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Afghanistan’s women in exile continue to push for equality

Activists and former politicians put pressure on the international community regarding concerns over key women’s rights

- August 18, 2022

On Aug. 13, a group of women demonstrated in front of the Education Ministry in Kabul, demanding “bread, work and freedom.” This week marks one full year since the Taliban’s August 2021 takeover in Afghanistan. Many warned that the Taliban would quickly act to reverse the advances in women and girls’ rights — predictions that have proved highly accurate.

Afghan women — including some who still reside in Afghanistan and many who fled Taliban rule — haven’t remained silent. These women, including former politicians and longtime activists, continue to mobilize to demand women’s rights and gender equality across all aspects of life in Afghanistan.

How have women fared under Taliban rule?

Within days of taking over the presidential palace, the Taliban began reversing the many advances in gender equality achieved over the past two decades. The Taliban dismissed female employees from banks, universities, media and most other places of employment. Afghanistan’s new government allows women to exit their homes only if accompanied by a male guardian, reinstating a requirement from the Taliban’s earlier time in power, from 1996 to 2001. And despite international condemnation of the new restrictions on education, secondary education for girls in Afghanistan remains banned.

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In the face of the Taliban’s repression, women have mobilized. In Afghanistan, women have taken to the streets of major cities throughout the past year to protest their marginalization from public life. These protests often end in violent attacks at the hands of the Taliban. Others continue their activism while remaining in hiding, such as operating underground schools in Afghanistan for girls who have no other means of obtaining an education.

These efforts are not without risk. Reports of violence against women and girls have been on the rise, including news of targeted killing and kidnapping of female activists who have been resisting the reversal of their rights.

Activists in exile have stepped up their work

My research focuses on female parliamentarians and leaders who suddenly found themselves out of office with the return of the Taliban. While the Taliban dismissed government officials regardless of gender, women comprised a sizable number of policymakers in Afghanistan, thanks to constitutional gender quotas that reserved at least 27 percent of the parliamentary seats for women.

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As I’ve argued previously, Afghanistan adopted this quota provision as a result of local women’s activism during the post-2001 era, with important support from the international and transnational community. Countries around the world use gender quotas to boost women’s access to political decision-making. Given the male-dominated nature of most legislatures, quotas may also contribute to the creation of a critical mass of women in politics — which helps boost representation of women’s needs and demands in policymaking.

Quotas can also help support women as leaders even after they are removed from formal political roles. My research suggests that many of Afghanistan’s female politicians — some with years of experience — continue to view themselves as representatives of women’s interests, even after the Taliban ousted them from power. Hundreds of female leaders at the national and local levels were forced to flee suddenly a year ago. After hasty arrivals in major cities such as Istanbul, Athens or Toronto, these former politicians have worked hard to collectively pressure the international community on key women’s rights concerns.

My interviews with female Afghan activists revealed that their strategies in exile have mostly consisted of positioning themselves as spokespeople and representatives of the women of Afghanistan as they engage with and lobby international organizations. Despite being spread out across the globe, many former parliamentarians have formed networks and remain in regular contact with one another to coordinate their activities.

These networks of female former parliamentarians and leaders in exile have captured the attention of international and transnational organizations, providing further platforms to voice their demands. The European Union’s diplomatic service, for instance, has organized a number of public events in recent months — inviting former Afghan female leaders to share their objectives on women’s rights, peace and security in Afghanistan and the region.

Has this lobbying proved effective?

These networks have had a number of important successes in securing support for women’s rights. Over the past year, for instance, female leaders have lobbied key Western powers and organizations to deny the legitimacy of Taliban rule in Afghanistan. At times, U.S. and European leaders have demonstrated some willingness to recognize the Taliban. The extensive lobbying and reporting on human rights violations in Afghanistan have been one factor that has prevented this. Recognizing girls’ education as a fundamental necessity, many women have focused on efforts to pressure the Taliban to reopen girls’ schools.

My research revealed that many female Afghan leaders aren’t necessarily opposed to the international community meeting with Taliban leaders, particularly given the humanitarian crisis in Afghanistan. But female activists emphasize the importance of ensuring that Afghan women are present in all meetings held with the Taliban outside of Afghanistan. Similarly, women have been calling for the international community not to send male-only delegations and force the Taliban to meet and negotiate with women.

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Activism by Afghanistan’s women in exile has also succeeded in facilitating the reopening of nongovernmental organizations in Afghanistan that support women’s rights, most of which were forced to cease operations following the August 2021 takeover. Global sanctions against the Taliban have severely restricted funding for NGOs in Afghanistan. A number of female Afghan activists have convinced the international community to release funds within Afghanistan, to be used and distributed directly by established women-focused NGOs for the support of communities.

The key advancements of the past two decades in Afghanistan on women’s rights, including the adoption of the gender quotas, have helped support a coalition of politically experienced and politicized women inside and outside of the country who are interested in working toward peace, gender equality and democracy. These efforts offer an important reminder of the goals of U.N. Resolution 1325, a landmark 2000 resolution on the significance of women’s inclusion in peace, security and development processes.

Mona Tajali (@MonaTajali) is an associate professor of international relations and women’s, gender and sexuality studies at Agnes Scott College. She is the author of Women’s Political Representation in Iran and Turkey: Demanding a Seat at the Table (Edinburgh University Press 2022) and co-author with Homa Hoodfar of Electoral Politics: Making Quotas Work for Women (WLUML 2011).