Women’s Rights: The Forgotten Fight in Afghanistan

Note: The following article impacts those still in hiding in Afghanistan. To protect them, all names and locations have been purposefully omitted from this publication unless already previously published by one of the articles linked herein.

On August 24, I broke over a year of silence to tell you the story of the Afghan refugees. It was a story that left a lasting impact on me and created bonds with people still fighting injustice today around the world. Following news that the Taliban closed education indefinitely for women, I knew we needed to revisit Afghanistan. What I found was a story that left me in awe of the amazing strength of women. It is a story that has me hopeful we can still see positive change in the world, but it is also a story that needs your help to make a difference.

In Afghanistan, women make up roughly half of the population, and it is for women that we went into war in Afghanistan in the first place. According to this article from Human Rights Watch, an image of Afghan women in flowing blue burqas helped sell the war, but we lost sight of that humanitarian purpose over time. Just before leaving the country in 2021, funds for women’s rights in Afghanistan had been cut to roughly one-fifth of what they were in 2010. Mahbouba Seraj, a longtime women’s rights activist in Afghanistan, says “shame on you” to the whole world for that because these funds were actively saving lives in Afghanistan.

But are American taxpayers really responsible for peace in the Middle East?

Providing aid for foreign countries has been a topic of debate over the years, but we generally believe it creates goodwill and diplomatic relations with other countries. According to this 2019 article, foreign aid has been a bipartisan policy in effect for over 75 years in America. Most Americans believe we give away around 25% of the federal budget to foreign aid. When polled, most of us consistently feel our foreign aid should be about 10%.

How shocking, then, is it to learn that what we actually give is less than 1% of our federal budget?

Since 2001, the United States spent over $787 million to promote gender equality in Afghanistan. During our 20 year occupation, great strides were made legally. A constitution was adopted that claimed women were equal to men. Additionally, the 2009 Elimination of Violence Against Women (EVAW) law provided legal protection for women and girls against domestic violence.  These laws were not perfect nor were they easy to get enforced by the predominantly male government, but their mere existence was progress. All that progress for women’s rights was halted when the Taliban returned to power this year.

Still, an entire generation of Afghan women have grown up believing the dark days of the Taliban were in the past with their mothers and grandmothers–not in the future for them. They refuse to sit and take this regression silently.

Not all Afghans caved into fearful submission to the Taliban. On the contrary, many are standing up in bold protest for the cause of human rights. These activists are being met with beatings, sticks, whips, tear gas, and gunfire. An example of that is the cover image of this story. Nevertheless, they fight on. One I know about is busy going into rural areas and educating women on their options for legal aid and entrepreneurship despite the fact that a close family member was assassinated by the Taliban. Another is committed to getting the truth out through media even though it has cost him personal threats that made him leave his home and go into hiding.

Afghan women who have stood up for gender equality, democracy, and human rights clearly face imminent risks.

In this context, the U.S. government and its NATO allies have a responsibility to ensure that Afghan gender equality activists, women journalists, and judges are considered a priority group for evacuation, emergency visas, and relocation support, and to mobilize humanitarian aid for refugees and those who are internally displaced.

Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, August 18, 2021 article

A Heart for Their Homeland

Most of the Afghan people left behind love their country and have great pride in where they come from. Here is what one of my activist sources had to say about being an Afghan and wanting to leave:

Afghans are patriots just like you. They never want to leave their homeland, but when your homeland is in the hands of an oppressive and terrible regime with no hope of it changing anytime soon, the only dim light that exists is to leave for a while.

(Under the Taliban), you can’t breathe. All rights and concessions are taken from you, and you feel like you are in a prison. Despair and frustration become your friend. You become afraid to even think about the future. You are (functionally) dead though you are still alive…The only hope that remains is a dream in itself: the hope to emigrate elsewhere for a while.

The people who came to us with lessons of freedom, democracy, and human rights want to forget us and leave us alone right when our country is slowly moving towards freedom.

Extremism grows by choking out education and every form of advancement until our country itself becomes a terror effecting other countries and nations. Forgetting Afghanistan is not the solution. We need help to push back against further setbacks.

An Afghan Human Rights Activist

The Dark Days of the Taliban Return

In the 1990s when the Taliban was at its peak in Afghanistan, you couldn’t be a woman in public without a male “guardian” and that public exposure was always limited and purposeful (for shopping, etc.). Modern Afghan women are beginning to see a return to those days. Stories of persecution are leaking out.

