National | Afghanistan

'They won't allow women to work, but they will allow them to beg'

The Taliban have once again banned women from work or schools. Photo / Getty Images

Afghan women in Aotearoa react to the Taliban administration's directives barring girls and women from attending school or university and working.

"What we see today is what we saw 23 years ago," New Settlers Family and Community Trust executive director Fahima Saied says. Fahima was a doctor in Afghanistan before she came to Aotearoa in 2001.

This was at a time when the Taliban governed Afghanistan.

Raihana Attaee was a little girl. "I was 10 years old and not allowed to go to school," she says.

Towards the end of 2001, international forces entered Afghanistan. The Taliban government fell, and shortly after, girls could go to school. "I cannot forget those days," says Raihana. "Those were the happiest days of my life."

In August 2021, when the Taliban took control of Afghanistan again, she was working as a judge in the province of Nangarhar. She left the province and her home and stayed in Kabul for a month before leaving the country.

During that month in Kabul, she lived in hiding, she says, changing hotels frequently.

"I had given many interviews to media and talked against Taliban and that put me more in danger," Raihana says.

The International Association of Women Judges arranged for her family to leave Afghanistan. The family first went to Greece where they stayed for two months before coming to Aotearoa.

She was not surprised when the Taliban swiftly moved to curtail freedom for women and girls. In March last year, it barred girls from attending secondary schools.

In December, it expanded on that and asked universities to close their doors to female students. This was followed by an order to all non-governmental agencies to stop female employees from coming to work.

"It proved that the Taliban never changed," Raihana says.

"We are not in shock and disbelief about what is happening in Afghanistan today," Fahima says. "But what happened in August 2021, we were in shock and disbelief.

"We couldn’t believe that a democratically elected, NATO-supported government collapsed like that, that the US and its allies left the country shamelessly and left the Afghan people to fend for themselves."

She could not bring herself to watch the visuals – “young people falling off the plane like nothing,” she says.

There is a feeling of betrayal at the handover of power in 2021 and the so-called peace talks that led up to it, Raihana says. “The Qatar peace negotiations [negotiations between the US and Taliban in Doha that did not involve the then Afghan government] put the Taliban in a strong position and it made the government weaker,” she says.

Back to square one

"We know the Taliban very well from their previous government and the way they behaved in the 20 years of democracy," says Raihana. They would "arrest" people, and kill them during those years, she says, just because they worked for the then government.

"That hard work of 20 years, the way the government was thrown out, we were back to square one," says Fahima.

Stopping women from being a part of the workforce does not just impede on women's rights, says Raihana. it places families and the community at peril.

"Many Afghan men were killed [during the conflict]," she says. "I know many women who worked and brought bread to their table. Now poverty is killing those families."

Women who taught at schools and universities are now begging on the streets, she says.

"I don't know how Taliban imagines their lives to be. They don't allow women to work but they allow them to beg."

A distraught diaspora

Afghanistan now is like an open prison, says Raihana. “Although you can see the sky, you are not free.”

And watching this from afar is difficult.

“Many of us have relatives in Afghanistan and we worry for them,” she says.

“I have a sister, and I have a niece,” says Fahima. “They can’t work. They can’t study.”

“She (my sister) is smarter than me, and the girl is a bright kid with huge potential. Why is it that I here have all the opportunities and she doesn’t?”

The guilt is constant, she says, especially for the women in the community. “We don’t know what to do. It is very much beyond our control to improve life or change the government back home.”

The international community is the only one they can turn to, she says. And it is incumbent on Aotearoa New Zealand to do its bit.

“New Zealand is a small country, but it has the loudest voice around the UN table,” Fahima says.

“We have the right to make the government feel responsible. It was part of the US-led forces. They went to Afghanistan.”

In a written response to Te Ao Māori news, New Zealand's Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade (Mfat) has said that women’s rights in Afghanistan are a priority for Aotearoa New Zealand.

The statement also says Aotearoa New Zealand "has firmly and consistently called for an immediate end to all human rights violations and abuses in Afghanistan and will continue to do so" and that the country has "condemned the restrictive measures enforced by the Taliban in Afghanistan affecting the rights of women and girls in the strongest terms, including in the UN."

International response

Aotearoa New Zealand has resettled over 1400 Afghan nationals since the takeover by Taliban in August 2021, according to Mfat. And at the UN Human Rights Council sessions in July and September 2022, Aotearoa "delivered strong statements and co-sponsored a resolution on the situation in Afghanistan."

Raihana agrees international pressure can work. But it must be put into practice, she says. “The international community says this is bad, they condemn it, they take no action,” she says.

When the UN Security Council earlier this month urged the Taliban to drop its “oppressive” restrictions, a Taliban spokesperson responded with a tweet saying “Countries and international organisations should understand the religious demands of our nations and not link humanitarian issues/aid to politics.”

Resistance can be exhausting. People do not have the energy, Fahima says. “These women have nothing left in their tanks,” she says, borrowing resigning prime minister Jacinda Ardern’s words.

“Afghanistan is the only country in the world where girls don’t have the right to education, to upskill, or to earn,” Fahima says. And all Afghans around the world have just one dream.

“To see those girls go back to school,” she says.