RFE/RL – Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (Autor)
Khalida Khorsand, a 35-year-old rights activist from the western Afghan city of Herat, is skeptical about Taliban claims that it has dispensed with its strict rules against girls' education and women working.
The militant Islamic group made the declaration in the midst of recent peace talks with U.S. envoy Zalmay Khalilzad aimed at bringing an end to the long U.S. military presence in Afghanistan.
But Khorsand still remembers the notorious repressions under Taliban rule as a teenager in the western city of Herat when she risked the death penalty to study literature in a class disguised as a women's sewing group.
"After nearly 18 years without the Taliban in power, we now see that the Taliban are coming back in Afghanistan and there haven't been big changes for women's lives -- especially in rural areas," says Khorsand, who has dedicated much of her life since 2001 to advancing women's rights in western Afghanistan.
Even without the Taliban in power in Herat, Khorsand says, many hard-fought gains for women since the collapse of the Taliban regime already are under threat.
She attributes that situation to what she calls "a Taliban way of thinking" by many Afghans and a proliferation of unregistered religious schools in Herat teaching "radical Islam" to as many as 50,000 young people.
If the Taliban gets a role in the Afghan government as part of a peace deal, as Khorsand expects, she fears a floodgate will be opened for resurgent "radical Islamists" in Herat.
"I don't know why this has been allowed to happen under the current government of Afghanistan since 2014," Khorsand laments. "They are not paying attention to the rise of fundamentalists and radical groups in Herat.
"Now the city has become a safe haven for the radical groups that support the ideology of the Taliban," Khorsand says. "The fundamentalist groups in Herat are very organized and have a lot of money. They take the young people into madrasahs and teach to them the principles of the Taliban, and they are having an enormous impact on the young generation."
Those groups already have gained backing from municipal authorities for an unofficial ban on live musical performances in Herat and for a ban on celebrating Valentine's Day -- with both practices being declared "unIslamic."
In rural areas of Herat Province, where Khorsand worked for years to help women who are victims of domestic violence, Khorsand says she has seen disturbing signs of support for the punishments doled out by the Taliban under its strict enforcement of Islamic Shari'a law -- amputating the hands of thieves, publicly flogging people for drinking alcohol, and stoning to death those who engage in adultery.
Students at Herat's madrasahs deny being radical Islamists. But they also support a return to the prohibitions and punishments of the Taliban era.
"Allah says cut off the hands of a male thief and a female thief," says Jan Agha Jami, a 21-year-old at the Fakhr al-Madares madrasah in Herat. "When men and women commit adultery, whip them if they are single. If they are married, they should be stoned, and the Koran's rulings should be implemented in public.
"Music concerts are absurd because they are forbidden," Jami tells RFE/RL. "Music is bad for the mind, memory, and even human psyche. When a girl performs in front of strangers, the whole society is corrupted."
Reflecting on the growing popularity of such beliefs in Herat, Khorsand says "it makes no difference for women in Afghanistan if the Taliban exists or doesn't exist."
"The Taliban's way of thinking about women is the way many people are thinking in Afghanistan," she says. "A lot of Afghans have traditional ways of thinking and they believe the talk of the Taliban. Unfortunately, much of their way of thinking is against the rights of women."
Move Forward, Step Back
To be sure, Khorsand says there have been important advances for Afghan women since 2001 -- including language in the Afghan Constitution that enshrines the right to education and to work.
Women are members of parliament and can be seen on television, competing in sports, and performing in concerts in Kabul.
But the Afghan government since the collapse of the Taliban regime has included many conservative Islamists and former warlords whose attitudes about women are similar to the Taliban.
Sima Simar, the head of Afghanistan's Independent Human Rights Commission, says the gains for women since 2001 can easily be overturned and have rarely been implemented in rural areas where most Afghans live.
The 2018 Women, Peace, and Security Index by Georgetown University and the Peace Research Institute of Oslo ranks Afghanistan as the second-worst place in the world to be a woman. Only Syria was ranked worse.
