On August 15, 2021, the Taliban arrived at the gates of Kabul. They returned as conquerors, fully occupying the capital in only a day, after being driven from power nearly twenty years ago. The fall of the civilian government precipitated two weeks of chaos as many Afghans sought to flee. The Taliban established an interim government with assurances their rule would be fair and just – going as far as indicating that they were a changed Taliban. Yet for many, especially women, these assurances have been empty promises if not outright lies. It is the women who have courageously taken to the street and who are organizing human rights campaigns to try and steer Afghanistan’s future away from darkness.
In the past year, the Taliban have steadily stripped away basic protections for the most vulnerable groups. The most systematic attacks have been on the rights of women, who have virtually been erased from public life. Today thousands of educated women are confined to their houses, their free movement banned unless they are accompanied by a male minder. Middle and high schools remain shut for girls, despite public promises from the Taliban to the international community. While universities have reopened for women, hijab restrictions are imposed. Women’s employment is restricted by the Taliban. Peaceful protests led by women have been violently attacked, with protestors detained, imprisoned, and forced to confess their protests were sinful and wrong.
Under the new interim government, raids and abductions of women’s rights defenders have escalated dramatically. Alia Azizi, a member of the ethnic Hazara community and the head of the women’s prison in Herat has been missing since October 2021, and the Taliban refuses to acknowledge her disappearance. Women’s rights defender Frozan Safi was found shot dead two weeks after she disappeared. Negar, a pregnant policewoman, was brutally killed by the Taliban in front of her family. These are only a handful of casualties in the Taliban’s war on women, with more no doubt to come. As Amnesty International recently put it, the situation of Afghan women is “death in slow motion.”
We are a group of former teachers and civil servants who have lost their jobs since the return of the Taliban to power. We want our jobs back. We will continue to make our voices heard until our daughters are back to school and we are back to work. We don’t have a lot of resources. We host our meetings in each other’s houses. We use our savings to buy flip charts and stationery for our meetings. We don’t have big offices or any offices at all. But we have a strong will. This is a new Afghanistan and the Taliban need to listen to us and respect our rights.
Woman activist and former teacher from Afghanistan
Just as concerning are renewed attacks on marginalized ethnic and religious groups. One example is the minority Hazara population, which have long faced discrimination and violence in Afghanistan. More than 100 Hazara have died, and many more have been injured as a result of attacks on community schools and places of worship, including a bombing in April, that left 64 children dead. The Taliban have been unable or unwilling to protect Hazaras from these targeted attacks. Other minority groups are directly subjected to discrimination and harassment by the Taliban. For example, Tajiks are enduring house raids, forced displacement, arbitrary arrests, and extra-judicial killings in Andarab and Panjshir.
Former government officials are also facing a wave of violence. In June 2022, the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan reported that between August 2021 and June 2022, the Taliban had carried out 160 extra-judicial killings of former government and security officials. The Taliban responded by denying the findings of the report.
Amidst the attacks on vulnerable populations, the Taliban are dismantling institutions that safeguard rights. Over 300 media organizations have shut down as activists and journalists are threatened, arbitrarily arrested, and forcefully disappeared. For example, on June 8th, the YouTuber Ajmal Haqiqi and his colleagues were arbitrarily arrested after being accused of “insulting Islamic values.” Their whereabouts remain unknown.
As rights abuses proliferate, the international community has repeatedly condemned the Taliban’s failures. In a recent example, following his visit to Afghanistan in May 2022, the UN Special Rapporteur Richard Bennett stated that Afghanistan is facing critical human rights challenges and urged the Taliban to “protect the entire population” of Afghanistan. Foreign diplomats continue to condemn the Taliban’s human rights violations during the past year. However, these condemnations fall far short of accountability. The UN must fulfill its core obligations and protect human rights in Afghanistan. The reinstatement of a UN Security Council travel ban on two Taliban members is a welcome step, but it does not go far enough. In order to ensure accountability for human rights abuses, the UN must restore full sanctions on all members of Taliban leadership as established by UN Security Council Resolutions 1267, 1989, and 2253 and work with member states to ensure these sanctions are enforced.
One bright spot in the grim reality is that numerous mostly women-led grassroots movements have organically formed since the fall of Kabul and are engaging with the Taliban and the international community. They have mobilized to organize protests and press conferences, issued statements, appeared in media interviews, and participated in international events to make their voices heard. Many of these movements are young and have limited resources. They work under very hostile conditions and grapple with major obstacles. However, they are not willing to give up.
Additionally, strong-willed Afghan women have courageously taken to the street to protest the erosion of rights and the uptick in violence. Their actions have not yet resulted in tangible improvements, and they are often met with violence, but their persistence is a glimmer of hope. These acts of resistance can lead to sustainable change if Afghan women and grassroots movements receive strong support from Western governments and international civil society.
Freedom Now has sought to bolster the work of these brave Afghan activists who remain in the country. We are working directly with grassroots movements, women activists, former civil servants, judges, journalists, political activists, and human rights defenders across the country by connecting them to relief support resources, training opportunities, and international advocacy platforms. We are working alongside in-country and exiled activists to build a bulwark against the Taliban’s abuses.
The past year has been consumed with horrendous news from Afghanistan. And while there is much to despair, there is also considerable hope that Afghans will prevail against their oppressors. Freedom Now is committed to making that a reality.
On September 4, 2021, I took the streets of Kabul along with my colleagues to demand our rights. We believed that by raising our voices and staging peaceful protests we will get the Taliban to talk to us. We expected some level of pushback from the Taliban but had not imagined that their foot soldiers would violently attack our protests and threaten our lives. Our goal was to get out there and tell them that we could not be erased. We had thought that they are unfamiliar with the values of the new Afghanistan and had hoped that they would be willing to talk about that and resolve their questions. We wanted to initiate a conversation about our rights. Their response was oppression, and imprisonment of my sisters. We learned that very quickly about them and we realized that the solution is not to step back but rather to expand our movement and form an even larger civic resistance to defend our human rights and values. We have a long path ahead of us and a difficult task. The change will come from within. The international community has a role and leverage that need to be utilized to support the demands of the people of Afghanistan not the political demands of the Taliban only.
Woman activist from Afghanistan