Afghan women are hanging on amid Taliban repression

In the shadows of the oppressive and misogynistic Taliban regime, Afghan women find themselves navigating a perilous journey where their rights are systematically erased. Yet amid this darkness, a formidable spirit of resistance, agency, and activism by Afghan women has emerged, becoming an example of courage and a source of inspiration worldwide.

The civic and social spaces for Afghan women — particularly activists, journalists, and all those who have loud voices — are being restricted with each passing day. Over 90 decrees issued by the Taliban have taken away fundamental rights to education, freedom of movement, work, and employment, protection against gender-based violence, political and social participation, access to healthcare, freedom of expression, and equal access to resources and protection during an emergency. In the tragic Herat earthquake, for example, over 90 percent of casualties were women and children.

The women of Afghanistan have been relegated to sexual objects and reproductive machines as they are also denied rights over their bodies and reproductivity with the banning of contraception pills.

In the face of such dire circumstances, Afghan women have refused to be silenced. Despite the looming threats of arbitrary detention, torture, imprisonment, and forced disappearances, they have taken to the streets, raising their voices to reclaim the rights unjustly and illegally taken from them. This defiance and resistance stand in stark contrast to the portrayal of Afghan women as passive victims during the NATO invasion in 2001.

Two decades later, in 2021, Afghan women stood undeterred in the face of the Taliban’s resurgence. From the earliest moments of the Taliban’s return to power, these women declared that they would not succumb to silence nor permit themselves to be lost in the cycle of victimization, violence, and power struggles. Their continued activism, widespread street protests across the country, and online campaigns have shed light on the situation inside, and are a testament to their unwavering commitment, courage, and resistance.

At every gathering, event, and seminar, whether behind closed doors or in public, the activism and resilience of Afghan women take center stage, garnering both attention and admiration. These women have not only set a new standard but have also encouraged men to mobilize for peace and freedom as well. This is a significant shift from the historical perception of Afghan women as passive.

The acknowledgment of their courage has generated discussions about their critical role in bringing fundamental change. With their remarkable resistance, Afghan women also underscore that their call for international community support is about solidarity and support, not about fighting their battles for them. The message is simple: to stand beside them and ensure they receive the rights, respect, and recognition they rightfully deserve, echoing universal principles and laws.

Although there has been extensive engagement with the Taliban, mostly without the presence of Afghan men and women, the international community has refrained from recognizing the Taliban as the government of Afghanistan. This cautious approach has been largely driven by the persistent resistance of Afghan women to reject endorsing a regime marked by brutality, suppression, and unlawful and illegitimate power.

Afghan women have joined forces with their Iranian counterparts to codify and eventually end gender apartheid in Iran and Afghanistan. Their advocacy focuses on the legal and strategic implications of acknowledging the Taliban within the international system and institutions. Afghan women’s resolute stance has played a pivotal role in dissuading global recognition of a regime mired in brutality, shedding light on the moral imperatives and fundamental principles of the world obligation to fight atrocities committed in other jurisdictions.

The remarkable resilience displayed by Afghan women under Taliban rule has been nothing short of exemplary. They have shattered the biased and passive image that the world had painted of them.

Throughout their resistance, Afghan women advocated and fought not only for their own rights, demands, and needs but also those of the entire Afghan citizenry across genders, ethnicities, religious affiliations, and ideologies. They demonstrate that their fight is for collective humanity. They even fearlessly took to the streets, despite Taliban brutality, to show solidarity with Iranian women and the Women, Life, Freedom movement, underscoring the universal nature of their cause while weaving a tapestry of resistance.

While the past two decades of democracy enabled substantial political engagement from Afghan women, their focus had predominantly been around social activism — addressing societal concerns and promoting positive change through community organizing, national-level advocacy, and building institutions.

But the landscape drastically shifted with the Taliban’s resurgence. Today, their resistance has taken the shape of a formidable political activism where women inside and outside the country, both young and old, work together to bring about fundamental political and structural change.  They are organizing political campaigns against the current regime, protest marches, and public demonstrations to challenge political systems, often enduring beatings in the process. They are engaging in civil disobedience and resisting unjust laws and policies, writing letters and petitions, and using online platforms to raise awareness and share information.

They are also mobilizing support for their cause, creating diverse coalitions advocating for political issues, and engaging in global political issues through international organizations and movements. This has taken Afghan women’s agency a few steps forward and positioned them as a structured and powerful resistance front, enabling them to further consolidate their impact on the political landscape.

The women of Afghanistan endure one of the harshest periods in their history, yet their exceptional rebellion marks a turning point. This chapter in the history of their resistance is a showcase of their unwavering courage, resilience, and refusal to be forgotten. The world must stand in solidarity with Afghan women, acknowledge their courageous leadership, and join the call for justice and human rights.

Malalai Habibi is a women, peace, and security expert and an advisor at the Kroc Institute, University of Notre Dame.

Afghan women are hanging on amid Taliban repression