By Ali Ahmad & Michael Fanizadeh
“As a nation, we lost all our achievements, but as women, we lost our most basic and fundamental rights,” stated Husna Jalal during a discussion at the Austrian Parliament in Vienna. Jalal’s comments referred to over one year fight of Afghan women against the oppressive de facto Taliban rule since they gained power on the 15th of August 2021. Since the takeover, Afghan women and girls face discrimination, segregation and gender-based violence and have almost vanished from public life due to the strict interpretation of ‘Sharia law’ under the de facto authorities.
In collaboration with Women without Borders (WwB) and the Vienna Institute for International Dialogue and Cooperation (VIDC), the Austrian Parliament organized a public event on the 3rd of October titled “strong Afghan women: One year of resistance against the Taliban rule”. The event aimed to show support for the women’s struggle for equality and freedom in Afghanistan. With an estimated 150 attendees, the event was the first of its sort between three institutions.
The vice president of the Austrian parliamentary body, Susanne Janistyn-Novak, the ambassador for former government of Afghanistan, Manizha Bakhtari, who continues to serve as the country’s “de facto” ambassador in Vienna, the executive director of Women without Borders, Laura Kropiunigg, and the director of VIDC, Sybille Straubinger, all spoke about the situation of Afghan women and what external players such as civil society, the likes of VIDC and WwB and decision-makers such as the Austrian Parliament could do to help the women of Afghanistan.
During her opening remarks, Novak promised that the EU will not recognize the Taliban de facto until and unless women are included in an inclusive government. Despite the fact that global crises such as economic, energy, pandemic crises, and the war in Ukraine have overshadowed the attention of the European Union from women’s oppression in Afghanistan, Novak stated that no closed doors can hide the Afghan women.
“We are not going to forget the women in Afghanistan. We see women and girls in Afghanistan. We will not allow them to become invisible,” said Novak.
The de facto ambassador, Manizha Bakhtari, listed the number of harsh policies imposed by the Taliban in one year of their draconian rule. She blamed the Taliban for failing to form an inclusive and accountable government that respects the rights of all Afghans, particularly the rights of women and girls. While Afghan women in exile have protested across the world against the Taliban but the female protesters in Afghanistan have been attacked, beaten, whipped and arrested.
From Taliban 1.0 to Taliban 2.0
To highlight the oppression that women face in Afghanistan under Taliban rule, Suraya Pakzad, the director of Voice of Women Organization, Husna Jalal, the founder of a digital online platform known as “Young Afghan Women Movement”, and Masomah Regl, an activist in the Afghan diaspora community and the founder of Afghan diaspora organization in the Austrian city of Graz, FIVESTONES, delivered keynote speeches. After the Taliban reclaimed control in August 2021, Pakzad and Jalal were both forced into exile, going to Germany and the Netherlands, respectively.
Running an underground school during the first Taliban rule between 1996 and 2001, Suraya Pakzad founded her organization in 1998 to offer vital legal aid services, education, access to justice, and provide protection for women who were the victims of domestic violence. For over two decades, hundreds of Afghan women from different provinces received these services but all those hard-fought gains were wiped out and the rights of women and girls have been dismantled, said Pakzad.
In her address at the Parliament, Pakzad accused the Taliban of raiding her organization’s offices and confiscating all the office supplies, harassing, detaining, and torturing of her coworkers and family members after she was evacuated to Germany in August last year. As a veteran advocate for women’s rights, Pakzad has acquired the necessary skills to deal with the oppressive regimes of both the Taliban’s tenure in the 1990s (Taliban 1.0) and their return to power in August 2021, known as Taliban 2.0. Her organization had to alter its method of operation but continues to help women in need.
The new generation
Husna Jalal was just six years old when the U.S. ousted the Taliban from power in 2001 for harboring Osama bin Laden who masterminded the 9/11 attacks. She grew up under the new political order during the U.S. invasion. Jalal thanked the international community for educating her and her generation about ‘peace, democracy, and gender equality’. She is inspired by the courage shown by the young Afghan women on the streets of Kabul calling for equal rights and freedom. She reminded the audience at the Austrian Parliament that the Taliban are facing a different generation than what they faced in the 1990s when they were in power. She made it clear that her generation will not abandon Afghanistan.
“This is the new face of Afghanistan. These women are leading the non-violent resistance,” reiterated Jalal.
According to Jalal, Afghan women in the diaspora are not bystanders. They raise awareness about the oppression and atrocities against women that the Taliban are committing in Afghanistan. Women in Afghanistan resist on the streets, but women in exile resist with their voices and pens, Jalal said.
Husna Jalal expressed her frustration with how the international community and global civil society organizations have reacted so far to the plight of Afghan women since August 2021. It has been more than one year that girls beyond sixth grade cannot go to school. The situation for women is getting worse every day while the world has been watching. Regardless of international community support, she promised, the women’s resistance against the Taliban will continue.
“Whether the international community supports the resistance of Afghan women or not, they will continue resisting against the current de facto authorities,” promised Jalal with confidence.
As an Afghan-Austrian, Masomah Regl criticized Austria for not doing enough to evacuate Afghans who are in real danger because of the Taliban’s return to power. Applauding strong Afghan women in the diaspora makes less sense if the diaspora cannot help their family and friends who are in real danger because of their ethnicity or affiliation to the foreign forces as well as the former Afghan government.
Regl urged the Austrian government to evacuate Afghanistan’s most vulnerable populations. She has fought for her family to be evacuated from Afghanistan for the past year, but Austria has refused to accept any Afghans as refugees. She advised that Austria should act rather than merely speak hollow words and honor powerful Afghan women living abroad. She emphasized the importance of responding to Afghan women’s cries for assistance with deeds rather than words.
Regl complimented Austria, like other 45,000 Afghans living in Austria, for making them feel welcome and happy. However, she questioned how the Afghan diaspora could enjoy their life if their families and friends were not living in peace. Regl claimed that she and her community live in two worlds: the first is one in which they feel fortunate and content to live. Second, the diaspora has a duty to the world from which Afghans originated, Afghanistan. Her organization, FIVESTONES, through various events such as yoga sessions, and music programs encourages women to be resilient and independent. This does not necessarily imply breaking away from culture and family.
The people of Afghanistan are preparing for a brutal winter that is knocking on their doors. Food, water, sanitation, and hygiene services are critically needed. Pakzad said that any humanitarian help for Afghanistan must take gender equality into account and make sure it reaches the women and families who are at risk. The foreign world shouldn’t neglect to collaborate with Afghan women-led organizations because of their access to women and girls, according to Pakzad.
The collapse of Afghanistan was influenced by numerous internal and external factors. The Taliban took control of Afghanistan in August 2021, and both the prior administration and the West share responsibility. According to Jalal, if the international community wants to address its shortcomings, it should speak with the “right” individuals rather than those who have squandered opportunities during the past 20 years. She urged the international community to impose travel restrictions on Taliban members. Additionally, she asked that the Taliban be put under pressure to reopen girls’ schools beyond the sixth grade.
Afghan women in exile need a global network of support to advocate and lobby for the rights of Afghan women in Afghanistan. To ensure that Afghan women continue to get help, the international community should organize financial resources.
This article was initially published by the VIDC website.
Ali Ahmad is a Vienna-based researcher focusing on migration and diaspora studies and a consultant for VIDC.
Michael Fanizadeh is a project coordinator with VIDC.
Note: The contents of the article are of sole responsibility of the author. Afghan Diaspora Network will not be responsible for any inaccurate or incorrect statement in the articles.