The imminent danger for Afghanistan's women and minorities

The imminent danger for Afghanistan's women and minorities
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The scenes of chaos unfolding at Kabul's Hamid Karzai International Airport, as thousands of Afghans try to escape their country, illustrates the fear gripping the country after the Taliban took over the country. Women and religious minorities that bore the brunt of the Taliban’s brutality during the 1990s, when the Taliban were last in power, feel particularly vulnerable.

As the Taliban marched through a Shia neighborhood of Kabul on Sunday, they pulled down religious banners marking the Shia observance of the martyrdom of prophet Muhammad’s grandson, Imam Husain. The Taliban’s interpretation of Islam sees Shias as heretics and their religious observances as ‘Haram,’ or forbidden.

Contrary to assertions by Western diplomats who engaged in talks with Taliban representatives, setting in motion the current debacle, there is nothing ‘moderate’ about the new Taliban. Their prejudices and intolerant outlook seem still to be the same as in the past. 

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Older Afghans have frightening memories of the Taliban's last stint in power. Those who were too young in the 1990s will quickly understand the ugly reality unfurling before our eyes.

The last time the Islamist fundamentalist group ruled Afghanistan, from 1996 to 2001, they imposed their version of strict Sharia law, did not allow women to work or girls to attend schools, forced women to keep their faces covered in public and be accompanied by a male guardian and demanded that religious minorities convert or be killed. 

Afghans remember the brutal Taliban years when anyone who broke the rules suffered public beatings, stoning to death and public execution. 

Kabul’s soccer stadium was the venue for the Taliban’s public punishments. Men and women in pale blue burqas would be either stoned to death or shot dead in front of a stand full of people witnessing the Taliban’s form of violent justice.  

The Taliban believe they are soldiers of God. They consider most modern ideas anti-Islam. Their beliefs are too strong to be moderated by the promises of well-spoken representatives sent to negotiate an American withdrawal. Those who tried to escape from Kabul airport over the weekend were trying to avoid being trapped in the bleak future that awaits. 

Over the last two decades in Afghanistan, women judges, journalists, members of parliament and governors of provinces have emerged. More women and girls went to school and college in the last two decades than ever before in the country. The government has made efforts to protect religious minorities. 

The Taliban hate that.

Over the last year, while negotiating in Doha, the Taliban has conducted targeted assassinations of women, civil society activists and journalists. After recent victories, the Taliban have already knocked on the doors of faith leaders of minority communities and women and human rights activists.

A Tweet by former Washington Post reporter Amie Ferris-Rotman says the Taliban has lists of women who held high office and have indicated that they will not leave them alone. 

According to a July report by the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA), more women and children were killed and wounded in Afghanistan during the first six months of 2021 than any year since 2009.

In July, when the Taliban started their current military offensive and took over border outposts, the Taliban Cultural Commission issued a diktat: “All imams and mullahs in captured areas should provide the Taliban with a list of girls above 15 and widows under 45 to be married to Taliban fighters.” 

In July, after capturing Malistan district in Ghazni province, the Taliban tracked down all those who worked for the government and non-governmental organizations, killing 27 civilians and wounding 10 others.

After capturing the eastern province of Herat, the Taliban paraded alleged thieves on the streets after blackening their faces and tying nooses around their necks. We can expect a return soon to public beheadings, amputations and stonings. 

Over the last year, we have witnessed dangerous signs that bode ill for Afghanistan’s small and varied religious faiths numbering Hindus, Christians, Sikhs and Shia Muslim Hazara among them.

Taliban rule will be a disaster for Afghanistan’s small religious minorities and the Shia Hazaras.

Their distinctive looks and professions of faith easily identify them. The last time the Taliban were in power they declared jihad against the Shia Hazaras, who ended up facing repression and persecution, including mass killings. 

Over the last two decades the Hazaras made major gains in education and social status. Like women, they are seen as sympathetic to the West and hence this leaves them open to reprisals.

In a May  bombing of a Hazara girls’ school in Kabul, more than 85 Hazara children died and 150 were wounded. In June, the Taliban shot dead 10 Hazara mine clearers working for a nonprofit in Baghlan province. 

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The minuscule Sikh, Hindu, and Christian communities in Afghanistan that had been provided some form of protection over the last two decades also have reason to fear the return of the Taliban. According to a Tweet by Klon Kitchen, a senior fellow with American Enterprise Institute, the Taliban sent letters to church leaders warning, “We know who you are and we’re coming for you.”

The scramble to leave Kabul symbolizes the foreboding felt by the Afghan people. But most Afghans, and especially those belonging to minority faith groups, do not have the luxury of flying out of the country. They will have to survive in a hostile and brutal regime, or fight it. 

Farahnaz Ispahani is a public policy scholar at The Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, a senior fellow for South and Southeast Asia at the Religious Freedom Institute and a former member of the Pakistani Parliament.