Interview with Heather Barr, Associate women’s rights director, and former senior Afghanistan researcher, at Human Rights Watch.
Q: You have met Afghan women during your trip to Afghanistan. During the first and second rounds of the Taliban regime, with a gap of 20 years, what significant changes have Afghan women experienced that are irreversible, considering their ability to continue fighting for their rights in the current situation?
A: The Taliban have taken so much away from Afghan women and girls in the last eight months–access to education, access to employment, freedom of movement, access to healthcare, the right to live free from violence. But of course, there are some things they can’t take away. They can’t take away the education that girls and women have already, and they can’t take away their intelligence and talents and ideas, and their rebelliousness.
They also can’t take away the ways in which Afghanistan has fundamentally changed in the last 20 years. One of the things that the Taliban are refusing to see–or are unable to see—is just how much Afghanistan has actually changed, along with the rest of the world, in these years, and how out of step they are now with the way that the world, including the Islamic world, views girls’ education and women’s employment and women’s rights generally.
Q: Have the Taliban pursued the same policy on women as 1990s? What are the differences and similarities?
A: There aren’t many differences between the Taliban policies this time around and the policies that they enforced brutally when they were previously in power from 1996 to 2001. It’s so frustrating in retrospect to think back about all of the people who tried to sell this message that there was a new and improved Taliban, a Taliban 2.0, that had fundamentally changed their views on the rights of women and girls. As you know, Afghan women’s rights activists never believed this. I think when we look back we can see that this messaging was peddled by people who knew better but thought that this was useful messaging or who wanted to believe this because it would be some face-saving way for the US and other countries to try to believe that they have still achieved something out of a hugely humiliating military defeat.
In terms of the policies, we don’t see much difference. The main difference is the Taliban allowing girls to go to primary education now, unlike last time. This is good, of course, but not hugely meaningful when they don’t have access to secondary education and they are banned from the vast majority of careers that they might have studied for.
It’s important for us to remember that the standard by which we should judge the Taliban’s policies on women and girls is not whether they’re better than they were in 2001. The standard is the United Nations Convention on the Elimination of all forms of Discrimination Against Women which Afghanistan ratified in 2003.
Q: What is your biggest concern about the future of Afghan women under the Taliban leadership?
A: Afghan women and girls are losing things every day which they will never get back. Girls have already lost eight months of education and which they will never get back.
Children have died of malnutrition in the last eight months. Much of the blame for that rests on the international community, particularly the United States, for driving the humanitarian crisis by cutting off aid and blocking the Afghan economy from functioning. But the Taliban also contributed to this shocking crisis and these deaths by pushing women out of their jobs, robbing women of income that could have fed children who died.
Another thing we should talk about which is difficult to measure but important is the harm girls and women have suffered during the last eight months due to gender-based violence. We know that the Taliban has systematically destroyed the system that was set up through enormous efforts by Afghan women’s rights activists to respond to gender-based violence.
We also know that two of the most important risk factors for child marriage and forced marriage are girls not having access to education and families experiencing poverty. Both of those factors have been present at unprecedented levels in Afghanistan in the last eight months.
Q: If we discuss things in more detail, why do you think the Taliban aren’t allowing girls to go to school? Are they using girls’ education as a bargaining tool for political gains? Or this is what the Taliban actually believe?
A: There are different views on this. There are people whose expertise I respect who believe this is a negotiating tactic by the Taliban. I wish I believed that, because if it was a bargaining tactic then it would be possible to bargain with them. But unfortunately, I don’t think that that’s the case.
I think what’s happened is that there are members of the Taliban, including very powerful members, who genuinely can’t live with the idea of girls over the age of 10 or 12 going out of their houses every day and to study. They simply can’t reconcile themselves to that, and their followers are also brainwashed into thinking that this is what they were fighting for over the last 20 years–to keep girls and women locked in their homes. So it’s much harder to deal with a genuine belief, and one that seems incredibly resistant to any evidence about what’s happening in the rest of the world or what most Afghans believe, than it would be to deal with a negotiating tactic.
