The Taliban are “playing with the world to get legitimacy” and their promise to reopen girls’ schools in Afghanistan cannot be trusted, Ziauddin Yousafzai, the education activist and co-founder of the Malala Fund, has said.
Mr Yousafzai urged the international community to listen to the voices from inside Afghanistan rather than believing the regime.
His daughter Malala was left fighting for her life after being shot on a school bus by a gunman from Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan, or Pakistani Taliban, a decade ago. TTP is a distinct group from the Afghan Taliban but both share a similar doctrine, which includes banning girls from education.
“The fall of Kabul was the fall of women,” he told The National. “My family and my people have been through ‘Talibanisation’ and we have seen what that means.
“It is a complete negation of women’s rights. Their aim is invisibility and to diminish women from public life.”
His warning came as a Taliban delegation met western government officials, Afghan activists and human rights’ campaigners for three days of talks in Oslo in an attempt to release nearly $10 billion in frozen assets.
Girls in most of the country’s 34 provinces have not been allowed to attend secondary school since the hard-line movement seized power in August last year, while women have been barred from most public universities and public-sector workplaces.
Mr Yousafzai, 52, said recognising the Taliban government would be a “historic, tragic blunder by the international community” with catastrophic consequences unless protections for Afghan women and girls were extracted first.
“It is hard to believe them but we can hope," he said. "The Taliban are very tricky. One thing they have learnt in the last 20 years is hypocrisy, just like other politicians, and so now they are playing with the world to get legitimacy and to give a soft image.
“They promise one thing and the reality on the ground is an entirely different thing for women and girls in Afghanistan.”
The Yousafzais’ education charity, the Malala Fund, was active in Afghanistan before the Taliban takeover, working with local organisations and educators to carry out its aim of ensuring every girl in the country had access to 12 years of free, quality education.
It committed about $2 million with a focus on training female teachers to counter a national shortage, but project leaders have either had to leave the country or been driven underground amid fears for their safety.
“Our work has been impacted because of the Taliban occupation of Afghanistan,” Mr Yousafzai said.
“Our first priority was the safety and security of our partners. On-the-ground work has stopped because the champions who were working for the fund had to relocate. It was hard for them to survive.”
The Covid-19 pandemic also squeezed the fund’s campaigns, driving much of its work online.
Nevertheless, the plight of Afghan women and girls has renewed the Yousafzais’ determination to ensure that no girl in the country is left behind.
The Taliban’s directives hark back to their previous rule of Afghanistan in the 1990s, when women were barred from all aspects of public life.
Then, the militants exacted harsh punishments on women who were not wearing a full burqa, held public killings, banned music and television, and destroyed many cultural monuments.
“The Taliban haven’t changed,” Mr Yousafzai said. “Afghanistan has changed as a whole in the last 20 years, because the girls who were primary school pupils back then have now completed their education.
“You see them [protesting] in the streets of Kandahar, Herat and Kabul. These are educated women raising their voices. This is Afghanistan 2.0.”
Last week, the Taliban fired pepper spray at a group of women holding a demonstration in the capital Kabul. Two female activists have disappeared.
Raise their voices
“We are with women and girls and support them," Mr Yousafzai said. "When your rights are violated, your voice is most powerful.
“I would encourage them to keep raising their voices in peace. One girl who stands in a square in Afghanistan is more powerful than a battalion of armed Taliban men.”
He said their bravery compared to his own daughter’s stance as a schoolgirl. “When Malala started speaking, this one girl with a voice and a book was more powerful than the Taliban’s bombs and their terrorism.”
Malala, who is now 24 and married last year, wrote in her online newsletter Podium of her terror at seeing Afghanistan fall to “men with guns, loaded with bullets like the one that shot me”.
This week, the Nobel Peace Prize laureate joined former British prime minister and UN education envoy Gordon Brown in backing a campaign called Save Afghan Lives, which calls for urgent humanitarian aid. The United Nations said $4.4bn was needed to stave off mass starvation.
Afghanistan stands on the brink of economic collapse and starvation, with 98 per cent of the population not getting enough to eat, the World Food Programme says, and nine million people at risk of starvation.
The World Bank has frozen money pledged to its Afghanistan Reconstruction Fund and the US is withholding assets worth $9.5bn belonging to the Afghan central bank.
Former diplomats and UN officials wrote a joint letter pleading for the reinstatement of the reconstruction fund and for assets to be unfrozen so that civil servants and public sector workers could be reimbursed, including Afghanistan’s 250,000 teachers who are owed months of unpaid wages.
Norwegian Foreign Minister Anniken Huitfeldt said the ongoing talks in Oslo would not represent legitimisation or recognition of the Taliban, which has banned girls from schools since its takeover in August.