Who will help Afghanistan’s women?

As I watch horrific images emanating from Afghanistan of desperate women behind a barbed wire fence at the Kabul airport screaming for help saying “the Taliban are coming for us”, RI’s new focus on the girl child and DEI (Diversity, Equity, Inclusion) gain a sharper focus. Having visited and spent 10 days in Afghanistan in 2005 to report from there, my mind keeps going back to the vibrant women I had interacted with in the Bagh-e-Zanana, an exclusive garden for women in Kabul. Four years had gone by since the ouster of the Taliban, but the Afghan women continued to be haunted by their memory, and were terrified to talk to strangers lest they be Taliban informers. But once they knew that I was a journalist from India, they opened out their hearts, and admitted that they still had nightmares about the Taliban returning.

Well, the Taliban are back and in order to get international legitimacy are making politically correct statements on treating women decently, allowing girls’ education and women in offices. But going by past experience and the brutalisation of the Afghan women during their reign from 1995–96 to 2001, these statements ring untrue. Abaya-clad women journalists, including western ones, their heads covered, are courageously out on the streets of Kabul, interviewing the locals and the Taliban alike. In one video footage we can see the Taliban leader laughing his guts out when a woman reporter asks him if democratically-elected women politicians will be allowed in government. Then he asks her to “stop the video”.

CNN’s Clarissa Ward was also out in Kabul reporting from the ground and she and her crew were threatened by a Taliban, but managed to escape. The first woman Afghan Air Force pilot Niloofar Rahmani, who now lives in the US, said she fears both for her family and the country’s women. She predicts that the world will soon witness the stoning of “a woman in a Kabul stadium for no reason at all”.

The brilliant Afghan novelist Khalid Hosseini, who poured his heart out on the social media as the Taliban effortlessly captured Afghanistan in a matter of days, wrote in a Facebook post that he feels “heartbroken, helpless”, and worries for the “millions of Afghans who have fled (from their homes). Where will they go? What will happen to them? But I worry the most about my fellow Afghan sisters. Women and girls stand to lose more than any other group. There are many lasting horrific images from the last time the Taliban ruled Afghanistan: the public beatings, cutting off of hands, executions inside stadiums, barbaric and senseless destruction of historical artifacts. But for me the lasting mental picture of the Taliban circa 1990s is that of the stick-holding Talib beating a burqa-clad woman. The Taliban systematically terrorised women. They took away their freedom of movement, their freedom to work, their right to education, their right to wear jewellery, to grow their nails or paint them, to laugh in public, to even show their faces.”

The title of Siba Shakib’s poignant book Afghanistan where God comes only to weep, comes to mind. It is about the courageous woman Shirin-Gol, who after her village is devastated by Russian bombs in 1979, flees as a child to Kabul first and then ends up in a refugee camp in Pakistan, is forced into a marriage to pay off her brother’s gambling debts, and ends up selling her body to feed her family after her unsuccessful attempt to get out of the country.

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Rasheeda Bhagat

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