Afghanistan: Taliban abuses cause widespread fear

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HRW special feature

Part I

THE Taliban in Afghanistan’s western city of Herat are committing widespread and serious human rights violations against women and girls, Human Rights Watch and the San Jose State University (SJSU) Human Rights Institute have said.

Since taking over the city on August 12, 2021, the Taliban have instilled fear among women and girls by searching out high-profile women; denying women freedom of movement outside their homes; imposing compulsory dress codes; severely curtailing access to employment and education; and restricting the right to peaceful assembly.  

Women in Herat told the two organizations that their lives had been completely upended the day the Taliban took control of the city. The women had been employed outside their homes or were students and played active and often leadership roles in their community. They said that immediately after the Taliban’s arrival, they found themselves trapped indoors, afraid to leave their house without a male family member or because of dress restrictions, with their access to education and employment fundamentally changed or ended entirely. They said they faced economic anxieties due to lost income and their inability to work. They also faced distress and other mental health consequences as they contemplated an abrupt end to the dreams they had worked toward for many years.

“For the women in Herat we interviewed, life as they knew it had vanished overnight, and they were left hiding indoors, waiting in fear to see whether the Taliban would come for them,” said Halima Kazem-Stojakovic, a core faculty member of SJSU’s Human Rights Institute and a scholar on Afghanistan. “For these women, the best-case scenario is to be unharmed but forced to live a drastically diminished existence. The worst-case scenario is to be arrested or attacked for their past achievements or for their fight to keep their hard-earned rights.”

Afghan women protesting in Herat

Human Rights Watch and the SJSU Human Rights Institute conducted in-depth interviews by telephone in Dari with seven women in Herat, including activists, educators, and university students, about their experiences since the Taliban took over the city. The women all spoke on the condition of anonymity, out of fear for their safety.

Women in Herat were among the first to organize protests in defense of women’s rights after the Taliban gained control of Kabul and most of the country. Organizers and protesters said they were not engaging in anti-Taliban protests or supporting the former government but were calling for the Taliban to respect their rights: to live without fear of reprisal against them and their family members; to be able to continue going to their jobs without requiring a ‘mahram’ (male family member as a chaperone); and to have girls above grade six return to school.

Within days of the Taliban takeover of Herat, a group of women asked to meet with local Taliban leaders to discuss their rights, and several days later they were able to meet with a Taliban representative. However, the official was inflexible: he told the women to stop insisting on their rights and that if they supported the Taliban, they would be rewarded with full amnesty for their past activities and maybe even get positions in the new government.

An Afghan protester woman arguing with one of the Taliban in Herat

Some of the women felt they had no choice but to protest and organized two demonstrations. About 60 to 80 women attended the first one, on September 2, and the Taliban did not intervene. But the Taliban’s response to the second protest, on September 7, was violent and abusive. Taliban fighters lashed protesters and fired weapons indiscriminately to disperse the crowd, killing two men and wounding at least eight more. The Taliban subsequently banned protests that did not have prior approval from the Justice Ministry in Kabul, ordering organizers to include information about the purpose of any protests and slogans to be used in any requests to the ministry.

“Afghan women have the right to express their views on any matter, especially when their most basic rights – to study, work, and even leave their own homes – are in jeopardy,” said Heather Barr, associate women’s rights director at Human Rights Watch. “The Taliban compound the abuses they are committing against women when they also deny them their right to speak out.”

The women interviewed expressed particular concern that the Taliban would again enforce the policy of requiring them to have a mahram with them whenever they left their home, as the Taliban did when they were previously in power, from 1996 to 2001. This requirement barred women from most public life, cut them off from education, employment, and social life, and made getting health care difficult. It also and made them completely dependent on male family members, blocking them from escaping if they experienced abuse at home.

A group of women holding banners gather to stage a demonstration for their rights in Herat, Afghanistan on September 02, 2021. (Picture courtesy Mir Ahmad Firooz Mashoof – Anadolu Agency)

Zabiullah Mujahid, a Taliban spokesperson, said in an interview in Kabul on September 7 that being accompanied by a mahram would only be required for travels longer than three days, not for daily activities such as attending work, school, shopping, medical appointments, and other needs. But Taliban officials in Herat have not been consistent in carrying out the policy. Some of the women interviewed said that Taliban fighters had stopped them on the streets, at universities, and other public places, and barred them from going about their business if they were not accompanied by a mahram.  

“The experience of women in Herat raises grave concerns about the extent to which the Taliban leadership in Kabul is able or willing to control the actions of their members across the country on human rights, including women’s rights,” Kazem-Stojanovic said. “The Taliban leadership should ensure that their statements upholding rights are respected in practice in all Afghan provinces. Claims by Taliban leaders to respect women’s rights will be meaningless if women and girls have to live in constant fear of abuse by the Taliban on their street.”

Afghan women: Panic and a rush to hide
Afghan women interviewed described the Taliban takeover of Herat as a shocking surprise. “Every day we were dressing the way we dressed in the past, and we were getting ready to go to work, to our job and duties,” said a university professor. “And we were hearing reports of Taliban capturing districts, but it was impossible for us to believe that [the] Taliban could defeat [the] government.”

The women said that based on past experiences of living under Taliban rule or hearing about life under the Taliban from others, they were fearful as the Taliban gained control of the city. “Seeing the Taliban is horrifying,” a school director said. “My body shakes just seeing them.”

“The first days, I couldn’t talk, couldn’t show any emotion,” the university professor said. “Twenty years ran through my memory. I worried so much. I had to go to a psychologist. I had no hope and was depressed.” Several women said they were anxious about the disappearance of the police as the Taliban rolled into the city and feared that crime and violence would escalate. Reports that the Taliban had rleased the city’s prisoners heightened their fears.

The women said that the Taliban who took charge of the city included people they knew and who also knew them. A professor discovered that one of her students was the sibling of a Taliban member. A student described a male classmate taunting women in the class chat group with his delight over the Taliban’s triumph.

A teacher said she fled from fighting in her area to what she thought would be the safety of her in-laws’ home, only to find her brothers-in-law jubilant over the Taliban’s triumph. “I thought they were friends, but they [were like the] Taliban,” she said, adding that they insisted that her 10-year-old daughter had to wear a long veil. “My brothers-in-law turned against me,” she said. “They told me to wear a burqa. …They were telling me, ‘You made a lot of efforts for 20 years, and what is that? Your work was useless, baseless, and Sharia [Islamic law] is victorious.’ Things like that.”

Others worried that acquaintances might report them to the Taliban. “I fear people might tell the Taliban about me regarding complaints I have made over the years about men and people who have harassed my students,” the school director said.

Interviewees described a frantic scramble to conceal evidence of their prior lives and activities that might lead to reprisals against them and others, should it fall into the hands of the Taliban. Taliban forces have in the past committed reprisals against people seeking to educate girls. “I had to run to my school and hide everything,” the school director said. “Photos, awards, certificates on the halls of the school. Prizes we had won. I called co-workers to come help collect it all, put them in boxes, and put them away.”

Women feared not only for themselves, but also that the Taliban might target their family members in retaliation for their women’s work and activism. The Taliban have a history of abusing family members of people they seek to punish. (To be continued)