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Why these Afghan women are speaking out

‘I don’t believe that I, or other women, should live in a world where our successes are hidden.’

Afghan women walk on top of a hill in Kabul, Afghanistan on 24 June 2021.
Afghan women walk on top of a hill in Kabul, Afghanistan on 24 June 2021. (REUTERS)

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Fearful for their futures but determined to take a stand, Afghan women continue to make their voices heard.

Before the Taliban seized control of Afghanistan on Sunday, some of the country’s loudest voices for peace belonged to women. In southern Afghanistan’s Kandahar province, for example, seated demonstrations in July drew hundreds of women from different walks of life.

Some of those voices have been pushed underground with the Taliban takeover, but they haven’t been silenced. In private chat groups or on social media like Twitter, Afghan women discuss their fears, find support, share reports of what’s happening in the country through the Afghan diaspora, and speak about defending hard-won opportunities for women and girls.

Pashtana Durrani and Fahima Rahmati – two Kandahar women who head community NGOs – are among them.

“We need women to speak up about our rights: about women’s rights, educational rights, what we will lose,” Durrani told The New Humanitarian. “Nobody is speaking on behalf of Afghan women.”

Durrani founded LEARN, an NGO focused on education and healthcare for women and girls. Rahmati is a doctor and activist who runs the Heela Charity Foundation, whose work included helping families displaced during the Taliban siege of Kandahar in July.

Both in their mid-20s, Durrani and Rahmati have seen considerably more freedom than women who experienced Taliban rule from 1996 to 2001. During this time, women were forbidden from working, with few exceptions, and girls’ education was banned.

“Nobody is speaking on behalf of Afghan women.”

When the Taliban were first overthrown in 2001, women and girls again became active participants in civil society, schools, workplaces, and government. Today, Afghan women comprise more than 21 percent of the country’s civil service.

It’s unclear how this will change under today’s Taliban. There have been conflicting signs. A Taliban spokesman this week promised respect for women’s rights. But in the cities of Herat and Kandahar, which the Taliban seized last week, women were reportedly turned away from universities or banking jobs. 

The UN’s rights chief last week reported that women in some areas were forbidden from leaving their homes without a male chaperone; some have been “flogged and beaten” for breaking these rules, the official said.

Durrani and Rahmati spoke to The New Humanitarian about their hopes and fears amid these threats, what women can do to defend their rights, and what they expect from the international community. 

Both women, who have left their Kandahar homes for undisclosed locations within Afghanistan, said they want their names to be published. The interviews have been edited for length and clarity.

The New Humanitarian: How would you describe the situation for women after the Taliban’s return?

Durrani: In Kandahar, the Taliban asked the women in a bank to leave their work posts and go home, and to send their male counterparts to work instead of them. I am not sure what the Taliban are thinking – maybe they will let us work, maybe they won’t. At this point, I’m not sure.

Rahmati: Women are afraid. It's not a secret. Women can’t go to work. The Taliban will not let women and girls go to school. This frustrates me as schools and universities are the only way for a country to grow. 

For all these years, most of the offices were occupied by women, but now the Taliban will only allow a few medical personnel to work. Afghan women are strong, but this is defeating.

I had my own private clinic, but I stopped working there due to the Taliban threat. When the displaced families started to stream into Kandahar, I took my equipment and went to their camps. I gave them medicine. I treated them as patients. 

The life of a medical professional, from nurses to doctors, is not safe, but everyone is working to support their families. With the Taliban, any female staff could be in trouble. Women’s rights are impossible in a Taliban regime, and unfortunately now, women will be tested again.

The New Humanitarian: What can you and other women do right now?

Durrani: All we can do right now is fight back by speaking out loud. All these men are fighting for power. They are power-hungry, greedy, and corrupt, without consideration for the people they govern. Feeling abandoned, it’s my right to fight back – for me, one whole generation of women, and generations to come. Nobody’s going to fight on my behalf. My political rights are at stake; my educational rights are at stake. Everything that I have stood for, and my father stood for, is gone. I have to stand, and I have to fight back.

The New Humanitarian: What should the international community do?

Rahmati: I would ask the international community not to forget us in the weeks and months to come. The world should focus on us to ensure that our rights, especially as women, are indeed protected. They may not be protected.

For those that want to leave, the international community, governments, should work with the new leadership to ensure that people can leave, especially women – if not permanently, then temporarily, so that their lives are saved. 

Durrani: The world right now should be pushing for the political rights of women. If women can’t be in leadership or choose who can represent them, then are they even citizens of the same country? How is this even possible in the 21st century?

“If women can’t be in leadership or choose who can represent them, then are they even citizens of the same country?”

The second thing they should be pushing for is educational rights. Are the girls allowed to go to school? If they are allowed to go to school, can they access general education other than Islamic education? If they cannot access general education, what is their future? I think about all the girls I work with. All these questions should be asked now because if we lose this moment, nobody’s going to stand for us. The world is going to forget us, and Afghan women will suffer.

It’s time for the world to understand that if they don’t stand with us in solidarity, they are going to lose another country where women’s rights are possible. Women will be pushed into a wide gender gap with absolutely no rights – educational rights, political rights. Our lives will be decided for us by the Taliban.

The New Humanitarian: Why do you believe it’s important for you to speak publicly?

Rahmati: I grew up in poverty. I have worked so hard for all my successes to become a doctor; to start a charitable foundation that does good for the people of Kandahar. Everything was on my shoulders. I have helped the hungry and the dying. I have encouraged education for women. 

“I want to be heard. I want the whole world to listen.”

It’s important for me to share my story. I don’t believe that I, or other women, should live in a world where our successes are hidden. Women’s successes should be celebrated and protected. We are bringing change for our country. Nobody else will. The suffering of people in Afghanistan must stop, from the humanitarian catastrophe to the prevention of women’s rights. 

And so, I want to be heard. I want the whole world to listen.

Durrani: It’s important for women to speak up. We need women to speak up about our rights: about women’s rights, educational rights, what we will lose. Nobody is speaking on behalf of Afghan women. So, I will speak. I have nothing left to lose. 

Edited by Irwin Loy.

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