INTERVIEW: Afghan women before and after Taliban - ‘A difference of night and day’

Dina Ezzat , Saturday 21 Aug 2021

Women’s rights activist Heather Barr tells Ahram Online access to education and to work are among the most pressing concerns for Afghani women

Women hold placards and shout slogans against the Taliban on August 20, 2021 in Istanbul, during a protest in solidarity to Afghan women in Afghanistan after the Taliban have taken over the country. AFP

Heather Barr is a senior researcher on women’s rights in the renowned Human Rights Watch. Currently based in Islamabad, Barr works extensively on women’s rights in Afghanistan where she had already been based for several years.

Speaking to Al-Ahram Online on the phone from Islamabad, Barr said that the world needs to act and not just talk about standing up for the rights of Afghani women under Taliban because despite of the promises that the movement has been making since taking over Kabul on 15 August about respecting women’s rights, there are reasons to worry about the fate of Afghani women under Taliban.

According to Barr, despite the concerns that Human Rights Watch (HRW0 has been raising about the level of commitment and performance of the Afghani government, which had succumbed to the Taliban take-over of the capital of the country, Afghani women are today facing a lot of uncertainty.

Barr noted that in their press conference, upon taking Kabul over, the leaders of Taliban promised that women can have activities, on the basis of rules and regulations specified by the Taliban interpretation of Sharia law, in “education, health and [some] other areas.”

She argued that this is already raising big concerns about the limitations that Taliban would impose on the types of jobs that women could have and about the Taliban read of women’s rights according to Sharia.

“There is a lot of uncertainty; we don’t know what Taliban would allow women … what would they do with women working in the police force for example or in the media… would they allow women to go to university or not; we just don’t know,” Barr said.

Heather Barr

However, with years of experience in Afghanistan where she had talked to many women who had lived under Taliban from the mid-1990s until 2001, Barr had heard enough disturbing accounts that make her worry about the future of Afghani women today.

“It is not just about the Burqa; I was once talking to an Afghani woman who said that Taliban think of women as sub-humans,” she said.

It was in the early 1990s, upon the end of a decade long of Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, which had lasted from December 1979 to February 1989, that Taliban was founded to preach a Salafi version of Islam.

Acting against the backdrop of the widely adopted ‘jihad’ against the Soviet Union, which was promoted by the United States and its Arab and Muslim regional allies, Taliban, which literally means The Students, had always enjoyed a comfortable constituency, due to its association with the predominant Pashtun ethnic group.

In 1995 Taliban, which had first expanded its rule in the south of Afghanistan, took over Kabul for the first time. By the end of the 1990s, they took over almost all of the Afghani territories.

Under their rule, which only ended upon a US-led invasion in the wake of 9/11 attacks that the US blamed on the Afghanistan-based Al-Qaida, Taliban gave women a very hard time. Rights groups documented many forms of violations of basic rights including the right to education and work.

Today, Barr is convinced that these two rights are the most worrying concerns for women in Afghanistan today.

“Burqa is not the biggest concern; I am not saying that women don’t mind Burqa but I am saying that the real worry is about education and work,” Barr said. She added that it is very hard today to know what Taliban would end up doing but it is not very difficult to expect some serious problems.

Taliban forces recently barred journalists Khadija Amin (left) and Shabnam Dawran (right), both with the public broadcaster Radio Television Afghanistan, from working at the station's offices. AFP

When all is said and done, during the past 20 years, Barr noted, women had made some advances in terms of access to education and work. Today, she added, Taliban is taking control of a country where effectively there is a very high level of poverty – “70 percent according to some statistics” – and where in some cases women are either the only breadwinner or are contributing to putting dinner on the tables of their families.

“Now, overnight this is possibly vanishing,” she said.

In 2018, Doha hosted talks between the Donald Trump Administration and Taliban. Regrettably, Barr said, securing women’s rights was not guaranteed in the agreements that led to this month US withdrawal from Afghanistan.

