Women in Afghanistan are fighting an unequal war. We need your support

Zahra Joya

The Guardian

Wed 6 Sept 2023

The Taliban have barred us from the workplace, cut our access to healthcare and closed schools to us. Must we struggle alone?

We suddenly all woke in the middle of the night. A piercing cry came from the corner of our room. It was my teenage sister, sobbing in the little room we rent in London. She always used to sleep in the same bed as my mother – until the fall of Kabul.

She wasn’t used to sleeping alone. That night, early in spring, she sobbed until dawn. Her pain was obvious: separation from my mother and a longing that became chronically painful for us all. Since our exile, I have been playing the role of mother, thousands of miles from our parents.

Afghanistan’s fall was not just the takeover of a country, but the separation of its people, including thousands of teenagers like my sister. The fall is also the story of a mother’s comfort, now missing for my sister and me. We miss her arms and the bed we could share, the food she cooked.

When I see my mother’s face, I can’t hold back tears at the deep lines that have settled on her face,

When the Taliban took over again in Afghanistan, countless lives were transformed in horrible and distressing ways. We were catapulted to another country, with a culture and language so different it felt like another planet.

Although being away from parents is exhausting, I still reassure my sister that, as Hazara girls and women, we are the lucky ones who now live in a safe and free country. There are young girls who were forced into marriages inside Afghanistan, and millions of girls have been deprived of basic rights.

Migration is a path that leads to a new world, one full of challenges and opportunities, but it comes at a cost. The feeling of loneliness and distance from family and friends does not leave you for a second.

On 24 August 2021, when I was forced into exile, I had never thought about the difficulties of living away from home and family. I didn’t have time to think because we were all so confused about what had just occurred.

But now, two years into exile, I am only in touch with my mother through WhatsApp; it’s a strange thing but it has become a familiar practice now. When I see my mother’s face, I can’t hold back tears at the deep lines that have settled on her face. In those wrinkles, I see the pain and suffering of the separation of a mother from her loved ones. I weep afterwards.

How did the Taliban manage to create the first gender apartheid system in front of the world?

Reviewing two years of Taliban rule in Afghanistan is full of despair and darkness. The first question is how the Taliban managed to create the first gender apartheid system in front of the world. How was this possible? Why have the women of Afghanistan been abandoned? What happened to those promises that the international community touted all the time?

Today, millions of school-age girls are deprived of education by the Taliban, made possible by the infamous peace deal that the US agreed with the Taliban in Qatar. Today, the universities are closed to women and girls. The opportunity to work has been taken from tens of thousands of women who were breadwinners and heads of their families. Women’s access to health centres is limited, and the heavy burden of poverty and hunger is backbreaking.

The Taliban have excluded women from public life. Can you picture 50% of the population completely isolated in every sense? Why do we Afghan women pay the price for the Taliban’s return?

Afghanistan’s women now have to fight for something basic: the right to leave the house, to go to school and to parks, to get a job. When I founded Rukhshana Media, I never imagined such a dark day. I feel hopeless – not because I don’t have the will to fight, but when I try to describe and draw attention to this exceptional human condition.

During these two years of Taliban rule, I have received images of mutilated bodies of women and men tortured and killed by the Taliban forces. I could never have imagined such violence.

In these two years, we at Rukhshana have written and reported on the pain of protesting women who were flogged by Taliban fighters. We have written about the murder and disappearance of policewomen who, with the support of the west after 9/11, fought against inequalities in a patriarchal society and made room for themselves in the system.

In these past two years, it seems that the vast majority of Afghan men support women’s education, but this consensus has never been utilised as a means of mobilising people against the unacceptable situation under the Taliban. Women are left alone in their fight against the Taliban.

The Taliban regime does not look at women’s situation as a national issue, and international human rights institutions do not take action beyond publishing statements and reports.

As part of our research at Rukhshana Media, we examined the devastating effects of shutting schools to girls. Our findings showed girls suffering severe psychological problems. Suicide, femicide, forced marriage and domestic violence have increased drastically. It is hard to understand the depths of this darkness, and international human rights organisations seem oblivious to these issues.

We live in a turbulent world. War, violence, natural disasters, fear and anxiety have become integral to our lives. From the earthquake in Turkey and the devastating floods in Pakistan to the war and violence in the Middle East and Ukraine, life has become bitter and unbearable for many. The number of displaced people in the world increases every day; hunger and economic crisis lurk even in the world’s largest economies.

However, women in Afghanistan are fighting a full-scale and unequal war. We need your support, just as the people of Ukraine want your support in their battle against the Russian invasion. Please do not leave Afghan women to suffer and fight alone.

Women in Afghanistan are fighting an unequal war. We need your support