Mellissa Fung is a Canadian journalist based in London. Zahra Nader is an Afghan-Canadian journalist based in Toronto.
Last weekend, in a school hallway in western Kabul, candles and rose petals were spread before a tapestry that covered one wall. It features the faces of more than 80 students, all of them girls; students and teachers sat on the floor before it, in silent prayer. Few words were needed. The trauma of the day it memorializes was still painfully etched in their collective memory.
The ceremony marked the one-year anniversary of a series of horrific bombings that targeted the girls’ school at Sayed ul-Shuhada Secondary in a neighbourhood with a significant population of Hazaras, an ethnic minority that has been persecuted by the Taliban and other extremist groups. The children whose faces adorned the tapestry were killed; more than 100 other people were injured, and some students are still recovering.
At the time, it was hard to believe that things could get worse in Afghanistan. And yet, they have. The classmates of the dead girls – those who survived – have not been able to go to school since last August. That’s when the Taliban returned to power and immediately started to roll back women’s rights.
In the group’s second week in government, the Taliban ordered almost all working women in the public sector to stay home. The excuse, incredibly, was that their fighters were not trained to respect women. In December, they prohibited women from travelling without a male chaperone. And just last week, they enacted the same regime of gender apartheid that they ran in the 1990s, decreeing that all women in Afghanistan must now wear the full burka and cover their faces, and not leave their house unless absolutely necessary. By banning women from work, education and even from stepping outside their homes, the Taliban are effectively erasing them from social and public life in the country.
“Afghanistan today is a women’s rights crisis like no other,” writes Heather Barr, the associate director of the women’s rights division at Human Rights Watch. “Nowhere have we seen the wholesale intentional destruction of the rights of women and girls that is under way in Afghanistan right now, under the misogynistic eye of the Taliban.”
The international community has largely remained silent. Canada, one of a handful of countries that boasts a “feminist foreign policy” and was part of NATO’s war effort in Afghanistan, has only occasionally expressed its “deep concern.” But Afghan women who are living through the Taliban’s brutality say “deep concern” is not going to ease their pain or solve their problems. They are asking Canada to take more concrete actions.
Announced with great fanfare in 2017, the federal government’s Feminist International Assistance Policy focused on six goals, including gender equality and the empowerment of women, human dignity, inclusive governance, and peace and security. Chrystia Freeland, who was then the foreign affairs minister, called it “a matter of basic justice and also basic economics.”
Canada now has a real-time opportunity to put that policy into practice. It can take the lead, working with like-minded allies such as France and Germany, which also purport to have feminist foreign policies, to put pressure on the Taliban to respect women’s rights, reverse their misogynistic decrees and restore women’s agency. Indeed, they could argue that taking half the population out of Afghanistan’s work force is not going to help its sputtering economy, solve the current famine or foster peace and security.
If Canada truly had a feminist foreign policy, it would put Afghan women at the top of the list for entry into our country because it would recognize that they have no other options in the face of the Taliban. They have not changed in 20 years, as some in the West thought or hoped they might have; Afghan women were never under such illusions.
The least Canada could do is take some responsibility as a signatory to the 1951 Geneva Convention on Refugees and recognize that all Afghan women are effectively refugees or refugees-in-waiting – “unable or unwilling to return to their country of origin, owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted.” The Taliban have declared war on women – a campaign against equality, empowerment, human dignity, inclusive governance, and peace and security – and so Afghan women should receive priority processing by Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada (IRCC). They should be treated the same as those fleeing from wars in Ukraine or elsewhere.
This is also exactly what is needed for the other Afghan women who have been left behind by the West: the thousands who have managed to leave Afghanistan, but are stuck in limbo in countries such as Pakistan, Albania and Indonesia, waiting to hear from IRCC. Many are being targeted by cruel opportunists and criminals in these countries who know that their visas are expired and their funds are depleted after months of purgatory.
Canada has an opportunity to show the world what a feminist foreign policy truly means. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Foreign Minister Mélanie Joly could take the lead and give women in Afghanistan and other countries a reason to be hopeful.
But if they do not, it will have consequences for women’s rights everywhere, especially in Afghanistan. The Taliban will see the international community’s continued silence as permission to continue their war on women. And who knows how many more names and faces will be added to the tapestries across Afghanistan.
Keep your Opinions sharp and informed. Get the Opinion newsletter. Sign up today.