That study notes that only 16 percent of Afghanistan's workforce is female and that half of all Afghan women have four years or less of education.
UNICEF, the United Nations children's agency, says only half of school-aged Afghan girls now go to school, and that only one out of five girls under 15 are literate.
Nearly two out of three Afghan girls are married when they are teenagers or younger. On average, they are sent by their parents into arranged marriages between the ages of 15 and 16.
Most imprisoned Afghan women have been jailed for so-called "morality crimes," such as leaving an abusive husband or demanding to marry a man of their own choosing.
A study issued in January by UN Women and the nongovernmental gender equality group Promundo found that 80 percent of Afghan women have experienced domestic physical violence.
That study found that only 15 percent of Afghan men think women should be allowed to work outside of their home after marriage, and that two-thirds of Afghan men think women already have too many rights in Afghanistan.
It is in this environment that Afghan President Ashraf Ghani has refused to put a bill to a parliamentary vote that would prohibit violence against women -- despite years of domestic and international focus on the legislation.
Ghani has appointed only five women to a 37-member council tasked with trying to pave the way for direct peace talks between his government and the Taliban at a time when the Taliban refuses to talk directly with the Kabul government.
Only 10 women were invited to be part of a 240-strong delegation for so-called "all-Afghan talks" with the Taliban, and even then, the first round of those talks was canceled over reported complaints by the Taliban over the composition of the delegation.
No Happy Ending
Khorsand was one of about 20 women who, under Taliban rule in Herat, regularly attended covert literature classes for girls and women at a place known as the Golden Needle sewing school. The experiences of those young women were documented in a 2002 book by Sunday Times correspondent Christina Lamb called The Sewing Circles Of Herat.
Lamb tells RFE/RL that although women have fought bravely for their rights since the collapse of the Taliban regime in late 2001, many are now concerned that those gains will be lost as U.S. President Donald Trump's administration seeks a peace deal with the Taliban.
"Women are very unhappy because it seems as though in the rush to get out of Afghanistan, the Trump administration has prioritized only two things: that the Taliban renounce terrorism and that they stop attacking Americans and other NATO soldiers, and not that they respect the constitution and minorities and equal rights," Lamb says.
"This has left women very exposed -- which considering that women's rights had been very much part of the initial reason for removing the Taliban, it's very disappointing," Lamb says.
"I'm sure that the Taliban will insist on having some share in power as part of negotiations," Lamb says. "They are saying at the moment in these negotiations that things have changed, that they will allow girls to go to school and for women to work. But who knows what the reality will be were they to actually have power again.
"We certainly have seen in some areas [under Taliban control recently] women being lashed by Taliban because they're not regarded as being properly covered," Lamb says. "It's very risky and I can see why women are extremely concerned."
As for the women Lamb wrote about in The Sewing Circles Of Herat, she says most have not seen a happy ending to their story after 18 years.
"Sadly, those particular women who bravely met under the guise of the sewing circles and who were writing stories and poems secretly, most of them have left the country or have stopped writing because they are not happy with the situation," Lamb tells RFE/RL.
"One of them, a poet called Nadia Anjuman, was actually killed by her husband because he wasn't happy about the fact that she was speaking publicly and writing about women's rights," Lamb says.
In 2016, Khorsand left Afghanistan for Ottawa, Canada, where she lives with her husband and twin 14-year-old daughters and remains in regular contact with rights activists in Herat.
Khorsand tells RFE/RL she went to Canada for her daughters' sake because it is her "primary duty as a mother" to ensure that they get the best education she can provide them.
Once her daughters finish school, Khorsand vows to enroll in a university human rights program in Canada -- and then return to Herat "to continue the fight" for the rights of Afghan women.
Copyright (c) 2010-2020. RFE/RL, Inc. Reprinted with the permission of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 1201 Connecticut Ave., N.W. Washington DC 20036.