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A Call to Support Afghanistan’s Girls and Women

Merissa Khurma

"Afghanistan: Two Years Later" is a special series for Asia Dispatches marking the two-year anniversary of the US withdrawal and Taliban takeover of Afghanistan.

Ever since the Taliban took power in Afghanistan two years ago, their main target has been female Afghans. The religious fundamentalist group, which also held in power in Afghanistan from the late 1990s to late 2001, has thus far banned secondary and tertiary education for females as well as their right to employment. When women courageously took to the streets to protest these repressive measures, Taliban security forces responded with violence and arrests.

Tragically, the Taliban’s nearly 30-year history in Afghanistan has been a treacherous one, and it has negatively impacted the lives of many girls and women. However, the past two years have been especially devastating for Afghan girls and women who were, at a minimum, rightfully exercising their basic rights to education and work before the August 2021 takeover. Many of them nurtured big dreams to become teachers, doctors, entrepreneurs, technologists, astronauts, and more.

Condemnations of the Taliban’s draconian gender policies have come from various parts of the world, from the United States to Europe to leading Muslim majority countries including Saudi Arabia, Turkey, as well as Qatar, which has maintained a channel of communication with the Taliban post-2021. However, the Taliban have not budged. On the contrary, they remain adamant to continuously push all Afghan females out of the public sphere and into their homes. Most recently, they even banned beauty salons, which represented rare havens for many Afghan women to come together, network, and make livings (the majority of the beauty industry was run by women). Last month, the Taliban revoked licenses of more than 3000 beauty salons, denying many families income in a country that is grappling with economic hardship, pushing more and more Afghans into dependence on humanitarian assistance.

The international community needs to do more to ensure girls and women do not become a lost generation, hopeless and disenfranchised.

Today, after two years of the Taliban quelling dissent and repressing all females across the country coupled with a deteriorating economic and humanitarian crisis, there are renewed calls within the international community to exert pressure on the Taliban to reverse course. Former UK Prime Minister Gordon Brown, who currently serves as the United Nations envoy for education, has recently submitted a legal opinion to the International Criminal Court to open an investigation into what he called “gender apartheid” by the Taliban, adding that their repressive measures are a “crime against humanity.” [My colleague Nader Nadery, a Wilson senior fellow from Afghanistan, recently published a detailed analysis on this important issue.] Brown writes: “Gender persecution is a crime against humanity, for which individual Taliban members may be liable to prosecution under the ICC’s Rome statute, to which Afghanistan acceded in 2003.” He urges the international community to use these legal frameworks to pressure the Taliban. However, the international community needs to do more to ensure girls and women do not become a lost generation, hopeless and disenfranchised.

In my recent discussion with Sola Mahfouz and Malaina Kappor on their co-authored book Defiant Dreams, the self-education journey of Sola, a young Afghan woman, was a hopeful reminder of the power of online education.

Youth in Afghanistan, much like youth in other parts of the world, are tech savvy and can find ways to get online and seek opportunities to learn and to dare to dream. For Sola, it was the Khan Academy’s courses online that kept her going from topic to topic, from one small dream to a bigger one and eventually to her ultimate dream job in quantum computing in the United States. Sola’s courage, determination, and ambition are what I saw in many other young Afghan females I met or spoke with over the last two years. Marwa Dashti and Hilai Barakzai are two of my Afghan heroes. They were forced to flee Afghanistan after the Taliban takeover, but they are as determined as ever to continue to fight for women’s rights to education and to work. I was so struck in my conversation with them about their confidence and conviction that Afghans are “strong and do not want to live in chains rather in freedom.” [Marwa offered some additional inspiring words in comments for an Asia Program video series marking the one-year anniversary of the US withdrawal last year.] They too called for more support for online programs in education and capacity building. However, they also called for supporting Afghans on the ground who are protesting and who are mobilizing to resist the Taliban, peacefully.

Youth in Afghanistan, much like youth in other parts of the world, are tech savvy and can find ways to get online and seek opportunities to learn and to dare to dream.

Sola, Marwa, and Hilai represent beacons of hope for the future of Afghanistan females. However, they cannot walk the walk without support from the international community, particularly from the United States government, civil society, businesses and academia. Governments in the Muslim world that are part of the Organization of Islamic States should also exert pressure on the Taliban to lift their ban on the education of girls and women. Indeed, the onus of helping Afghanistan cannot and should not rest on the shoulders of the West. The precedent the Taliban are setting in extremist Islamist-led societies is one that threatens the stability, peace, and human security of many societies.

To be sure, for many, the risks of helping Afghan females reclaim their basic human rights may seem high, especially for helping those on the ground. But the stakes are incredibly high, given the very likely future scenario that will emerge if more is not done to help Afghan girls and women today: an Afghanistan that’s depleted of human talent, of educated girls and women, and of hope. That would not only be terribly tragic, but also a formula for disaster.

Merissa Khurma is program director of the Wilson Center’s Middle East Program.

Two men sit with their backs to the camera, looking out at the Afghan mountains.

Afghanistan: Hindsight Up Front

The Wilson Center’s Hindsight Up Front Initiative aims to help ensure that Afghanistan continues to figure in policy and public debates in Washington and beyond. It will keep you informed about the future of Afghanistan, its people, the region, and why it matters.

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About the Author

Merissa Khurma

Merissa Khurma

Director, Middle East Program
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Indo-Pacific Program

The Indo-Pacific Program promotes policy debate and intellectual discussions on US interests in the Asia-Pacific as well as political, economic, security, and social issues relating to the world’s most populous and economically dynamic region.   Read more

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The Wilson Center’s Middle East Program serves as a crucial resource for the policymaking community and beyond, providing analyses and research that helps inform US foreign policymaking, stimulates public debate, and expands knowledge about issues in the wider Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region.  Read more