Afghan women express shock, fear, defiance under new Taliban rule

Women and girls in Afghanistan are facing a deeply uncertain and scary future with the Taliban in control of the country following the collapse of a U.S.-backed government and the exit of U.S. troops.

Afghan women fear that their rights will be constrained, as they were 20 years ago when the Taliban last fully ruled Afghanistan.

The Hill spoke to a number of Afghan women who asked that their names be withheld for fear of the Taliban targeting them and their families and colleagues. Humanitarian groups also provided The Hill with specific accounts of women in Afghanistan.

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The women who spoke to The Hill expressed shock, fear, frustration and defiance at the rapidly changing environment in their country.

They want to make clear that Afghan women — participating in society as entrepreneurs, athletes, politicians, police, academics, artists and journalists, among other professions — had to fight for those freedoms within a strict, male-dominated society even after the Taliban was ousted by U.S. forces in 2001. 

“People need to understand, we fought for those rights,” one Afghan woman told The Hill. “Despite the U.S. being there, we still fought for them within the patriarchal system to be able to stand up to them and tell them ‘this is our right.’”

The woman warned against the U.S. and international community putting trust in the Taliban’s statements. 

“I want to see if women are able to sing on stage without a scarf. I want to know if a man or woman can stand next to each other and sing on TV. I want to see women play at the soccer stadium. That is the level of freedom I want in that country if I want to live under their flag.” 

Video circulated on social media Tuesday showing at least four women protesting on the street against the Taliban, with signs calling for their rights to be respected.

 

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Taliban officials have said that women’s rights would be respected under Islamic rule, a statement that the U.S. government and advocates view with skepticism.

“Yes, the women, they have a right to education and to work right now,” Taliban spokesman Suhail Shaheen said in an interview with NPR. “The doctors, they have started serving, the teachers have started teaching and other fields that women are working. And the journalist women —  they have started working by observing hijab.”

In a test of such statements, a female Afghan journalist interviewed a Taliban spokesman live on television Tuesday. 

But fear is largely overwhelming what women can say or do under Taliban rule.

One anonymous Afghan woman in a recording The Hill obtained from Women for Women International expressed worry that the strides women have made over the last 20 years would be reversed. The woman described the Taliban as searching door-to-door for employees of the government and nongovernmental organizations. 

“In the last 48 hours, there is no world for us outside of our houses and no hope. Unfortunately, we are not safe in our own houses, too,” the woman said. 

On Wednesday, the U.S. and 20 other countries issued a joint statement calling for “those in positions of power and authority” in Afghanistan to protect freedoms for women and girls. The statement avoided directly recognizing the Taliban.

Advocates monitoring the situation on the ground say the Taliban has in some areas already imposed strict restrictions on women, such as confining them at home unless accompanied by a man.  

But Marie Clarke, vice president of global programs at Women for Women International, said the U.S. and its allies do have tools to hold the Taliban accountable despite disturbing reports.

“The U.S. government and all of our allies have opportunities to use diplomacy and investments in development either to be a carrot for this future government to stand by its word and actually enable women to retain their rights or they can use the sticks of sanctions and so forth to try to push this government,” said Clarke. 

The Biden administration, facing intense criticism for failing to anticipate the Taliban’s lightning takeover, is scrambling to fulfill commitments to evacuate Afghans who are at risk because of their association with the U.S. It has also come under fire for leaving vulnerable Afghans, especially women, in a dangerous situation. 

“I don’t know why, but protecting the people most at risk was clearly not prioritized,” Andrea Prasow, the deputy director at Human Rights Watch, said of the way the U.S. exited.

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White House national security adviser Jake SullivanJake SullivanSullivan raised normalizing relations with Israel during meeting with Saudi crown prince: report Biden struggles to rein in Saudi Arabia amid human rights concerns Hillicon Valley — Presented by LookingGlass — World leaders call for enhanced cooperation to fight wave of ransomware attacks MORE on Tuesday expressed sympathy for the women and girls under Taliban rule but said the withdrawal was not merely a decision of whether to protect women. Sullivan said there would have been further human costs if the U.S. stayed in Afghanistan because doing so would have forced officials to ramp up the American troop presence to defend against a Taliban onslaught. 

“We will attempt to use every measure of tool and influence we have, along with our international allies and partners, to alleviate the burden that those women and girls will face in the days ahead,” Sullivan told reporters, later mentioning the ability of the U.S. to sanction or isolate the Taliban with international partners. 

The State Department has said they are establishing a broad, new category of Afghans that qualify for evacuation. The category is described as Afghans at risk of violence from the Taliban and includes women, girls, human rights defenders, journalists and other civil society actors.

This group falls under a “Priority 2” category, a third tier behind prioritized evacuations that include American citizens and Afghans who have gone through the Special Immigrant Visa process — those that have worked closely with American military and government over the past two-decades. 

Lawmakers and advocates are saying this is not enough. 

“Particularly for women who are currently targets—even hunted by Taliban fighters who are going house-to-house with their names—the path to protection and safety under the Priority 2 designation is not accessible,” Sen. Bob MenendezRobert (Bob) MenendezWhy is Trump undermining his administration's historic China policies? Senate GOP signals they'll help bail out Biden's Fed chair Democrats weigh changes to drug pricing measure to win over moderates MORE (D-N.J.), chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and Sen. Jeanne ShaheenCynthia (Jeanne) Jeanne ShaheenProgressives push back on decision to shrink Biden's paid family leave program Defense & National Security — Military starts giving guidance on COVID-19 vaccine refusals Blinken pressed to fill empty post overseeing 'Havana syndrome' MORE (D-N.H.) wrote in a Tuesday letter signed by 46 senators to the State Department.

They called for the State Department to establish a “humanitarian parole category” to immediately relocate this vulnerable group to the U.S., specifically for female leaders, activists, human rights defenders, judges, parliamentarians, journalists and members of the Female Tactical Platoon of the Afghan Special Security Forces.

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One Afghan American woman who is part of efforts to assist Afghans looking to leave the country described the Biden administration’s strategy as “ruthlessly prioritizing who gets to live.”

It’s unclear how long the U.S. can operate evacuations out of the Hamid Karzai International Airport. U.S. officials say they have discussed with the Taliban a deadline of Aug. 31 for departing all American forces and personnel. 

The State Department has not addressed whether it would stay beyond this deadline.

“We are going to do as much as we can, for as long as we can, for refugees and other vulnerable Afghans who may be interested in relocation,” State Department spokesman Ned Price said in a briefing with reporters on Tuesday.