Afghanistan’s women fear the worst as Taliban advance sows alarm and terror

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Taliban militants are expected to capture significant territory in Afghanistan, threatening the rights of young women and their families. (AFP)
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A woman works in rural Afghanistan, where some women are indifferent to the prospect of a Taliban takeover, prioritizing peace over freedom. (AFP)
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Updated 02 August 2021

Afghanistan’s women fear the worst as Taliban advance sows alarm and terror

  • Since 2001 women have held key positions in institutions, run for the presidency and served as ambassadors
  • Educated women fearful of losing their freedoms and rights as ultraconservative Pashtun group eyes power

KABUL: With US-led forces set to leave Afghanistan by the end of August, the Taliban making rapid territorial gains, and uncertainty over the state of peace talks between the insurgent group and the government in Kabul, a critical question hangs over the fate of Afghan women’s liberties and hard-won rights.

After years of subordination, Afghan women came to enjoy unprecedented freedoms in the years after 2001 when US-led forces toppled the Taliban regime, which had imposed harsh curbs on civil liberties, barring women from education and most occupations outside the home.

In the absence of the Taliban, Afghan women have held key positions in various state institutions, have run for the presidency, and have served as lawmakers, ministers and ambassadors. Governing parties have not opposed such basic principles of democracy as gender equality and free expression.

 

 

The imminent departure of the last remaining foreign troops, therefore, is a source of considerable anxiety and tension for the middle class and educated women in Afghanistan’s urban areas, who fear that a return to power by the Taliban would deprive them of the freedoms they currently enjoy.

“Everyone now is afraid. We are all worried about what will happen,” Nargis, 23, manager of the newly opened Aryana fashion store in Kabul, told Arab News.




Nargis left her journalism to work in retail due to the increase in recent targeted attacks on media professionals. (Sayed Salahuddin/Arab News)

“People have witnessed one dark Taliban era. If they come again, certainly they will not allow women to work, and I will not be where I am today.”

Nargis has a degree in journalism, but due to a surge in targeted attacks on media workers in recent years, she decided she could not risk continuing in the profession.

As in any war-torn society, women suffer disproportionately in Afghanistan, which has frequently been ranked the worst place in the world to be a woman. Several female journalists, women’s rights activists, and women serving in the Afghan security forces have been murdered, either by suspected militants or by relatives in so-called honor killings.

Some Afghans who had hoped the Taliban would liberalize their more draconian policies following talks with the US and the Afghan government have been left disappointed by the restrictions the group has imposed in areas it has seized from Afghan forces since the start of the foreign drawdown.

They say the Taliban has ordered women to not venture outdoors without a male family member, to wear the all-enveloping burqa, and have barred men from shaving their beards, reminiscent of the group’s policies when it ruled the country from 1996 to 2001.

“You see in the areas the Taliban is controlling they have imposed forced marriages, sexual slavery, and child marriages are rising,” Shukria Barakzai, a prominent women’s rights activist who served as Afghanistan’s ambassador to Norway, told Arab News.




Afghanis said the Taliban are forcing women to wear a burqa whenever they are outside. (File/AFP)

“They are taking young widows and young girls hostage. This is against the culture of Afghanistan, religion, and all rules of war. War crimes are happening now against the people of Afghanistan and especially against the women of this society.”

Taliban officials have rejected the charges, insisted that they have issued no such orders, and accused critics of trying to tarnish the group’s image.

While women in urban areas oppose constitutional and social changes that would significantly limit their rights obtained during the past two decades, some women, at least in rural areas, are indifferent to the prospect of a Taliban takeover.

These women do not feel connected to women of the urban elite, and would rather speak for themselves. Many of these rural, and even some urban, women consider peace as their main priority, even if it means sacrificing some rights that they are currently unable to exercise in any case.




Women in Afghanistan have enjoyed considerable freedoms in the absence of Taliban after 2001. (Sayed Salahuddin/Arab News)

“The so-called Afghan leaders speak about women’s rights merely to draw the West’s attention to keep them in power and provide them money because we have not seen their sisters and women on TV or with them in public areas,” Nasira Ghafoori, a tailor from Ghazni province, told Arab News.

“Some of them even feel ashamed to mention their daughters, sisters, and wives by name in public. Such leaders and other women who misuse the slogans of women’s rights have no place here. We are only interested in peace and ending the war.”

Not all Afghan women are ready to surrender their freedoms in the interest of peace. Maryam Durrani, a women’s rights activist who runs a gym for women and several education centers in southern Kandahar, the former seat of Taliban power, says she has had to limit her activities and partly close the gym following threats on social media since the Taliban made new inroads into the province.

“They threatened me, saying ‘we will kill you because of your activities.’ Unfortunately, because of that, as a precautionary measure, we have shut down the club to protect the lives of our customers,” Durrani, winner of the International Women of Courage Award 2012, told Arab News.

