Mellissa Fung is a freelance journalist based in London.
Three weeks ago, an urgent plea for help flashed across my phone from a contact in Afghanistan. “Dear Mellissa, I am [in a] very difficult situation. I need your help. – Marzia”
Marzia Rustami is a women’s rights activist and a lead campaigner for the Afghan Women’s Network, based in the northern city of Kunduz. We met in Kabul six years ago, after Kunduz fell briefly to the Taliban. She was forced to leave her home because she was on the Taliban’s kill list.
She was able to return home months later after government forces reclaimed the city. But her name remained on that kill list, and the Taliban are now hunting her again, as part of an assassination campaign they have waged over the past year – even as Taliban officials were sitting down to peace talks in Doha. According to the UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan, they killed almost 400 women in 2020, targeting journalists, intellectuals and activists. Ms. Rustami had to flee Kunduz again last month – and this time, the Taliban could not have made their intentions clearer.
On Feb. 28, they kidnapped her brother-in-law, shot him and sent his bloody body back to the family after posting before and after photos on his own Facebook page. At his funeral, it became clear that Ms. Rustami and her husband would be next, so they took their four children and are now at an undisclosed location in Kabul. “I can’t go back,” she said. “The Taliban are asking my neighbours every day where I am.”
Afghan women across the country are saying the same thing. They refuse to go back to a time when they were not free to leave the house without a male escort; when they were denied an education; when their “moral offences” were punishable by flogging or stoning.
But U.S. President Joe Biden – lacking any good options in Afghanistan – has committed to pulling out the last U.S. troops by Sept. 11 this year. In doing so, he is creating an uncertain future for the women and girls in the country, one in which the Taliban will certainly have more power, whether they are in government or not.
Peace talks were scheduled to begin again this weekend in Istanbul, but the Taliban had not committed to attending; negotiations have now been postponed. The Taliban must be able to smell victory after striking a deal with former president Donald Trump that – in bypassing the government of Afghan President Ashraf Ghani – gave them the legitimacy they have long sought. And in areas of the country already under Taliban influence, there are signs they never left the old ways behind.
One video that was widely shared among young Afghans this month shows a woman in a burqa being flogged by men in the western province of Herat. Her alleged crime: having a boyfriend.
“It was very painful to watch that,” Mahnaz Aliyar told me in a message. Ms. Aliyar is a 19-year-old student at Kabul University, studying to become the first lawyer in her family. I met her two years ago when she was graduating as the top student at her high school in west Kabul. Born in 2002, a year after the Taliban were driven out of power, she is among the millions of young women who came of age during the war, when women had reason to hope. She said she and her friends worry that the video is a glimpse into a future they thought was firmly in the country’s past.
“We are in a critical situation,” she continued. “I don’t want our achievements to be threatened by the departure of foreign troops.”
NGOs and human-rights groups are imploring the international community to maintain or boost its commitment to Afghan women after the troops are gone. Many of the health and education programs they have benefited from have been made possible by donor support, and that support will be even more critical if the Taliban attempt to erase the progress made over the past two decades. There’s every indication they are already starting to do so; many of the names on the Taliban’s hit list are women who were educated after 2001. They are the country’s journalists, lawyers, judges, activists, teachers, doctors and politicians. And as uneven as progress has been, they are often touted as the success stories coming out of this long war.
They are women like Marzia Rustami, who has been speaking out for women’s rights for 16 years without fear – until now. “My children are scared,” she told me. “They don’t know why their uncle was killed. I can’t tell them that I was the target.” She said it may be too dangerous for her to stay. “I hate to think of leaving. I love my country. But I don’t feel safe here any more.”
No Afghan wants foreign troops there indefinitely. But in pulling out the last troops without a peace deal that enshrines women’s gains, Ms. Rustami and other women worry that Mr. Biden is condemning them to a past they have struggled so hard to rise above.
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