For example, one woman was a college professor with a Ph.D. When the Taliban took over, the university sent her home and told her she would be on “unpaid leave until further notice”. A highly educated single woman living alone, she found herself in danger with the Taliban because it is frowned upon for a woman to live alone. She has to find creative ways to provide for herself and hide the fact that she is living alone. 

Another woman was tricked into meeting a boy from a prominent family. When she met him, he raped her and got her pregnant. Though she was a victim, she was shunned by her family, prosecuted for having sex outside of marriage, and forced to give up her baby for adoption. When she tried to get justice against her attacker, he was able to pay off the legal system and avoid charges completely. She was only 17.

Summary and Call to Action

It’s hard to imagine living in a world so hostile to freedom. For those born after 2000 in Afghanistan, the baby America they were building was ripped away from them and a foreign culture was forced on them. Despite their touts of being a new, progressive party, the Taliban has not changed. They are still the same dictatorship that ruled by fear and bullying in the 1990s. The difference now is that they are bullying people who know better. Is it any wonder why so many Afghans try to flee? Would you not do likewise if it were your life, your family, being threatened?

For every Afghan brought to safety since the US withdrawal in September 2021, there are considerably more left behind still begging for a way out. The planes are still moving, but the documentation necessary to get on one is harder and harder to come by these days. Even border countries are closing to assistance because of their fear of Taliban retaliation. What options are left but protest?

We take this risk and protest to show the Taliban that we are not women of 1990 to be scared of whipping and forcing us to wear hijabs or forced marriage.

Taliban should win people’s minds and hearts through talks, not through the whip, beatings and extremism.

Hoda Khamosh, protest organizer, in an interview with CBS News

For lasting change to happen in Afghanistan, it has to start from within. If enough people stand up to the tyranny of the Taliban, maybe the tide will change, but that doesn’t remove the fact that they still need help from outside their country.

For those protesting on the streets today in Afghanistan, it’s not about getting attention, it’s about survival. Silence and compliance are no longer options.

So how can we help this fight?

1. Acknowledge that the fight exists.  US media whitewashes what happens in Afghanistan like it is some unavoidable casualty. Our fear fills in the gaps and makes up lies about the people coming here as refugees. These people are not terrorists or freeloaders. They just want an opportunity to work, make their own way, and live in peace. They don’t want a handout or special accommodations. If all we have for them is a tent in the woods, they will be grateful. It is our freedom they want, not our stuff.

2. Be vocal. Tell your friends, family, neighbors, and strangers about what is happening, and educate them on the truth you have just read here today. Call your government representatives and urge them to take action. If you aren’t sure what to say, consider sharing this letter sent by over 100 non-profit organizations to US National Security Advisor, Jake Sullivan. Better still, sign the letter being compiled to President Biden right now. Public opinion matters and, yes, one voice really CAN change the world. Share on your social media accounts. Share in person. Share everywhere and in every way you can.

3. Get connected and serve. There are plenty of organizations still working to get Afghans to safety. Whether it is the logistics of moving them or resources to house them in safe countries, we need help in every area of the mission. Two missions actively working to help on both fronts are Operation Recovery and Task Force Pineapple. Another organization helping those at risk right now is the Human First Coalition.

To Those In Need of Assistance

Immigration options that work take time. If you are reading this and need assistance, reach out to Operation Recovery and the Human First Coalition. Be prepared to be patient, persistent, and cautious; if you get anxious and stop being vigilant about safety, you can jeopardize both yourself and the mission.

To Those In America With Freedom

If you are reading this from a place of safety–especially in America–be grateful. Realize people around the world are actively fighting to have what you get every day for free. Be thankful for the freedom others bought for you, and pray for the freedom and peace of our brothers and sisters in Afghanistan. 

In the long history of the world, only a few generations have been granted the role of defending freedom in its hour of maximum danger. I do not shrink from this responsibility–I welcome it…

The energy, the faith, the devotion which we bring to this endeavor will light our country and all who serve it–and the glow from that fire can truly light the world.

And so, my fellow Americans: ask not what your country can do for you–ask what you can do for your country. My fellow citizens of the world: ask not what America will do for you, but what together we can do for the freedom of man.

President John F. Kennedy, Inaugural Address, January 20, 1961