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Under the Veil of Oppression: The Agonizing Plight of Afghanistan’s Hazara Women

This piece was originally published in the Dot-Mom Column, the blog of the Maternal Health Initiative.

The recent arrests of women in Dasht-e-Barchi of Kabul, Daikundi province, and Jaghori district of Ghazni in Afghanistan by the Taliban for inadequate adherence to Islamic dress codes highlights a critical and distressing situation. These events are not an isolated occurrence. Rather, they are a reflection of the intensifying oppression and systemic threats faced by women in the country, particularly those from ethnic and religious communities such as the Hazaras.

The Hazaras have faced marginalization and systematic violence since the late 19th century. Now they are experiencing a resurgence of suppression under the Taliban’s rule. This oppression is not limited to gender-based discrimination, but is also compounded by biases against their ethnicity, faith, and values. According to a UN report on the human rights situation in Afghanistan, from August 30, 2021, to September 30, 2022, there have been continuous threats and attacks against the Hazara community, with 16 out of 22 recorded attacks specifically targeting them.

Precarious and Vulnerable Lives

The rule of de facto authorities in Afghanistan has created an evident gender apartheid, severely depriving women and girls of their fundamental rights—including the right to education, work, freedom of movement, public speech, political participation, and more. And the recent arrests of women and girls, including Hazara girls in Daikundi, is a stark reminder of the precarious and vulnerable state of their lives under Taliban rule.

The strict dress codes enforced by the Taliban are not just about clothing. They are a method to control and dominate every aspect of women’s lives, undermining their autonomy and dignity. In addition to these clothing restrictions, Hazara women, like others in Afghanistan, face severe limitations on their movement around cities without male accompaniment and on their ability to work. These constraints significantly impede their freedom and their capacity to contribute to society and strive for better futures.

The Taliban’s restrictions have had far-reaching implications, especially on the mental health of Hazara women who already grapple with the trauma of long-term conflict and targeted terrorist attacks, such as the horrific 2020 assault on a maternity hospital in Dasht-e-Barchi and Kaaj Educational Center. The arbitrary arrests of recent times now have added an additional layer of psychological strain on Hazara women, as the constant fear of persecution and the cultural shame and distrust after being detained push them into deeper isolation and risks of domestic violence at home.

This pervasive sense of insecurity and helplessness creates conditions for the development of depression, anxiety, stress, trauma and other mental and emotional issues. If left untreated, these also can lead to development of psychosomatic disorders—or even suicide attempts. And the significant prevalence of mental health disorders among Afghan women and the lack of adequate healthcare facilities and educational resources in places where the Hazaras live (such as Dasht-e-Barchi) further exacerbates the vulnerability of minority women.

Considering that Afghanistan’s current de facto authority has no history of prioritizing mental health, the prospect of any redress for these ills is nonexistent. Thus, it is crucial that the international community consider serious action to stop the ongoing inhumane pressure on Hazara women and bring its perpetrators to justice. The mental health impact on these women is profound and requires direct funding and international support for mental health initiatives, especially through accessible in-person and online platforms.

Additional Challenges Loom for Hazaras

Yet the gender apartheid—and the damage it wreaks on women’s safety, mobility, and mental health—are not the only factors threatening Hazaras in Afghanistan. The country’s socio-economic landscape also is heavily influenced by ethnic divisions.

Regions with a high concentration of minorities such as the Hazaras are often the most underdeveloped, and suffer from poor infrastructure, low literacy rates, and limited access to basic amenities. They also encounter greater difficulties due to their remote location, inadequate healthcare facilities, and limited transportation networks. These circumstances lead to further marginalizing minority women, curtailing their access to education, healthcare, and opportunities for economic empowerment.

As members of the Hazara community, we have encountered numerous stories that convey a deep sense of fear of the added restrictions that have been heightened by the recent arrests. These narratives highlight an increased apprehension among families about the safety and freedoms of their girls and daughters.

One particularly striking case involved a single mother, a healthcare provider, who faced intense pressure from her in-laws. They feared for her safety and urged her not to go to work. In Afghanistan, women are generally restricted from working, but healthcare providers are a notable exception to this structure, and are allowed to work and earn. This woman is also the sole breadwinner and mother of three children, and found herself in an even more dire situation after her husband, a soldier, was killed by the Taliban under the previous regime.

This story illustrates the complex challenges faced by women who are permitted to work in certain sectors, yet still navigate a landscape of fear and uncertainty. There is also a sense within the broader community that the arrested women had adhered to the dress code, and a feeling that the Taliban’s actions were less about religious enforcement and more about exercising control and instilling fear. This perception has intensified the sense of dread and helplessness in the Hazara community, further curtailing the already limited freedoms of our women.

The arbitrary detention of Hazara women for their attire is a stark reminder of the multifaceted oppression faced by minority women in Afghanistan. Their struggle is compounded by gender, ethnic, and socio-economic discrimination, making their path to empowerment exceptionally challenging. The resilience of these women is remarkable, but it is a resilience born of relentless adversity.

It is time for the world to stand in solidarity with them, turning their silent cries into a collective call for justice and equality. The international community must recognize and respond to these intersecting forms of oppression, ensuring that efforts to support Afghan women are inclusive and sensitive to the unique challenges faced by minorities. Coordinated global efforts are essential to ensure that support for Afghan women is inclusive and attuned to the unique challenges faced by minorities.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not express the official position of the Wilson Center.

The authors would like to express their sincere gratitude to Mr. Bismellah Alizada, doctoral researcher at University of London, UK for his insightful review and valuable comments, which have significantly contributed to the depth and accuracy of the discussion on the situation of the Hazara community in Afghanistan. His expertise has been indispensable in enriching our understanding of this complex issue.

Sources: 8am Media, Aljazeera, Doctors without Borders, OHCHR, Relief Web, The BMJ, and United Nations.


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