Many women in Afghanistan have expressed that every day is a battle to be seen, heard, and recognized as autonomous members of their own communities.
In August 2021, just as the United States withdrew from Afghanistan, the Taliban regained power. With this came a promise to uphold women’s rights that would soon be broken. Eighteen months after the Taliban’s re-entry into power, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres has classified the oppressive environment that they have created as a “gender-based apartheid”.
Motivated by memories of the Taliban’s previous brutality, thousands of women have fled the country, for the sake of their futures and their freedoms. Since August of 2021, the Taliban have barred women and teen girls from attending high school, universities, working at NGOs, and even attending parks and gyms. Dress codes have also intensified with the Taliban mandating that women cover themselves from head to toe in public. If the dress code is not followed, their male guardians are at risk of punishment, further enforcing the lack of ownership that women have surrounding their actions[ML1] .
While many women in Afghanistan have worn a burqa or covered their faces prior to the recent enforcement of a dress code, many have also chosen to wear jeans, long shirts, and a headscarf. The enforcement of such a dress code has made women feel as if they are being forced to disappear from society said Mahbouba Seraj, 75-year-old Afghan journalist, rights activist, and Nobel Peace Prize nominee. Seraj sees the Taliban’s actions as “systematically erasing women from public life”. To her, “[women] don’t exist anymore”.
Seraj has an interesting view on the matter, stating that it’s time “to hear their [the Taliban’s] side of the story”. She believes that reaching an agreement begins with reaching out to the Taliban and understanding what they are willing to do to lessen the price being paid by the Afghan public. Shukria Barakzai, Afghan politician, journalist, and prominent Muslim feminist, believes that what Seraj is asking for would give the Taliban “diplomatic legitimacy…without holding them to account.”
While holding the Taliban accountable for their actions by way of economic sanctions, travel bans, and confiscation of assets is a commonly accepted form of punishment, Seraj firmly believes in the power of conversation over punishment. However, there is no telling how effective either of those strategies could be in re-establishing women’s rights in Afghanistan.
Beyond formal punishments and conversations, some Afghans are taking to the streets and the media to express their distress with the Taliban’s actions. Professor Ismail Mashal, head of a private university in Kabul, has asked “fathers to take the hands of their daughters and walk them to school, even if the gates are shut.” He believes that it is important for men to “defend the rights of Afghan women and girls.” His former female students, who once studied engineering, economics, and computer science, have expressed gratitude for Mashal’s bravery. While they worry about his safety, they too believe that standing up to the Taliban is a job for all Afghans, not just the women who have been stripped of their rights.
What is Canada’s role in holding the Taliban accountable?
In the past, Canada has been a prominent donor to development and humanitarian activities in Afghanistan, contributing over $3.8 billion between 2001 and 2021. However, after the Taliban seized power in August of 2021, all development assistance was halted. While Afghanistan under the rule of the Taliban is clearly at odds with Canada’s feminist international development policy, it is unclear whether it is a good decision to halt assistance to the country during a time when 97% of the population lives in poverty.
The United States, Britain, and Australia have opted to ease sanctions, not in support of the Taliban, but rather to promote the well-being of the citizens of Afghanistan who are at risk of famine, regional instability, and large-scale migration. While it is understandable, and even strategic, to be cautious of working with the Taliban, putting an entire country at risk in the process is not ideal. Canada should be searching for ways to collaborate with the international community as they aid the citizens of Afghanistan in combatting the Taliban’s vicious rule.
Photo: In Herat, Afghanistan, women line up to collect bags of split chick pea, wheat, and cooking oil being distributed by the UN World Food Programme (WFP) (2012) by UN Photo/Eric Kanalstein via Flickr. Licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.
Disclaimer: Any views or opinions expressed in articles are solely those of the authors and do not necessarily represent the views of the NATO Association of Canada.