FASTFACTS

Taliban banned girls from studying and stoned women to death for crimes such as adultery.

Afghanistan’s parliament today has 68 female lawmakers, accounting for about 30 percent of the lower house.

More Afghan women were killed or wounded in the first half of 2021 than in the first 6 months of any year since 2009.

“The issue is not that the Taliban is coming back. It depends on the Taliban’s mentality and ideology. If their ideology has changed, then we may have some of the freedoms that we have now, but if they come with their past ideology, then it is clear women will not have a good time.”

The rise of the Taliban in 1996 had disrupted a long and uneven journey to women’s emancipation through education and empowerment. In the 1920s, Queen Soraya played an active role in the country’s political and social development alongside her husband, King Amanullah Khan. A bold advocate for women’s rights, she introduced modern education for women, one that included sciences, history, and other subjects.

After some setbacks, women in the 1960s helped draft Afghanistan’s first comprehensive constitution, which was ratified in 1964. It recognized the equal rights of men and women as citizens and established democratic elections. In 1965, four women were elected to parliament and several others became government ministers.

Women’s status improved rapidly under Soviet-backed socialist regimes of the late 1970s and 1980s. Parliament strengthened girls’ education and outlawed practices opposed by women. By 1992, despite the political upheavals wracking the country, Afghan women were full participants in public life.




Women demonstrators march toward to the governor office during a peaceful protest to mark International Women's Day in Herat on March 8, 2021. (File/AFP)

With the withdrawal of Western forces, not only is the fate of Afghanistan’s democratic institutions in peril but also the human rights of its women, going by reports streaming in from beleaguered districts.

Asila Ahmadzai, a senior journalist with Afghan news agency Farhat, says educated women in civil society, in the media, in rights groups, and involved in entrepreneurial pursuits have fled their homes in the northern and northeastern provinces that have fallen to the Taliban.

“The situation for women in Afghanistan now is very worrying because the Taliban is gaining ground. Due to the fear of the Taliban, educated women have moved to Kabul from the rural areas,” she told Arab News.

“No female activist, member of civil society, journalist or trader wants to live in Taliban-held areas because the Taliban do not allow them to work. The Taliban only allows girls to go to school up to the age of seven — not beyond that age. If the Taliban takes cities, educated women will then leave the country for good because they cannot afford to live under the group’s restrictions.”

Women such as Barakzai fear that the withdrawal of foreign troops, coupled with the failure to obtain guarantees from the Taliban that they would honor women’s rights as enshrined under the constitution, means that the situation for women and girls will be far worse if the group retakes power.




Taliban militants are expected to capture significant territory in Afghanistan, threatening the rights of young women and their families. (File/AFP)

Some have pinned hopes on the US-sponsored talks between Kabul and the Taliban and believe there will be pressure on the Taliban from outside to reform some of its views, especially from Washington, which has repeatedly reiterated the need to protect the gains made since the Taliban’s removal.

“In this era, there is no place for attempts to limit girls’ access to school or women’s rights in society, the workplace or governance,” Ross Wilson, the US chargé d’affaires to Kabul, tweeted last week in response to worrying reports from areas conquered by the Taliban.

“To the Taliban — welcome to 2021. Women and men have equal rights … halt your efforts to undermine the gains of the past 20 years. Join the 21st century.”

Critics, however, argue that the US has very little leverage over the Taliban’s attitudes and policies since it has failed to compel the Taliban to halt its attacks, which was a key component of the deal it struck with the group in exchange for the withdrawal of foreign troops.

“Whether government negotiators can force the Taliban not to weaken women’s rights and the opportunities of middle and upper-class urban women will largely depend on what happens in the war between the Taliban and the government,” Taj Mohammad, a Kabul-based analyst, told Arab News.

“Long gone are the days when US leaders justified the war and the invasion partly due to human and women’s rights issues.”

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Twitter: @sayedsalahuddin


Shooting in Russian university leaves dead, wounded

Updated 37 sec ago

Shooting in Russian university leaves dead, wounded

  • The unidentified perpetrator used a non-lethal gun, according to the Perm State University press service
MOSCOW: A gunman opened fire in a university in the Russian city of Perm on Monday morning, leaving an unspecified number of people dead and more than 10 wounded, according to local health officials.
The unidentified perpetrator used a non-lethal gun, according to the Perm State University press service. Students and staff of the university locked themselves in rooms, and the university urged those who could leave the campus to do so.
The gunman was later detained, Russia’s Interior Ministry said, adding that the shooting left some people dead, but not clarifying how many.
The state Tass news agency cited an unnamed source in the law enforcement as saying that some students jumped out of the windows of a building.
It wasn’t immediately clear whether those reported wounded sustained injuries from the shooting or from trying to escape the building.
Russia’s Investigative Committee has opened a murder probe in the aftermath of the incident.

