The Taliban strikes another blow to Afghanistan’s women

In the autumn of 2020, during the pandemic’s bleakest days, one of my students at the School of Leadership, Afghanistan drew a picture.

It depicts a tent in a field ringed by mountains. The tent is blue fabric, staked to the ground at its corners with a mesh opening in one of its walls. Behind the mesh, obscured, stands a woman. She holds strings of colorful balloons, the strings extending out through the mesh, and she is releasing them, one by one, and letting them rise into the air.

The girl who drew the picture, this young Afghan artist, explained it this way: The blue tent is the blue burqa. The woman inside is every Afghan woman forced to erase herself beneath that blue fabric or behind the walls of her home. She stands for every woman who is alone and quarantined not just by covid-19 but by elements of society that claim ultimate jurisdiction over her life and future, and who fights back by sending her daughters to school. Daughters like the artist herself.

The woman in the blue tent opens her hand and her colorful balloons float away.

The picture drawn by a student of the author, Shabana Basij-Rasikh, at the School of Leadership, Afghanistan in the fall of 2020. (Courtesy of Shabana Basij-Rasikh)

Two years later, in the midst of days bleaker than any I could have ever imagined for my country, the men of the Taliban sit comfortably in Kabul and take aim with their weapons and casually blast the balloons of our hopes out of the sky, one by one.

The latest shot came on Tuesday, when the Taliban decreed that women are now barred from attending universities in Afghanistan, effective immediately and indefinitely. It’s a project that began in March, when it banned girls from attending school past sixth grade yet kept universities open.

That’s over now. What remains in my country is this: Girls can attend school through sixth grade — or, said another way, more or less until they enter puberty. And then nothing.

In the Taliban’s Afghanistan, there is no need for adolescent girls to study. There is no need for young women to learn. Women have their purpose. The relentless codification of control over their futures, their ambitions, and their bodies has unfolded across 2022 with slow brutality.

Almost since the day the Taliban seized power last summer, I have asked the world not to look away from Afghanistan. I have asked you not to look away from Afghan women and girls, and from the men who are the judges, juries and executioners of dreams.

I ask this for the same reason that Rina Amiri, the U.S. special envoy for Afghan women, girls and human rights, wrote on Twitter last month: “Those who fear a radicalized Afghanistan should be alarmed by the Taliban’s policies against women & girls, denying them education, work in most sectors, even small joys such as the right to go to a park. This extremism will lead to instability, poverty & more population flight.”

Yes. It absolutely will. It already has. So look, and see, and act.

Act to boldly support and publicly advocate for Afghan women — women who are beaten and shot at, and whose bodies appear cast away at roadsides and in dumpsters and who still call even now for freedom and the right to work and to learn. To Muslim-majority nations I say: Act and speak out in the strongest terms against the Taliban’s utterly un-Islamic decrees.

I personally benefited from the bravery of Afghan women in the 1990s under the Taliban’s first regime. I am who I am because they did what they did for girls like me, risking their lives to teach us in secret. It’s in their honor that I continue our fight for dignity and justice, now and forever.

A new generation of Afghan women is being pushed off the pathway toward education and independence. The bright balloons that once filled our sky are punctured and falling to earth.

These women and their hopes are allies against extremism that the world can’t afford to lose. See them, hear them, honor them. Don’t look away.

 The Taliban strikes another blow to Afghanistan’s women