Two years ago this month, the Taliban seized power in Afghanistan, thus launching a regime defined by its systematic disregard for human rights.
In 2020, amid a comprehensive PR campaign ahead of its latest rise to power, a Taliban spokesperson vowed in an op-ed published by The New York Times: “I am confident that, liberated from foreign domination and interference, we together will find a way to build an Islamic system in which all Afghans have equal rights, where the rights of women that are granted by Islam — from the right to education to the right to work — are protected, and where merit is the basis for equal opportunity.”
To say this did not come to pass would be a gross understatement. Over the past two years, the Taliban has passed more than 50 decrees aimed at effectively blotting women out of public life in Afghanistan. Presently, women and girls in the country are forcibly barred from accessing primary and secondary education, and their pursuit of higher education at universities has been unjustly denied. Additionally, women are prohibited from participating in employment outside their homes and are restricted from visiting public spaces like parks, restaurants, gyms, and beauty salons. They are mandated to wear veils and can only venture outside if accompanied by a male family member.
A far cry from the “equal rights” the group boasted of, Afghan women argue that their current predicament constitutes gender apartheid and represents a grave crime against humanity.
To gain more insights into the plight of the country’s women, JURIST* conducted an interview with Annie Pforzheimer, a former career diplomat with the U.S. Department of State, who currently serves both as a senior nonresident associate at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and as an adjunct professor at the City University of New York. Toward the end of her 30-year diplomatic career, Pforzheimer served as deputy chief of mission in Kabul from 2017-2019, and is currently involved with several nonprofit organizations that champion the causes of Afghan women.
JURIST: Based on your experience in other countries, what strategies have proven most effective in garnering support from other nations to address the challenges faced by women in Afghanistan?
From looking at human rights advocacy in Turkey, South Africa, and Latin America, I can tell you that women in Afghanistan need to be focused on a small number of priority goals, and make sure that the international community, especially but not only UN bodies, echo those goals as their own. The rights to education and employment are essential, and with those rights women can advocate for their other interests and needs. Other countries can only do so much – the international system allows despotic rulers to control their citizens. So the most important alliances to be built now are with Afghan men, especially those who support those key rights.
South Africa had to struggle through 40 years of Apartheid, which was the unjust, legalized separation of one race from another, with the clearly disadvantaged group unable to freely move, access education or jobs, or vote. The world responded, but it took a very long time. The anti-Apartheid movement focused on the “one person one vote” principle, and eventually it succeeded. For their campaign, the use of sanctions and diplomatic pressure were very important.
JURIST: In your view, what is the most effective approach to offer support, and how can other countries uphold an unwavering stance on safeguarding women’s right to education?
Other countries should do two main things: one is to support financially and politically Afghan human rights defenders, who are courageously standing up to the Taliban. And the second way is by denying the Taliban any kind of international legitimacy. For example, a Talib government should never be given Afghanistan’s UN seat.
JURIST: What approach would you recommend for addressing the challenges faced by Afghan citizens, particularly in advocating for girls’ education and fundamental rights?
As an outsider I truly do not know what I can recommend — this has to be driven by Afghan citizens. I think it’s essential to find a wide alliance of Afghans, such as medical and law professionals, business people, religious leaders, tribal elders, and others, who all stand for the same thing and make it clear to the Taliban that they are the ones who must change. This is essential for example to allow girls to go to school, which most Afghans favor. It is also essential for citizens to have basic rights like protesting. People of Afghanistan deserve so much more. But they are being forced to live under a tyrannical regime.
JURIST: Given your extensive work with Afghanistan and its people, what has most impressed you about the country’s women and girls?
I have been consistently impressed by how articulate women and girls are in Afghanistan, expressing their needs, hopes, and solutions. This is far beyond the arena of their own rights, and extends to women economists, security experts, and businesspeople. With women in the room, conversations had a more well-rounded aspect, and the concerns of families were better understood. I am impressed by Afghan women who entered politics, although there is a very negative association with some of their efforts most of these politicians were focused on the good of the Afghan people and not their own party or group.
JURIST: Looking to the future, do you see reason for optimism with respect to the issues facing Afghanistan’s women and girls?
At the moment it is hard to have hope for their immediate situation, mostly because it appears that Afghan men are unwilling to sacrifice their own privileges to help women. Now that the international military forces have withdrawn there is no external enforcement of women’s rights, even if those rights are widely supported from outside. If progressive Afghan women cannot succeed in making an alliance with non-Taliban Afghan men and conservative women, unfortunately their cause will not advance.
JURIST: Finally, how can the international community effectively convey to the Taliban the benefits of promoting education for women, which in turn contributes to the economic prosperity of nations?
I do not think the Taliban is interested in what foreign governments, and especially educated or wealthy women, are telling them. This message has to come from the only group that the Taliban is afraid of: the vast majority of Afghan citizens, speaking with one voice.
*This interview was conducted by an Afghan legal scholar whose identity cannot currently be revealed due to threats to their security.