country. “I don’t know what will be the choices left for women who are not lucky to be doctors or nurses and are stuck in their homes without an income,” she said.
“There is a majority of working-class who were employed in offices are now street vendors trying to survive and keep their families alive,” Babarkhail said.
The activists called on the Taliban government to immediately ensure access to education and jobs to women to alleviate their current misery and misfortune in the country.