Philippines to reopen 120 schools for in-person classes

Updated 48 min 56 sec ago

Philippines to reopen 120 schools for in-person classes

  • Up to a hundred public schools in areas considered ‘minimal risk’ for coronavirus transmission will be allowed to take part in the two-month trial

MANILA: The Philippines will reopen up to 120 schools for limited in-person classes for the first time since the start of the coronavirus pandemic in a pilot approved by President Rodrigo Duterte, officials said Monday.
While nearly every country in the world has already partially or fully reopened schools for face-to-face lessons, the Philippines has kept them closed since March 2020.
“We have to pilot face-to-face (classes) because this is not just an issue for education, it’s an issue for the children’s mental health,” presidential spokesman Harry Roque told reporters.
“It’s also an issue for the economy because we might lose a generation if we don’t have face-to-face (classes).”
Under guidelines approved by Duterte Monday, up to a hundred public schools in areas considered “minimal risk” for virus transmission will be allowed to take part in the two-month trial.
Twenty private schools can also participate.
Classrooms will be open to children in kindergarten to grade three, and senior high school, but the number of students and hours spent in face-to-face lessons limited.
Schools wanting to take part will be assessed for their preparedness and need approval from local governments to reopen. Written consent from parents will be required.
“If the pilot class is safe, if it is effective, then we will gradually increase it,” said Education Secretary Leonor Briones.
Duterte rejected previous proposals for a pilot reopening of schools for fear children could catch Covid-19 and infect elderly relatives.
But there have been growing calls from the UN’s children fund and many teachers for a return to in-person learning amid concerns the prolonged closure was exacerbating an education crisis in the country.
It is not clear when the pilot will begin or which schools will be included.
A “blended learning” program, which involves online classes, printed materials and lessons broadcast on television and social media, will continue.
France Castro of the Alliance of Concerned Teachers said the decision was “long overdue.”
Fifteen-year-olds in the Philippines were at or near the bottom in reading, mathematics and science, according to data from the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD).
Most students attend public schools where large class sizes, outdated teaching methods, lack of investment in basic infrastructure such as toilets, and poverty have been blamed for youngsters lagging behind.


‘Hotel Rwanda’ hero to learn verdict in terror trial

Updated 20 September 2021

‘Hotel Rwanda’ hero to learn verdict in terror trial

  • Rwandan prosecutors have sought a life sentence for Paul Rusesabagina
  • The trial of 67-year-old former hotelier and 20 other defendants began in February

KIGALI: A court is set to deliver its verdict Monday against Paul Rusesabagina, the “Hotel Rwanda” hero turned government critic who is charged with terrorism in a trial supporters say is politically motivated.
Rwandan prosecutors have sought a life sentence for Rusesabagina, the 67-year-old former hotelier credited with saving hundreds of lives during the 1994 genocide, and whose actions inspired the Hollywood film.
Rusesabagina, who used his subsequent fame to denounce Rwandan leader Paul Kagame as a dictator, was arrested in August 2020 when a plane he believed was bound for Burundi landed instead in the Rwandan capital Kigali.
He is accused of supporting a rebel group blamed for deadly gun, grenade and arson attacks in Rwanda in 2018 and 2019.
His family say Rusesabagina was kidnapped and dismiss the nine charges against him, including terrorism, as payback by a vengeful government for his outspoken views.
Kagame has in turn rejected criticism of the case, saying Rusesabagina was in the dock not because of his fame but over the lives lost “because of his actions.”
“He is here being tried for that. Nothing to do with the film. Nothing to do with celebrity status,” Kagame said in television interview earlier this month, declaring that he would be “fairly tried.”
The trial of Rusesabagina and 20 other defendants began in February.
But the Belgian citizen and US green card holder has boycotted it since March, accusing the court of “unfairness and a lack of independence.”
The United States — which awarded Rusesabagina its Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2005 — along with the European Parliament and Belgium have raised concerns about his transfer to Rwanda and the fairness of his trial.
US rights group the Lantos Foundation this month urged Britain to reject the credentials of Kigali’s new ambassador to London, Johnston Busingye, saying that when he was justice minister he played a “key role in the extraordinary rendition and kidnapping” of Rusesabagina.
Presiding judge Antoine Muhima has defended the proceedings, saying none of the accused has been denied the right to speak.
The verdict was initially due in August but was put back until Monday.
Rusesabagina was the former manager of the Hotel des Mille Collines in Kigali, where he sheltered hundreds of guests during the genocide that left 800,000 people dead, mostly ethnic Tutsis.
A decade later the American actor Don Cheadle played Rusesabagina, a moderate Hutu, in the Oscar-nominated blockbuster that brought his story to an international audience.
Rusesabagina soon became disillusioned with the new Tutsi-dominated government led by Kagame, the rebel leader-turned president whose forces ended the mass killings.
He accused Kagame of authoritarian tendencies and left Rwanda in 1996, living in Belgium and then the United States.
Abroad, he used his global platform to crusade for political change in Kigali, and developed close ties with opposition groups in exile.
Kagame’s government accuses Rusesabagina of supporting the National Liberation Front (FLN), a rebel group which is blamed for the attacks in 2018 and 2019 that killed nine people.
Rusesabagina has denied any involvement in the attacks, but was a founder of the Rwandan Movement for Democratic Change (MRCD), an opposition group of which the FLN is seen as the armed wing.
Prosecutors in June said Rusesabagina “encouraged and empowered the fighters to commit those terrorist acts.”
But his co-defendants gave conflicting testimony about the level of Rusesabagina’s involvement with the FLN and its fighters.
His family, who have campaigned globally for his release, say Rusesabagina is a political prisoner and accuse the Rwandan authorities of torturing him in custody.
According to the Hotel Rwanda Foundation, which supports him, they regard the trial as a “farce from start to finish... put in place by the Rwandan government to silence critics” and discourage “future dissent.”
In July, a media investigation claimed that Rusesabagina’s daughter, Carine Kanimba, was spied on using Pegasus malware developed by Israeli company NSO.
Investigators confirmed that a cell phone belonging to Kanimba, a US-Belgian dual national, had been compromised multiple times.
For opposition official Victoire Ingabire, who spent six years in prison for terrorism, the verdict is not in doubt.
“In a country where freedom is limited, all power is in the hands of the executive,” she said.
“How could a judge dare to take a decision incompatible with the wishes of the president?”


