November 2, 2022
By Xari Jalil
“We can see, the fight-back by brave Afghan women and girls for their rights,” said Samina Ahmed, in an AJCONF22 session on October 22. “However the challenges that they face are enormous.” The title of the session was ‘Afghan Women and Girls Fighting for Survival: The Way Forward?’
She introduced the speakers – a panel of experts who have had the opportunity to experience the changing Afghan dynamics and politics and how it impacts the lives and the livelihoods of people. Ahmed who was the moderator of the session said it was important to discuss the challenges faced by Afghan women and girls.
Panelists included Omar Zakhilwal, former Afghan Ambassador to Pakistan as well as a former finance minister in Afghanistan. He was also the key player in the intra-Afghan dialogue for peace.
Based in the ‘eye of the storm’, in Kabul, Zakhilwal went back even after the Taliban took over.
Samina Ahmed asked him if the Taliban understand the implication of their policies, and the regressive politics they are playing.
“I would think they do,” he replied – not just the immediate conflict but also the conflict for the past 40 years when different regimes including theirs came and saw that restrictive measures on women and girls are not helping the country or even themselves. I would say with respect to women’s education and other issues, the Taliban are not handling it well.”
Speaking about the potential to bring this change, he said that it was precise because of this potential that the brave women have decided to remain in Kabul. “If I had no hope for the possibility of change, then I would not risk being there, engaging with the Taliban, bringing up certain policies, etc.”
The fact that they do listen to us should be taken as something somewhat positive, he explained. In fact, the issues were not restricted to women – ultimately it’s the country’s issue, said Zakhilwal. “In the 21st century, for any country not to allow their women education, not to allow them to work, is just not normal,” he said. “It’s a state that doesn’t look like a state; it’s one big prison, for everybody, not just women. And putting it all on religion – but there is no religious or cultural rationale for any of it.”
Mahbouba Seraj, an Afghan journalist and women’s rights activist, is known to be one of the strongest voices among Afghan women, who also formed the Afghan Women’s Network.
Samina Ahmed specified that journalism was probably one of the worst-hit industries in Afghanistan where the face of women was disappearing – physically and also virtually.
“I have been doing activism since 2003 when I came back from exile,” said Mahbouba. “The group of women who are today at the forefront of all the fights – they have grown up in front of me. When I reached Afghanistan, the voices of Afghan women were so tiny that you could not hear them, but then I saw the same women roar in the international arena in meetings while talking about Afghanistan,” said Seraj. “On Aug 15, 2021, I saw the democracy that I had worked for the collapse in front of me. In 24 hours a democracy died,” she said.
Since then it has been a constant struggle to prove that the women of Afghanistan will always be there to stay and to fight, and that they cannot be ignored.
Seraj said that girls had no access to education from grade six onwards. The last group passed through university this year, after this no more women will be studying in university. “How is it possible for a country with more than 20m population – for its women not to have any rights – of movement of education of anything?” she questioned.
Sima Samar, Former Minister of Women’s Affairs Afghanistan, said the space for women’s rights were shrinking in all countries, but not of course at the same pace or level.
“This time people were lobbying that the Taliban had made a mistake and they would not repeat it again,” she said. “People who argue that the Taliban brought security and peace in Afghanistan, should not forget that the Taliban were the reason the region was insecure and under conflict and violating human rights. It’s graveyard security – no one should raise their voices.”
In the session, the panelists concurred that dialogue might convince the Afghan Taliban that sustainable peace will remain elusive so long as the rights of half the population – women and girls – are continually violated. They also urged the international community to refuse to recognize the Taliban’s government in Afghanistan so long as it lacks domestic legitimacy.