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Muslim women rising: Challenging discrimination and oppression

AP Photo/Ebrahim Noroozi
Afghan girls read the Quran in the Noor Mosque outside the city of Kabul, Afghanistan, Tuesday, Aug 9, 2022. Maulvi Bakhtullah, the head of the mosque, said that the number of girls who come to this mosque to learn Quran has multiplied after the closure of public schools. For most teenage girls in Afghanistan, it’s been a year since they set foot in a classroom. With no sign the ruling Taliban will allow them back to school, some girls and parents are trying to find ways to keep education from stalling for a generation of young women.

The sight of Iranian women braving brutal punishment and even imprisonment while protesting for equal treatment and individual freedom has rallied public support around the world. Women in Saudi Arabia faced equally oppressive resistance in their battle for dignity; many activists languish in jail after the government relaxed restrictions on women.

The fight for equality may be even more daunting in Afghanistan. Although the governments supported by the United States and Europe were far from perfect, they ended the Taliban’s cruel isolation of women. Girls were educated; our mothers worked in business and served in government. Many Afghans had reason to hope for a better future.

Tragically, last year’s allied departure allowed the return of the Dark Ages to Afghanistan. Taliban 2.0 turned out to be little different from Taliban 1.0, pushing women back into positions of submission and inferiority. Afghanistan’s rulers are not just destroying the present, driving women out of private business and public service. The country is losing its future as the Taliban closes schools for girls, denying them an education and the opportunity to thrive.

However, Afghan women are more determined than ever to stand up for their rights. The Taliban only seems strong. The women of Afghanistan have defeated tougher adversaries.

My role model is my grandmother. A half century ago she resisted invaders from the Soviet Union. Her six sons — youngest 14 years and oldest 28 years — were killed fighting the occupation. Yet she persisted, battling to free both her family and homeland.

Indeed, while men did the bulk of the fighting, women held families, communities, and the country together. Afghanistan is filled with war widows, whose husbands and sons were lost. Women were left to carry on.

They often could rely only on themselves. Years ago, women came together on the outskirts of Kabul to build homes for the homeless among them. What was called Zanabad, or Women’s Town, still stands. I worked with these women, who persevered despite local and sometimes violent opposition. Even those who suffered most from war proved that they were more than victims, working to support their children and teaching one another to read and write. A powerful sisterhood developed, through which women covered and elevated one another.

Today women are leading the fight against the Taliban’s attempt to reimpose Medieval controls over half the population. Women are protesting attempts to force them out of public life while denying their daughters an education. The Taliban has responded with increasing violence, beating, imprisoning, and torturing women who challenge their oppressors. The Taliban also has punished their families, while threatening even harsher penalties for future resistance.

Human Rights Watch recently talked with women who had been detained after confronting the Taliban. Their accounts were harrowing: “The women said they were wrongfully detained with their families, including small children. They experienced threats, beatings, dangerous conditions of confinement, denial of due process, abusive conditions of release, and other abuses. The authorities assaulted and administered electric shocks to detained male relatives.”

For those under attack, it often is a lonely fight. I might have given up had I not known that people around the world supported our battle for justice. Despite our often-terrible circumstances in Afghanistan and elsewhere, we knew that we were not alone.

For instance, Matt Daniels of the Institute for World Politics has demonstrated how digital technology can be used for good. He developed the Universal Rights Academy, which presents short video courses on human rights issues, and the Human Rights Network, which uses digital means to educate the public about the principles embodied in the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights. These forums feature stories and struggles of oppressed women around the globe, providing a platform, a means to resist the forces of darkness in whatever form.

Reaching a global audience provides not just a feeling of solidarity but practical support. International attention reminds my Afghan sisters that our fight is being watched by a host of witnesses, many of whom similarly fought for their lives, liberty, and dignity. And that those who abuse power will ultimately be judged by a worldwide audience.

The American civil rights struggle — when African-Americans demanded that the U.S. Constitution’s protections finally be extended to them — offers hope for oppressed women everywhere. These Americans presented their struggle to a global audience, with television the major medium. Today digital media is displaying the compelling stories of women in Afghanistan and elsewhere to the rest of the world.

Afghanistan’s U-turn on the status of women is but one of many retreats from the human rights vision spelled out by the United Nations more than seven decades ago. However, victims then had few options. The world often knew little about their mistreatment. Today women’s beleaguered status in Afghanistan and elsewhere is front-page news.

We must keep women’s fight for equality and dignity before a global audience. We must help them live up to their fundamental dignity and full human potential to make the world freer for all of us.

Naheed Esar is a Fulbright Scholar and Afghanistan’s former Deputy Foreign Minister for Management and Resources.

Tags afghan women Afghanistan Afghanistan evacuation Afghanistan Taliban Afghanistan troop withdrawal Afghanistan withdrawal girls education girls' education Muslim women Taliban Taliban rule Women in Afghanistan Womens rights
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