Life under Taliban 'cages' Afghan women and girls, former human rights chief says

Shaharzad Akbar fears extremists' regime is leading to mental health crisis and spate of suicides among women forced to sit idle at home

Girls playing in Kandahar. Human rights campaigner Shaharzad Akbar says the Taliban's rule means desperation for another generation of Afghan women. AFP
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The futures of millions of Afghan women have been stolen by repressive Taliban policies, resulting in a mental health crisis, the former head of Afghanistan's Independent Human Rights Commission has said.

In the year since the extremist group took over Afghanistan it has imposed movement restrictions, draconian dress codes and effective education bans on women and girls.

Although Shaharzad Akbar, the 35-year-old former head of the commission, fled Kabul on the day the group took over, she is still in close touch with other Afghan women.

“There's a sense of desperation. There is a lot of hopelessness. It's really difficult actually to talk to girls, because they want answers and they want some certainty, and it's very hard to offer any of that,” Ms Akbar told The National from her home in London where she lives with her husband and two children.

She said many talented Afghan women and girls are today sitting idle in their homes. For them, it feels as if time has stood still.

“They feel like they're forgetting what they had learnt in school. They are bored and unhappy at home. They feel like the world is moving ahead, and they're completely left behind,” Ms Akbar said.

Shaharzad Akbar, the former chairperson of Afghanistan’s Independent Human Rights Commission. Photo: Shaharzad Akbar

Ms Akbar stepped down from her role at the commission in January, deciding that she would not be able to do her job properly under the repressive Taliban regime. But that does not mean she has stopped fighting for the hard-won rights of the Afghan people.

An example of Afghan persistence

Ms Akbar was a torchbearer for the empowerment and success of women in her home country.

She lived in Kabul with her family until war and unrest sparked by the collapse of the communist government of Mohammad Najibullah and the first Taliban takeover drove them from their home in the 1990s.

Her parents educated her at home as the family moved around the Northern provinces to escape the conflict. Later, they became refugees in Pakistan, where Ms Akbar was enrolled at a public school.

Even on the move, education was crucial.

“We always had books, that was really important to my father, who wanted to make sure that we had access to books. We grew up loving books, reading books,” she said.

When they returned to Kabul in 2002 from Pakistan after the fall of Taliban, Ms Akbar joined Kabul University and later was accepted to study at Smith College in the US.

There, she took a BA course in anthropology before going on to become the first Afghan woman to complete postgraduate studies at the University of Oxford in England, where she was awarded a scholarship and graduated with an MPhil in 2011.

Ms Akbar focused on youth-led civil society activities and women’s rights in Afghanistan, founding and leading local campaign groups before joining the team of former president Ashraf Ghani as an adviser in 2018.

In 2019, Ms Akbar was appointed as the chairwoman of the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission.

The Commission’s crowning achievement under Ms Akbar was a campaign called “Put the Gun Down”, which reached out to victims of years of violence to amplify their voices and support their needs.

It also worked on entrenching the concepts of human rights, freedom of expression and women’s empowerment in Afghan society.

Ms Akbar’s role has turned into a duty of care for her commission colleagues and other Afghans, who wanted to leave the country after the Taliban takeover.

“We helped more than 100 Afghans to get out of the country to safety. We raised funds from donors and helped them process the visa applications,” she said.

A human rights organisation is an alien concept under Taliban, she said.

“My ability to exercise my mandate was officially over after fall of Kabul [in August 2021]. But I continue to encourage and advocate for my colleagues from abroad as well as continue to explore ways that the commission could remain active,” Ms Akbar said.

Trapped in a cage

To Ms Akbar and many Afghan women and girls, the policies of Taliban are an infringement of their human rights.

The hardline rulers have banned girls from joining secondary schools in almost all provinces.

“When I talk to women and girls in Afghanistan today, they say they feel that they are trapped in a cage of four walls, the walls of the house. They feel that they are being treated like animals in a zoo. There’s a real sense of attack on their dignity,” Ms Akbar said.

And there are real concerns about their deteriorating mental health amid reports of attempted suicides.

I think it's really important for everyone to realise that Taliban policies don’t represent Islam. They represent Taliban.
Shaharzad Akbar

“These young women once had a lot of ambitions. Suddenly, they feel their life is over. The only path for them is to get married and have children, not to pursue an education or be able to have an income. And that's not a future that they want. Not everyone can afford to leave Afghanistan,” she said.

Some women and girls have started schools in their houses.

That is a big risk.

“Secret schools are a sign of the Afghan women’s resistance. But fathers and parents, in general, are terrified of the Taliban as there will be grave consequences for sending their daughters to such schools,” she said.

“This is extremely stressful. Imagine that you are being treated as a criminal because you want to seek an education.”

For Ms Akbar, there has been an abundance of evidence over the past year that Taliban has learnt nothing after two decades out of power.

They are still obsessed with the control of women and make that a priority over neglected fields like education, health care and the economy.

“We have to be very careful that the engagement with the Taliban happens in a thoughtful way. And it shouldn’t come across as an opportunity to further legitimise their repressive policies,” she said.

“I think it's really important for everyone to realise that Taliban policies don’t represent Islam. They represent Taliban.”

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Updated: August 04, 2022, 8:20 AM