10th December 2021
Speakers at the Asma Jahangir Conference 2021 – Challenges to Human Dignity raised alarm over the crumbling humanitarian crisis in Afghanistan, and appealed to Pakistan and the international community to push the Afghan Taliban to ensure rights and dignity to Afghan women and girls.
The session titled Impact of Talibanization on Women in Afghanistan and Pakistan was held on November 20, and was moderated by South Asia Project Director and Senior Asia Adviser at the International Crisis Group, Samina Ahmed. Boasting voices from either side of the Afghanistan-Pakistan border, the panel included Shaharzad Akbar, Chair of the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission; Bureau Chief of Aaj News Peshawar, Farzana Ali; Former Minister of Women’s Affairs in Afghanistan, Sima Samar; Founder of the Afghan Women’s Network in Afghanistan, Mahbouba Seraj; Member of the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Assembly from the Awami National Party, Shagufta Malik.
Former Deputy Minister of Coordination, Strategy and Policy at the Ministry for Peace in Afghanistan, Abdullah Khenjani, spoke in the question and answer session.
Joining the conference via Zoom, Akbar stated that the humanitarian situation in Afghanistan is dire, which not only highlights the fact that the previous democratic governments of Afghanistan were less than sustainable, but that the Taliban have also not shifted from being an insurgency group to a group that is willing to govern and create some internal consensus on basics of governance around inclusivity and respect for citizens’ rights.
She continued that Afghanistan women universally have less rights than they had just a few months ago. There are restrictions on women’s movement, and on education which does not happen in anywhere else in the world, including in Islamic countries. Akbar said that it is heartbreaking to watch millions of Afghan girls having to grieve dreams and ambitions for education and progress.
Regarding the law and governance situation, Akbar provided that there is a legal limbo in terms of what constitutional framework and laws Afghanistan is upholding currently. Afghanistan had signed many international conventions including Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), the United Nations Convention against Torture, Convention on the Rights of the Child. However, Afghanistan’s international commitments are not being upheld.
She urged international allies and feminist organizations to explore how the country’s international commitments can be used as leverage to negotiate for rights and space, as external pressure regarding women’s rights, especially from Islamic countries including Afghanistan’s neighbour Pakistan, can go much further and have the intended impact on the Taliban.
Ali stated that the biggest hurdles to women’s empowerment and progress is a regressive mindset, which can be seen in the current Afghan situation as well as nearly two decades of Taliban rule in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa’s tribal belt. She asserted that the mindset can ‘destroy’ women, a word that she has chosen carefully as she had firsthand seen the isolation, murders, and stoning of women who exercised or demanded their fundamental rights., giving the example of Malala Yousafzai.
She recounted that when she started her journalistic career in 1997, women had to battle with societal and cultural restrictions that had created the “glass ceiling”, but post-2007 religion suddenly came into play. There were questions as to why women were on TV, why female reporters were allowed to go out in the field without a mehram. The walls that culture and society had previously set up suddenly grew taller in the name of religion, however this time it became a matter of life and death for women.
Ali said she has collected twenty-two stories of women caught in the snare of Talibanization, some of whom are now dead, including the wife of a Taliban militant who had killed several people, a young girl from Charsadda whom a Talib married and took to Orakzai where she was later killed for “honour”, and a mother whose madrasah-going son has yet to be found to this day.
She also recounted her brief abduction by the Taliban mere kilometers away from the border while on assignment in Afghanistan. She revealed that they had questioned her cameraman and an accompanying reporter whether they understood they were liable for punishment under Sharia for roaming around with a woman sans a mehram. Ali was of the view that the mindset she had seen among the Talibs in 2021 is the same as that of twenty years ago, and that mindset she had also seen reflected in the replies by Pakistanis to her tweets while she was in Afghanistan. She concluded her speech with the question as to what will happen to the progress made by women in Afghanistan and Pakistan to this mindset.
Paying her tribute to the late human rights champion, Samar continued from Ali’s criticism of regressive mindsets by pointing out that the way to destroy a civilization, its democratization and rule of law is to destroy its education system, which is what is happening in Afghanistan. Furthermore, a devolved or absent education system also leads to the burgeoning of a regressive mindset that devalues and dehumanizes women. Furthermore, she found the destruction of the principles of human rights and dignity alarming, highlighting how people on either side term the upholding of human rights “Western values”.
“Who on Earth wants to be treated as a slave? Who does not want access to good food? Who does not want to live in peace? Who do not want to live without freedom?” she questioned. She held that when there is no rule of law, there is simply the rule of the jungle where only the powerful can flourish and freely impose their mentality on the weak. She held that to live with basic rights, freedom and dignity is not a luxury, it is not related to one’s skin colour, language or the geography of where they live; all have the right to freedoms.