Sydney COVID-19 cases fall as curbs ease in coronavirus hotspots

Updated 20 September 2021

Sydney COVID-19 cases fall as curbs ease in coronavirus hotspots

  • Nearly half of Australia’s 25 million people is in lockdown after the Delta variant spread rapidly in Sydney and Melbourne

SYDNEY: Australia’s New South Wales (NSW) state on Monday reported its lowest rise in daily COVID-19 cases in more than three weeks as some lockdown restrictions were eased in Sydney, the state capital, amid higher vaccination levels.
NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian said 935 new cases had been detected in the state, the lowest daily tally since Aug. 27, and down from 1,083 on Sunday. The state reported four more deaths.
“We’re feeling more positive than we have in a couple of weeks ... but I don’t want any of us to sit back and think the worst is behind us,” Berejiklian told reporters in Sydney, warning of more deaths in the days ahead.
“Because we have seen the accumulation of so many cases, we know that October is going to be very challenging for our hospital system.”
Nearly half of Australia’s 25 million people is in lockdown after the Delta variant spread rapidly in Sydney and Melbourne, its largest cities, forcing officials there to abandon a COVID-zero target and shift to rapid vaccinations to ease curbs.
As the vaccine rollout gathers speed, with 53 percent of NSW’s adult population fully vaccinated, some restrictions were relaxed on Monday in 12 of the worst-hit suburbs in Sydney’s west. Time limits for outdoor exercise were lifted, while fully vaccinated people can gather outside in groups of five.
Neighboring Victoria state, which includes Melbourne, logged one new death and 567 new infections, its biggest daily rise this year, a day after revealing its roadmap back to freedom when vaccinations reach 70 percent, expected around Oct. 26.
So far, 44 percent of people in the state have been fully vaccinated, below the national average of 47 percent.
Meanwhile, several workers protested outside a union office in Melbourne against Victoria’s mandatory vaccination rule in the construction sector, local media reported.
The New Zealand Breakers basketball team, which play in Australia’s National Basketball League, released guard Tai Webster on Monday after he decided not to be vaccinated against COVID-19.
Australia has largely lived in COVID-zero for much of the pandemic, recording 1,167 deaths and some 87,000 cases. About 56,000 cases have been registered since mid-June when the first Delta infection was detected in Sydney.
While NSW and Victoria bear the brunt of the Delta outbreak, most other states with little or no community transmission fear opening up too soon could overwhelm their hospital systems.


New Zealand’s Auckland COVID-19 restrictions eased slightly

Updated 20 September 2021

New Zealand’s Auckland COVID-19 restrictions eased slightly

  • The city will move to alert level 3 from alert level 4 starting midnight on Tuesday

WELLINGTON: Coronavirus restrictions in New Zealand’s largest city Auckland will be eased slightly from Wednesday, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern told a news conference.
The city, which is at the center of the latest Delta variant outbreak, will move to alert level 3 from alert level 4 starting midnight on Tuesday, Ardern said. Schools and offices will still remain closed at level 3 but businesses can operate contactless services.
The rest of the country will remain at alert level 2, she said.