Q: Many think that the protests of Afghan women in the streets did not get the necessary international attention and support, and that is why the Taliban immediately curtailed them? What do you think?
A: We knew from the beginning that the women and girls who protested against the Taliban were taking enormous risks, and we saw that with violent retaliation against them by the Taliban from the beginning and that retaliation escalating overtime. I think these protests really became a threat to the Taliban–they were capturing the attention of people around the world, including the international media, at a moment when the interest in Afghanistan overall was declining very fast. So these protests became intolerable to the Taliban for that reason, and that’s why we saw the Taliban’s response becoming more and more brutal leading to earlier this year when we saw them abducting and detaining and coercing confessions from women who had participated in those protests.
So the power of protests is undeniable. But I was so afraid on March 23rd and after for the girls and women who came out to protest again over the school closures, because the Taliban have made it very clear that there’s no level of brutality that they won’t go to, to end these protests. Of course one of the things that we’ve asked from the international community is for them to do everything they can to stand by the protesters. They need to make it clear to the Taliban that they’re watching the treatment of the protesters, that everyone has a right to protest peacefully, and that when protesters are treated violently or abducted that will not go unremarked by the international community. But there are some real limits to how much the international community can protect the protesters.
I think the fact that women and girls keep coming out and protesting anyway in spite of the violence and retaliation by the Taliban really speaks to many women and girls feeling like they have nothing left to lose. They feel that if they they’re going be forced to live this kind of life dictated by the Taliban where they don’t have education, they don’t have work, they don’t have freedom of movement, they can’t live any kind of life outside of just being a prisoner in their own homes then that’s so intolerable that they’re willing to take any kind of risk to speak out. It’s both inspiring and terrifying to watch them, because their courage is incredible, but you fear so much for their safety.
Q: Mysterious and target killings of women have recently increased in Afghanistan. Some people believes the Taliban are carrying out these killings. What do you think about it?
A: This is an area where we really feel the lack of human rights monitoring and an independent media, because we hear alarming reports about killings and disappearances, but it is very hard to investigate and verify these reports, let alone confirm who has committed these crimes. My work focuses on women’s rights, but my colleague published a report in November finding credible evidence of more than 100 killings of men in only four provinces, so we know that killings are happening, and it’s not surprising that women would also be targeted.
I think the dynamic is likely the same with women, including women’s rights activists. There may by killings by the Taliban themselves but there is also a new space opened up for anyone to kill women they disapprove of with impunity in ways they would not have felt free to do before August 15th
Q: Domestic violence, restrictions on women’s access to justice, and unemployment among women have increased over the past seven months, does Human Rights Watch know the situation is getting worse for women?
A: It’s clear on pretty much any index you can think of that the life has become much worse for women and girls in Afghanistan since August 15th, and it continues to become progressively worse. We know that access to justice for women has largely disappeared. The EVAW law was a very important part of women’s access to justice. It doesn’t seem like the Taliban have any intention of respecting the EVAW law and they in fact have proactively dismantled the different services and systems that existed to help uphold the EVAW law and protect women and girls from gender-based violence.
With regard to domestic violence, we’ve been hearing anecdotally that there are more incidents of domestic violence because people no longer have any fear that they could face consequences if they engage in violence. People who maybe previously were unhappy about behavior by women or girls in their family or neighborhood now have the Taliban on their side and feel that they are back in charge.
Women’s access to employment has been decimated by the Taliban pushing them out of most jobs. Those who are still allowed to work–for example women who work in education or health care–often are not receiving their salaries because of the financial and humanitarian crisis.
We know that these issues are interrelated. If a woman is earning a salary, she is more respected in her home, and has more social support and networks. She has more ability to resist abuse and make independent decisions, including to leave or seek help if she faces violence in the home. Most women lost this independence after August 15, and that puts many more women at risk. The Taliban are enforcing abusive patriarchy in the streets, and that abusive patriarchy seeps into people’s homes too.