Samar further said that these developments in Afghanistan have a direct impact on Pakistan – Muslim nations tend to learn from each other and they are learning from Afghanistan. She stated that when there is no accountability, no justice, we fuel the rule of the jungle, and if this continues to be promoted in Afghanistan, it will not remain within its borders.
Also attending via Zoom, Seraj stated that it is important for all to know what happened in Afghanistan, how to learn from it and negotiate with the situation. Afghan society has been completely uprooted, and Afghans are no longer the same people they were before August 15. She lamented she no longer had her allies with her anymore as most of them had fled to other countries, and yet all of them are trying to make do with what they have to do whatever they can to make their lives better.
She said she was no longer concerned with the question whether the Taliban have changed as she is much more aware of the fact that the Afghan people have changed, but what saddened her the most was the mass exodus of good people she had the honour of working with and how difficult it is going to be to gain back this vibrant community. However, she expressed the hope that there was no question that they will make peace in Afghanistan a reality.
Seraj was of the view that the Taliban are not treating the Afghan people the same way as they had twenty years ago, because the Taliban of today are comprised of different groups with different stakes. She believed that the Taliban were not really ready to take over the country and government, however it was the fall of the previous government that made this possible. On August 15, Afghanistan turned a hundred-and-eighty degrees and suddenly its people were left without any leader to take care of their country.
Regarding to Samar’s concern that Pakistan is being directly impacted by the situation in Afghanistan, Seraj felt that same will not happen in Pakistan as it does not want to see itself getting hurt as badly as Afghanistan has hurt itself. She said she was deeply hurt that Afghanistan’s neighbors appeared unconcerned with what is unfolding in her country, and more so by the civil society of those neighbors who have not given the kind of support she had expected of them.
“My heart is broken because I… I see the women, the very capable women of this country, that they had jobs and were doing things and they were working in offices and they were the breadwinners of their families. And today… they don’t have anything to eat believe it or not!” she exclaimed, terming the situation it inexcusable.
She lambasted the international community for creating policies for Afghanistan without having even asking the people of this country, as it had done for the past twenty years. If girls’ education had flourished in Afghanistan prior to Taliban rule, Seraj said it was only because girls wanted it, however she questioned the point of that education now in wake of the “brain drain” in Afghanistan.
“We have been going through hell for the past 45 years!” she cried out, warning that the exodus of brilliant minds from Afghanistan will lead to catastrophe in the coming years. She appealed to Pakistan to help women in Afghanistan get their feet off the ground, to get involved in things it needs to be involved in and not get involved in things that it does not need to be involved in.
Malik stated that women and children are the most affected in war. When talking about Afghanistan and Pakistan, she felt that people on either side of the border are one nation as they share the same language, culture, and relations. Therefore, a peaceful Pakistan is not possible without a peaceful Afghanistan and vice-versa. She said that Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and its women are always the first in Pakistan to be affected by developments in Pakistan, whether it is in politics, education and economy.
She held that whenever terrorism is at its peak, women and girls are mainly targeted – whenever five schools for girls were built, terrorists would attack ten, and women in media and in other professional sectors were commonly targeted. She gave the example of the attack on Malala for promoting girls’ education in her village, and of the Army Public School (APS) attack on December 16, 2014. For the latter, she reiterated the aggrieved parents’ narrative that their children were not waging some holy war and had not been sent to school to be martyred, and asserted that whenever the writ of the state fails, victims are made out to have ‘given their life for the country’.
She denounced the ruling government’s ongoing negotiations with the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) sans the consent of and consideration for the parents of the martyrs of the APS attack.
Post-2008, during the peak of terrorism in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, Malik stated that women and girls constituted the majority of internally displeased persons (IDPs), who had been uprooted from their homes and who had lost the males of their family to insurgency, leaving them without support.
Khenjani termed the Afghan crisis a “man”-made problem of which women have been the primary victims as they have lost their family members and socio-economic opportunities. He urged for solidarity and the amplification of voices not just in Kabul and Islamabad but in the region as the Taliban presented a new political culture that is shrinking democratic environments. Talibanization is squeezing women’s space in public institutions and it restricting their public participation. At the same time, they are entrenching a predominantly violent, patriarchal culture in Afghanistan and Pakistan.
Khenjani also lauded the bravery of the female Afghan participants, for their role in furthering women’s rights in the past twenty years and for those who stayed back in Afghanistan to wrest back freedoms from the Taliban.