Find a way to support Afghan women

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Afghanistan is considered the worst place on Earth for women’s rights. This has not always been the case. Afghan women used to have better opportunities and rights in their society before the U.S.-backed Mujahideen triumph against the Soviet-backed Communist government in 1992. The event marked the downward spiral for every aspect of life in Afghanistan, including women’s rights. 

The U.S. invasion of Afghanistan in 2001 and the new regime gave new hope to Afghans, especially Afghan women. Despite the ongoing war, most Afghan women benefited from the opportunities presented to them.

Baitullah Hameedi

According to the United States Institute of Peace, almost 4 million girls were registered in schools; 80,554 women were teaching in these schools, and more than 100,000 women were studying in higher education institutions. Over 2,439 women lecturers were teaching in Afghan universities, some even rising to the ranks of deans in academic departments. Afghan women also assumed significant roles in government, as Parliament members, ministers and governors.

However, these hard-earned achievements were swiftly undone following the return of the Taliban to power in the aftermath of the Doha agreement signed between the United States and the Taliban in February 2020.

During the 18 months of negotiation between the Taliban and the U.S., we Afghans were often told that the Taliban had changed for the better. Zalmay Khalilzad, the U.S. envoy for negotiation with the Taliban at the time, called them “Taliban e Jahan Deeda,” — the Taliban with exposure to the world. This implied they would respect human rights regardless of gender. Contrary to that, the Taliban Afghans seen in 2021 were the same extremist as in 2001, and the U.S. signed an agreement without any regard for human rights.

The Taliban has imposed a full-scale gender apartheid in Afghanistan.

Starting with banning women from government offices, closing girls’ schools and universities, shuttering women’s beauty salons and tillering shops, and preventing visits to public parks, the list of restrictions on Afghan women goes on and on. One of the most bizarre–and disturbing— orders the Taliban issued was to chop the heads off all the mannequins in women’s clothing markets.

In the latest decree issued two weeks ago, the Taliban banned women from phone calls to live radio programs, where women were participating in educational classes. Local radio stations had begun to teach women in their homes as a substitute for entertainment hours, which are also banned by the Taliban. The reason mentioned in the Taliban decree for banning women from calling the radio: “Women speaking on the radio is immoral.”  

There are many reasons for the Taliban’s policies against women’s rights. Still, they use women’s rights as a bargaining chip in negotiating with the international community to be recognized as a legitimate government of Afghanistan.

Though in shock and hopelessness with the sudden walkaway of former international allies, Afghan women continue to bravely agitate against the Taliban and the neglect of the global community. One of the ways to stand against the Taliban is a mass migration of Afghans seeking refuge abroad, including in the United States.

However, immigration means leaving everything and everyone behind, and this hits women harder than anyone. Afghan refugee women are unarguably saved from the reach of the Taliban, but accustomed to life in simple Afghan villages. Now, they find themselves navigating complex lives in American cities. They can attend school and English language classes but must use a complex transport system to reach those classes. There are hospitals available, but to receive medical services, they must understand the medical insurance system. Also, they must advocate for themselves to receive medical services.

A woman from an Afghan village is expected to deal with tasks that are complex even for American citizens. For a clearer picture of their struggles, add immigration trauma, acculturation struggle, language troubles, lack of social networks and the United States’ own challenges to the list.

Supporting Afghan women in the United States requires community involvement and empathy. People in the U.S. need to step up to help these refugees: Volunteer to teach English, fill out forms, or help someone navigate public transportation or the health care system. Every gesture of support matters.

To aid Afghan women in Afghanistan, it is crucial to amplify their voices globally and hold politicians accountable for their actions. Questions must be raised about the implications of U.S. and international policies that have inadvertently empowered the Taliban at the expense of Afghan women’s rights.

Ask them: Why sacrifice hundreds of thousands of lives and trillions of dollars and fight for 20 years only to replace the Taliban with an even more brutal version?

Baitullah Hameedi is a visiting scholar at the University of Rochester’s Susan B. Anthony Center. Prior to his arrival in the U.S. in 2021, Hameedi was a multimedia journalist in Afghanistan and a faculty member in the Journalism and Communications Studies Department at Kabul University.

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