For weeks, the world has been closely following the unfolding events in Afghanistan. While the Taliban took control and we watched tragic scenes from Kabul airport where governments scrambled to evacuate their citizens and some of those who they’d promised to take with them, questions about the future of Afghan women have crystallised. To what extent will they be allowed to participate in the new Islamic Emirate? And what risks will those face who’ve been advocating for women’s rights and education?
GISF’s Research and Communications Assistant, Chiara Jancke, spoke to a female Afghan aid worker who is still in Afghanistan. For more than a decade, Farah [Anonymous] has worked for national and international NGOs (INGOs), including on women’s rights programmes and in security functions. In this interview, she shares her concerns for Afghan women in Afghanistan and speaks about the situation on the ground.
Life after the fall of Kabul
CJ: How are you? Can you describe how you’ve experienced the last weeks?
Farah: To be honest, it’s been difficult. The situation is so unpredictable – we don’t even know what will happen in the next two hours. We’ve had some tough days since the Afghan government collapsed and have seen many changes. The most significant one is the restriction of women’s freedom, evident in the absence of our voices and presence from the community. These changes have been a big shock, particularly for those who advocate for women’s rights.
Mentally, I’m not ok. I still think that this is a nightmare, and tomorrow things will be different. Still, I can’t believe that this quickly – in pretty much a week – the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan collapsed (…). I still can’t believe that we won’t be able to attend meetings, speak at conferences, or be part of the government as women. All our hard work has been destroyed in days.
The role of women in the new Afghanistan
CJ: I’m so sorry; I can’t even imagine what you are going through. The Taliban has said that women will be able to work but have also excluded women from their new interim government and fired shots at those who have protested in response. Do you believe the Taliban when they say that women’s situation will be different this time?
Farah: It’s complicated to judge. I was a child when the Taliban was in power, but when my parents tell me about the Taliban’s actions and mindset, and I compare it to now, I don’t think they’ve changed. Yes, they’re saying that women can go to university, but the restrictions make it challenging to go in practice. I don’t believe that women can be free and comfortable and work with these restrictions while being forced to be silent, like robots.
They will let women do their jobs under these restrictions so that the Taliban can claim that they care about women’s rights. But some of their other actions and words show something different. They already announced that they won’t let women work in any ministries and high-level positions aside from a few less senior roles. Even these won’t be open to ‘liberal’ women or women who worked for the previous government. The Taliban has also not granted permission yet for women outside of the education sector to return to work. NGOs are also still negotiating when and under what conditions women can work.
Risk and mitigation as a woman in Afghanistan
CJ: Looking at this uncertainty, what are your biggest concerns?
Farah: Women who worked in public-facing and high-level positions face the highest risks because the Taliban have said that they’ll have no place in the new government for those who cooperated with the occupying powers or international organisations. Some say that they’ll investigate who worked for INGOs in high-profile positions or the previous government and that they’ll be isolated, won’t have a chance to work in the community, or be killed. In yesterday’s [07.09.2021] protests and demonstrations, we saw Taliban fighters fire shots at women across different provinces, such as Herat, Mazar and Kabul. Around 40 people who protested in Balkh province were arrested, and it’s still unclear where they are.
But there are also other concerns. In the last days, the Taliban have been checking people’s phones at checkpoints, looking at their pictures and who their contacts are. They also have access to the biometrics from the national IDs, and they’ve searched many women-led organisations and NGOs in Afghanistan, so they have information and can easily find people and punish them.
The Taliban have said that they’ll give amnesties to people, but we don’t see this in their actions. Last night, they searched a police officer’s house, and the police officer’s father was punished. They’re still coming into our houses, searching them, and questioning and harassing people.
For these reasons, so many women and human rights activists are scared. When the Taliban announced their cabinet, they didn’t include any women, people from other ethnicities or a ministry of women’s affairs. We see these things, and we can imagine what their next steps will be and that women who worked in high-level positions will indefinitely be in a high-risk position and will have no chance to live in Afghanistan.
CJ: As someone who has worked in security roles before, what kind of steps have you taken to protect yourself from these risks?
Farah: Most NGOs haven’t received permission to resume their activities, and staff work from home. It’s best to stay at home because anything can happen. They can do anything to women who raise their voices, and there is no government to represent us and investigate these cases, so it’s easy for people to be kidnapped or killed with no one around to defend our rights.
Aside from staying home, we should delete our contacts from our phones, not share photos or our location on social media, and leave our smartphones at home. It’s also good to delete apps like outlook from phones and laptops and use web browsers instead. My organisation has been helping me with these steps, but as someone with security training, I also have experience keeping myself secure.
I’ve also been discussing relocation or leaving the country with my organisation in the last weeks because I’ve been receiving a lot of threats in the last year. There is a lot of information available about my involvement in the community and my work with INGOs and NGOs in Afghanistan. People can easily find me. Right now, I’m not in my original province – I moved to a different area to be safe. Fortunately, my organisation has been trying to help me relocate and leave the country. But the application is under process, and I’m still waiting for the green light.
International support and assistance
CJ: What do you think the international community could do to better support women like you in Afghanistan?
Farah: My wish is for the international community to support women who worked hard in high-level positions and on women’s empowerment and are now vulnerable. This is the time for the international community to support these women who deserve to be safe, for example, through the advancement of different governments’ schemes for Afghan women in high-risk categories.
The international community should also negotiate with the Taliban to safely evacuate those in high-risk categories. A Taliban spokesperson said that Afghans with the required legal documents can only leave after the new government has been announced. But there are rumours that the Taliban won’t allow people to leave the country. We feel stuck, especially those who are really at risk, and it’s challenging to get visas to go to neighbouring countries. It sometimes feels unfair that others could flee without the necessary documents, even when they weren’t eligible, and we might not get to leave.
CJ: What main challenges do you see for the future of the people of Afghanistan, and what role can aid and INGOs play in addressing them?
Farah: I’m begging the international community not to forget the Afghan people. We are really in need, especially women and children. Most Afghan people are at risk of falling below the poverty line, there are barely any employment opportunities, and for over two months, many people haven’t received their salaries. Afghans desperately need emergency aid and the return of programmes, and especially the healthcare, banking, and food sectors are facing many issues. We need the international community’s help now.
A recent UNDP report warns that 97% of Afghans could sink below the poverty line by 2022. With much of the country being heavily dependent on aid, it is crucial that the international community tackles the unfolding humanitarian crisis in Afghanistan. GISF will support its members as they continue assisting the people of Afghanistan. At the same time, we must honour our commitments to vulnerable Afghans – particularly women’s rights defenders – and support them in finding safe ways to evacuate them.
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