Six months on, female activists in Afghanistan remain in the Taliban's line of fire
Mounting reports of Afghan women activists arrested and abducted have raised alarm over the fate of disappeared critics and the women’s rights movement in the war-torn country.
Last week, two more young females, Zahra Mohammadi, a dentist, and Mursal Ayar, a journalist, were allegedly captured by the Taliban from their homes in the Afghan capital, Kabul, in connection with protests advocating for the rights of women.
"Since their return to power, the Taliban have increasingly violated women’s rights by dispersing women’s rallies, detaining women and girls and restricting them from jobs, education, and other fundamental rights"
Their forced disappearance came less than a month after Tamana Paryani and Parwana Ibrahim Khil had vanished after participating in a Kabul protest, on 16 January, against recent abuses of women protesters by the Taliban and restrictions on women’s rights, including the compulsory wearing of the hijab.
During the rally, the group of about 20 female demonstrators set fire to a burqa. In retaliation, Taliban gunmen launched raids on homes of female campaigners days later.
Paryani posted a video on social media before armed men claiming to be from the Taliban intelligence broke into her house on the night of 19 January and took her away with three of her sisters. Earlier on the same night, Ibrahim Khil and her brother-in-law were kidnapped while travelling in Kabul.
Since the twin abductions, there have been accounts circulating of house searches of other women in relation to their participation in recent demonstrations.
On 13 February, the United Nations said that the four women activists had been released by the country's "de facto authorities".
"After a long period of uncertainty about their whereabouts and safety, the four 'disappeared' Afghan women activists, as well as their relatives who also went missing, have all been released by the de facto authorities," the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) said on Twitter.
“Afghan women are defying the Taliban rule, forcing them to rethink their policies, demanding their rights,” Shkula Zadran, the 2020 Afghan Youth Representative to the UN told The New Arab. “The Taliban are doing their best to suppress them.”
The young woman, who has been a vocal critic of the Taliban, left Kabul with her family within the first week after the Taliban retook the country on 15 August, and is currently based in the US.
“There’s a clear aim to silence these women,” former Afghan judge Najla Ayoubi and founding member of Women's Regional Network (WRN), commented to The New Arab. “By holding them hostage, it seems that the Taliban are also trying to pressure the international community to be recognised,” she added.
The lawyer, who lives in the US, was reportedly forced to flee for her life from the Taliban in 2015 after speaking up for women’s rights. She has carried on working on women’s issues on behalf of Afghan women.
She stressed that, in addition to Taliban oppression, women are confronted with a restrictive environment in the society, especially if they are involved in human rights activity which puts their close and extended families at risk of retaliatory acts. “The more the authorities put pressure on Afghan women, the more their families pressure them and limit their freedom of movement,” the WRN’s co-founder said.
"Afghan women are defying the Taliban rule, forcing them to rethink their policies, demanding their rights"
Mursal Ayar is thought to be the sixth woman to have been taken in recent weeks, according to a report by the BBC. However, accurate numbers of abducted protesters are very difficult to obtain due to sporadic reporting, essentially based on accounts provided by family members of victims. Access to tallies is even more complicated outside the capital, given the widespread fear of reprisals amid a violent clampdown against women’s rights defenders.
“It’s a trend going on in different parts of Afghanistan, but we only know of incidents documented in Kabul because families in other regions hardly come forward and report them,” Nilofar Ayoubi, an outspoken Afghan activist in exile, noted speaking to The New Arab and hinted how the women’s families are reluctant to speak or identify themselves for the safety of other family members.
One case that got some local media attention, she mentioned, was the mass arrest and capture of 40 protesting girls from Balkh last September. One week later, the bodies of eight detainees were found on the streets of Mazar-e-Sharif. Some were killed by their families – for honour – after their release from Taliban custody. Nine girls are still missing.
Leader of the Women's Political Participation Network, Nilofar Ayoubi fled her homeland a week after the Taliban takeover as she had been being blacklisted and hunted down alongside many others who were speaking about the rights of Afghan women vocally. From the day she left abroad until today, the feminist militant has been busy around the clock to support fellow activists inside Afghanistan and help evacuate part of them.
The women’s rights advocate pointed out that two weeks after news of the disappearance of Paryani and Ibrahim Khil a two-day meeting dubbed “Afghan Women’s Days” was hosted in the European Parliament to discuss the situation of women and girls in Afghanistan. A number of prominent female Afghan rights defenders at the conference raised concerns regarding the abduction and disappearance of women and demanded the international community’s support.
On 23 January, a Taliban delegation led by Foreign Minister Amir Khan Muttaqi and representatives of the USA, France, Britain, Germany, Italy, the EU and Norway held, as well as members of Afghan civil society met in Oslo for three-day talks focused on Afghanistan's humanitarian crisis.
The summit was met with an outcry from the Afghan civil society reviving the debate over whether the international community legitimises the Taliban government, particularly since it was held in Norway, a NATO country involved in Afghanistan from 2001 until the Taliban returned to power last summer.
"No matter how the violence affects them, Afghan women won’t go silent"
During the talks, Afghan activist Hoda Khamosh publicly called on Muttaqi to “pick up the phone right now and call Kabul [and] order the immediate release” of the detained women.
The Taliban have denied any knowledge of their whereabouts and say they are investigating the matter. Yet, Afghan women leaders continue to disappear at the hands of the Taliban, often taken to undisclosed locations.
In her speech addressed to the EU Parliament, Khamosh also demanded recognition of fundamental rights of citizens for women, and the establishment [by the UN] of an independent counsel to investigate the conduct and policies of the Taliban as well as the situation inside Taliban prisons, and immediately release prisoners of conscience based on political [beliefs] and gender.
The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights has called on the Taliban authorities for information about the whereabouts of the six women and their relatives, who all remain missing, and to ensure their safe and immediate release.
Although the location of the abductees is kept secret due to security concerns, some women’s rights groups within Afghanistan claim that they are being held in a high-security facility operated by the intelligence department.
“I fear for the lives of these women. I’m afraid they may remain disappeared and no one will know about them,” Zadran voiced her worry.
Beyond the Oslo talks and statements of denunciation from the United Nations and Western officials concerning the Taliban’s violent repression against women’s rights protesters, the international community has given a show of inaction until now.
“Perhaps regional and world leaders don’t get it, their credibility is on the line,” Sanam Naraghi-Anderlini, founder and CEO of the International Civil Society Action Network (ICAN) recently decried. “By abducting women with such impunity, the Taliban is making a mockery of every state and institution, of every norm of human rights and women’s rights.”
As the Taliban men continue to track down women’s rights activists, part of them have decided to go into hiding but others have kept protesting on the streets of Kabul despite the chilling escalation in the Taliban’s crackdown on the women's rights movement.
Nilofar Ayoubi is confident that Afghan women’s resistance cannot be broken. “The Taliban may go after girls and women and scare some of them. There will be many standing up,” the militant uttered. “There’s no way to stop them.”
Najla Ayoubi added, “No matter how the violence affects them, Afghan women won’t go silent."
Since their return to power, the Taliban have increasingly violated women’s rights by dispersing women’s rallies, detaining women and girls and restricting them from jobs, education, and other fundamental rights.
Alessandra Bajec is a freelance journalist currently based in Tunis.
Follow her on Twitter: @AlessandraBajec