Q: Many Afghan women have criticized human rights groups and the international community for turning a blind eye to the Taliban’s ill-treatment of women and for not putting the necessary pressure on the Taliban. How much do you agree with these criticisms?
A: I agree. I have seen some Afghan women’s rights activists expressing frustration that feminists around the world have not spoken up more, and I agree with this criticism. I believe that Afghan women’s struggle is our struggle—Afghanistan is at the center right now of the global struggle for women’s rights. We should all fight for women’s rights in Afghanistan not just out of sisterhood and solidarity, but also because if this can happen in Afghanistan with little response from the world it speaks to how unsafe our rights are everywhere.
Q: More specifically, what have been the weaknesses of western countries and international institutions in supporting women in Afghanistan?
A: One huge failing of the international community has been the ways in which decisions by the international community have driven the humanitarian crisis. The countries that were so active in Afghanistan over the last 20 years created a situation in which the Afghan government relied on international donors for 75% of the government budget–and then they cut that money off overnight on August 15th and as well as blocking the Afghan economy from functioning through measures like withdrawing recognition of the Afghan central bank.
So the humanitarian crisis that’s happening in Afghanistan can be linked directly to decisions made in foreign capitals, particularly in the White House. There’s been a real lack of urgency by Joe Biden and others about resolving that financial crisis and recognizing that it’s leading to deaths every day, particularly among infants and children. So that’s an intolerable situation. We need donors to be talking every day about the rights of Afghan women and girls, and we need them to be putting pressure on the Taliban to end violations of the rights of women and girls. But we also need them to urgent remedy the economic and humanitarian crises they helped create.
The humanitarian crisis is also a women’s rights crisis. Something we know from humanitarian crises all around the world is that women and girls are almost always disproportionately harmed. When there’s not enough food for families to eat it is often women and girls who eat last and eat least. In Afghanistan that situation has been exacerbated by deep gender inequality and by Taliban actions. The Taliban has dramatically deepened gender inequality, pushed women out of work, and blocked many women aid workers from being able to fully perform their roles.
So the international community needs to urgently put pressure on the Taliban about women’s rights in a coordinated and sustained and strategic way. But they also need to clean their own house–by taking all the steps necessary to allow the Afghan economy to function and let Afghans stop trying to survive on humanitarian assistance and instead go back to work and earn a paycheck and feed their own families
Q: If the Taliban’s policies on women continue like this, for example, they do not allow girls above sixth grade to return to their school, what do you think the solution is?
A: There aren’t any good solutions. There’s no good alternative to having a functioning government secondary school system for girls. There are things that donors and service providers can do to mitigate the harm a bit through alternative education options but nothing is going to make up for the loss that that girls are experiencing. Studying at home is not the same and not easy. Studying online is also not easy and not a realistic option for a large proportion of Afghans who are poor and wouldn’t have the access to Internet and technology necessary for online studies. So the Taliban really are destroying the future of a generation. The world needs to see that as the devastating catastrophe that it is and work urgently to end this shocking situation.
Q: You have been constantly concerned about the situation of Afghan women, you have monitored and responded to some issues that are commendable. After seven months of monitoring, now, in short, how optimistic or concerned are you about the future of Afghan women?
A: It’s impossible for anyone who cares about women’s rights in Afghanistan not to have spent the last eight months looking on with a sense of complete horror. Even people who never believed that the Taliban would have changed hoped desperately for a bit of moderation that we just haven’t seen. Women’s rights activists were saying to us from the beginning, from August 16th, that the Taliban’s chokehold on women’s rights would tighten over time, with more and more harsh policies gradually taking away more and more rights. We hoped desperately that these activists were wrong. But we’ve seen over time that they were right. It’s impossible not to mourn for all of the dreams that have been taken away from girls and women, and all of the talent and brilliance which is being suffocated and stolen from a country that needs it so desperately, while girls women stay locked up like prisoners in their own homes.