Afghan women deserve a Nobel Peace Prize

Under the Taliban regime, Afghan women are facing growing hostility and restrictions, but they continue to resist.

Over the past few weeks, there has been a vivid debate among Afghans on which prominent individual from among our women compatriots deserves a Nobel Peace Prize. Some have suggested women who held official positions before the Taliban takeover of Kabul in 2021. Others have supported women’s rights activists in exile.

Still others have named Fatima Amiri, a 17-year-old girl who survived the September 30th bombing of the Kaj Educational Center in Kabul’s Dasht-e-Barchi neighbourhood. The attack killed dozens of students, mostly girls, who had gathered at the private school to take a mock test for the Kankor exam, which is needed to enter public universities in Afghanistan.

Notwithstanding being traumatised, suffering from serious injury and mourning the loss of her classmates, she took the Kankor exam and scored above 85 percent, which made her eligible to study her favourite subject, computer science, at Kabul University – something she is now barred from doing.

Indeed, Fatima has emerged as a symbol of women and girls’ struggle for their rights under the Taliban regime.

As a father of two girls, I constantly worry about the present and future of my children. But young women like Fatima and others that I see or hear about in my everyday life give me hope that things will change.

Since the Taliban took over Kabul, its government has imposed various restrictions on women. Afghan girls have been barred from going to high school and university, and even private educational institutions. Afghan women have been banned from going to parks, gyms, and other public places and from working in nongovernmental organisations and certain government institutions. They are also not allowed to travel alone and have to wear a head-to-toe covering in public.

As a result, places in Kabul that used to bustle with women and girls are now almost completely dominated by men. Many coffee shops that were the favourite hangout spots for girls and women have had to close down, as they have lost many of their customers. Parks no longer enjoy crowds, as men cannot go there with their families or girlfriends, and many beauty parlours ran out of business as women are reluctant to visit them.

But Afghan girls and women have resisted the injustice of being stripped of their rights to education, work and access to public spaces. They have held protests in many cities, especially Kabul, demanding their rights.

However, the Taliban authorities have responded with an increasingly harsh crackdown, and some of the protesters and activists have been arrested and imprisoned.

Activist Zarifa Yaqubi, for example, was arrested in November last year after she tried to launch a women’s rights movement. She was detained for 40 days.

When I spoke to Zarifa last month, she held back her tears and refused to talk about her imprisonment out of fear. She told me she was traumatised and had to take medicine and receive psychological care.

She said that the world is unwilling to support Afghan girls and their struggle, and only issues empty condemnations. In her view, the international reactions to Iranian women’s protests were much more powerful and visible.

But Afghan women have not given up. Girls and young women have started flocking to secret schools led by courageous teachers. Others have joined online classes organised on messaging apps like WhatsApp and Telegram.

When the Taliban declared a ban on private educational institutions in December 2022, I joined other volunteers to teach English to high-school and university-age girls. Information about online classes spreads through word of mouth and when there are enough students, we get them together in a WhatsApp or a Telegram group.

We record the lessons and send them as voice messages, along with other teaching materials, in these apps and give them home assignments. They download the lessons, listen, do their homework and then send it back in the same way.

Women have also not given up on employment. Despite restrictions and harassment, women continue to run their own businesses – such as beauty parlours and cosmetics stores – and some even work as street vendors. Women also continue to work as nurses and doctors in hospitals and teachers at elementary schools.

Afghan women abroad also contribute to the struggle. A number of activists, journalists and former officials who fled the country work tirelessly to keep the Afghan women’s cause on the international agenda.

They speak up about the imprisonment and torture Afghan women have faced and challenge the Taliban’s claims that its decision to restrict women is based on religious considerations. This pressure is contributing to the continuing international reluctance to recognise the Taliban government and normalise relations with it.

Indeed, Afghan women have demonstrated incredible bravery, resilience and dignity in their fight for their rights. They are challenging an armed group and a merciless government that many Afghan men have failed to stand up to. I know that as my girls grow up, they will have plenty of Afghan heroines to look up to.

The world needs to recognise these women and girls’ courage and support them in their fight. They more than deserve the Nobel Peace Prize.

Afghan women deserve a Nobel Peace Prize