“Taliban sets the bar as low as anyone would think of women’s rights,” Barr said. And, she added, the difference in the situation of women in Afghanistan today compared to where it was under the crumbled Afghani government “is just about the difference between night and day”.

Barr had been often critical of the level of commitment of the defunct Afghani government to fully implement the text of a law on the elimination of violence against women that was adopted in 2009. Today, she said, she is not sure about the nature of problems that Afghani women would have to put up with.

A Taliban fighter walks past a beauty saloon with images of women defaced using a spray paint in Shar-e-Naw in Kabul on August 18, 2021. AFP

She argues that ‘violence’ in the current context in Afghanistan could be so many things including possible forced early marriages of young women and adolescent girls as a result either of possible growing poverty or possible harsh interpretation of Sharia.

Barr would not even compare the possibilities of radicalism that Afghani women face today under Taliban to the radicalism that other women are facing in other countries where radical interpretations of Sharia is forced.

She notes that while doing interviews with women in an Afghani prison, she met a divorced woman who had allegedly been convicted with ‘zena’ (adultery). And given that she knew it was so rare, almost impossible, for a woman to get a divorce in Afghanistan under Taliban, Barr learned that this woman got her divorce in Iran when she was once a refugee.

“There have been millions of Afghani refugees in Pakistan and Iran… and when the women who had lived there came back to Afghanistan they had difficulties adjusting to the gender norms” which were more difficult under Taliban than in Iran or Pakistan.

This said, Barr agrees that the taste for radical gender conservatism has been high in Afghanistan – even before Taliban took over for the first time in the 1990s and also during the years prior their new takeover this month – although she would insist that “the situations before and after Taliban cannot be compared”.

Now, Barr added, there is also the question of new Afghani ‘refugees’. There are those who wish to get out, temporarily because they fear for themselves in Afghanistan but cannot get out mostly because of the situation at the airport. There are also those who had managed to get out and are not sure what would happen to them and how they would be able to support their families and relatives who are still in Afghanistan.

“We don’t know how things will go but for now the flow is not happening because people cannot get out; even people who have documentation cannot go to the airport,” she said.

Like other rights activists, Barr is worried for many people who feel that they are “trapped and are in hiding” – including high profile women activists, for example.

“I think that very few people want to leave for good; but people are scared,” Barr said. Worse still, she added, those people who want and can eventually leave don’t necessarily have a safe destination to head to. “It is not on offer at all,” she stated.

Today, Barr said, the international community has to act and not just talk about standing up for the rights of Afghani women. “It is a question of political will,” she said.

For now, she argued, Taliban seems to care about how they are perceived by the world and it is “super important that the international community uses this wish on the side of Taliban to hold them accountable to women’s rights”.

Barr is very skeptical about the ability of using economic sanctions to get Taliban to respect women’s rights. In a way, she argued, sanctions could end up causing more harm to a population with very high poverty rates than helping women.

Barr said that when 80 percent of the budget of the government comes from foreign aid, suspending aid could just mean a worsening humanitarian situation for the people. This, she said, could mean poorer health service, including COVID-19 prevention, and poorer quality of nutrition, among other things.

“When talking about sanctions one has to look at how services would be delivered; one cannot use aid as a blunt way of exercising leverage,” Barr said. Actually, she added, it would not matter much what are the Taliban policies, for example, on the education of women, if money is not there to get this service delivered.

During the past few days the US and the International Monetary Fund have curbed funds from Taliban.

Barr argued that what the international community needs to do is to make sure that the UN mission in Afghanistan is enabled to work closely, in cooperation with Afghani non-governmental organizations, to monitor the level of commitment Taliban is showing to women’s rights.

Meanwhile, Barr argued, there is a lot of work for the international rights organizations to do to make sure that the world just does not look away when women in Afghanistan sustain possible discrimination and suffering.

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