In Afghanistan, women’s rights activists, who have made significant strides in the past two decades, are feeling anger and discouragement as they open a new chapter in their struggle. Faced with the Taliban who have not clearly displayed their intentions, they fear losing everything, when the world will no longer watch.
Shortly after the destruction of the Bamiyan Buddhas by the Taliban in March 2001, Sunita Viswanath and a group of women founded the NGO in New York Women for Afghan Women (WAW), “women for Afghan women”. She has worked for the past 20 years to turn this NGO into one of the leading women’s organizations in Afghanistan, working across the country on domestic violence, education or vocational training.
Sunita Viswanath is well aware that working on women’s rights in Afghanistan sometimes means confronting a question of life and death. She is well aware of the dangers: women fleeing domestic violence may face death or kidnapping threats from family members determined to return them to their abusive husbands.
Security is therefore a major issue for the approximately 1,200 people working with WAW, which has constantly adapted to the evolution of the situation, especially since the start of the insurgent offensive in early May. When a provincial capital was in danger of falling into the hands of the Taliban, for example, the team and the women in residence were immediately evacuated to Kabul, until the situation calmed down and activities could resume.
But none of this had prepared Sunita Viswanath for the dangers that arose last week. “This is the most sinister moment since we started 20 years ago. I see a humanitarian catastrophe coming”, explains Sunita Viswanath in a telephone interview with France 24 from New York, where she frantically tries to secure NGO staff and women supported by WAW.
The sudden fall of Kabul on August 15, despite the Taliban’s promise not to enter the Afghan capital before the establishment of a transitional government, caused scenes of panic. And Sunita Viswanath’s team found themselves facing unforeseen risks. “The crisis did not unfold overnight, we knew there was fighting and Kabul could fall, but not so quickly,” she explains. “In recent months, we had left provinces where we had teams to go to Kabul because we thought Kabul would take longer to fall.”
Its priority is now to evacuate people from a list of 500 priority cases. “Some members of the team are known. Our goal now is to work with the US government to try to get them out,” said this activist, whose voice accelerates to the rhythm of the incessant ringing of notifications and Phone calls.
“I want to be there for my Afghan sisters”
Thousands of kilometers away, in the heart of the crisis, Mahbouba Seraj, one of the main activists, says she will not leave Kabul. The founder of the NGO Afghan Women’s Network (“Afghan women’s network”) explains by phone that she has nothing to fear. “Afraid? Afraid of what? That they’ll kill me? Why? What did I do wrong? The best part of my life is behind me. I’m 73 and still have a lot of energy. I want to finish. the projects and the work that I have started and I want to be there for my Afghan sisters in Afghanistan, ”says Mahbouba Seraj with suspicion.
The veteran activist quickly sidesteps the issue of his personal safety. “There are women belonging to human rights movements, especially female lawyers, who think their lives are in danger. If they want to leave the country, please help them,” she asks. Afghan activists are nonetheless being as discreet as possible, in particular by turning off their phones to escape the Taliban’s technological surveillance tools. Among those contacted by France 24, half a dozen did not respond to calls.
Mahbouba Seraj may not be heard, however. US President Joe Biden has confirmed that evacuations from Afghanistan will end on August 31, contrary to the wishes of European countries or refugee groups who are asking for more time.
The question now is whether the Taliban will allow these NGOs to continue their action, both in the fight against violence against women and in respect of hygiene, and under what conditions.
In recent years, the Taliban have sought to allay international concerns by promoting respect for women’s rights “within an Islamic framework”. Since August 15 and the capture of Kabul, the rhetoric has taken on even more importance, with the aim of a need for international recognition that can allow the unblocking of bank accounts frozen by the United States.
Their spokesperson, Zabihullah Mujahid, publicly spoke in this direction, putting an end to long years of uncertainty around the real existence of this character. “We are committed to letting women work and study in accordance with the principles of Islam,” said the Taliban official.
However, three female presenters of the public television station RTA TV were driven from their jobs by the Taliban, who invaded the headquarters of this channel based in Kabul.
“The abandonment of the Afghan women”
The Taliban will have to take up the challenge that is probably the most important since their creation almost 30 years ago: the management of a country that has returned to the international scene for 20 years, in which the population, particularly young, has become accustomed to it. to the freedoms of democratic governance.
In areas the Taliban controlled before taking Kabul, the rules for education or women’s health were muddled, leading many families not to send their daughters to school. While some commanders asserted that education was allowed for prepubescent Afghan women, others in the same region asserted that it was prohibited for women, as stipulated. a Human Rights Watch report published in 2020.
Mahbouba Seraj thus admits that he has never been able to carry out programs in areas controlled by the Taliban. “We couldn’t get there because those areas weren’t safe. Over and over again we asked and we tried but we couldn’t,” she explains.
Over the past 20 years, women’s rights have made great strides in the face of poverty and the patriarchal tradition of this conservative country. In 2001, no girl was enrolled in public school, compared to a million boys, according to the World Bank. In 2020, 3.5 million girls were going to school, in a country of about 38 million people, the literacy rate reaching 43% according to Unesco.
Despite the conflict and violence, Afghan women have become lawyers, doctors, civil servants, engineers and businesswomen, many of them even joining the police force or the army. At the start of 2018, there were more than 4,500 to serve in the defense forces. And women were better represented in the Afghan Parliament (27.3% of seats).
Achievements that Mahbouba Seraj recalled during an interview given on August 15 to Turkish television TRT. In this video that has gone viral, the fiery activist harshly attacks leaders around the world who have “abandoned” Afghan women. “We spoke with you, we asked you, we did everything we needed to do and no one is paying attention. All these men in power make decisions according to their intuition and they destroy everything that we have so much for. worked “, assen the septuagenarian.
From his home in Kabul, Mahbouba Seraj has a message for the international community. “The world has to watch how the Taliban behave. They are going to show their best now but they will change then. The world has to keep an eye on what is going on and please don’t stop not the humanitarian aid and projects that the Afghans so badly need, ”she implored.
Sunita Viswanath also hopes that WAW can continue its activities in Afghanistan. But for the time being, she is concentrating all her efforts on the evacuation procedures and is directing her anger more at her government than at the Taliban. “I thought the US government, our main source of funding, would get us out, but that’s not the case,” she regrets. “It is truly paradoxical to note that in such a critical time, our best talents in the field are content to make (evacuation) lists.”
This article has been adapted from English, the original article can be found here.