The European Parliament has organised two days full of conference, workshops and events surrounding the extremely worrying situation for women in Afghanistan following the Taliban’s takeover last year. The Afghani guests urged the international and European community to take action and delegitimise the de facto rulers.
The guests include the 11 Afghan women finalists for the European Parliament’s Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought 2021, Commission and United Nations representatives as well as representatives of other prominent international organisations and local Afghan foundations.
Within the widespread humanitarian crisis in Afghanistan, women are the hardest hit. After severe droughts and decades of war and occupation, international troops evacuated following the Taliban’s forceful return to power and the country was cut off from international financial institutions. This in turn triggered a banking crisis and worsened economic conditions.
According to the World Food Programme’s Assistant Executive Director, Ute Klamert, 58% of Afghanistan’s population is in need of humanitarian assistance and there are 23 million people with insufficient access to food.
Despite the Taliban claiming they had changed their policies on women’s participation in society, this was proved to be false. Women have been excluded from public life with no opportunity for education, unable to join the workforce, and no access to healthcare unless accompanied by a man. This has put in effect a gender apartheid. As discussed in greater detail in the session girls are being sold out of desperation to feed the rest of the family, illustrating the severity of the current times.
Parliament’s President Roberta Metsola opened the high-level conference on Tuesday welcoming the artists, journalists, activists, parliamentarians, and other women who have come to Brussels for the Afghan Women Days. “Today is to give women and girls a voice in our house, honour and support the work achieved by Sakharov Prize finalists. They teach us that although there is a time for weeping, there is also a time for standing up to injustice.”
Metsola emphasised the motto for the European Parliament for these days: “We will listen, we will learn, and we will act.”
Angelina Jolie, Special Envoy to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, also contributed to the conference with a powerful recorded message. She demanded for the de-facto authorities to reopen all schools, to let girls sit the exams they missed last year, to release the women held in detention and allow for the full participation of women in work, politics, and society.
She questioned the Taliban: “If you do not do this, what is it you are afraid of? If you are afraid of the minds of Afghan women, you’re too late. You can turn a woman away from work, you deny her an education… but you cannot extinguish her capacity for thought.”
Sima Samar, Sakharov Prize finalist 2021, human rights advocate, former Minister of Women’s Affairs and former Chair of the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission, addressed the hemicycle about the dire conditions in her country with recommendations for the international community.
The situation in the country is the “collective failure of the Afghan government, the Afghan people and the international community” she explained, as well as a failure of accountability, rule of law and human rights.
“The international community has the moral obligation to support people in need,” Samar continued. “No tolerance should be allowed for corruption and discrimination.” She further outlined the importance that women are included at every level of the relief programme, and that human rights should not be negotiated under any circumstances.
“Accountability and justice should be part of the agenda with the Taliban. One of the reason of our collective failure is a lack of attention to the issues of accountability and justice for international crimes which has promoted a culture of impunity,” Samar warned.
“Engagement should not mean recognition, and it should not mean compliance with the Taliban’s gender apartheid.” Shaharzad Akbar, Chair of the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission
On 26 January, Members of the Taliban met with Western officials in Oslo for the first talks in Europe since they took control of Afghanistan in August 2021. To many of the Afghan women present, this was a painful occurrence to watch. The Afghan guests in the Parliament challenged this event.
“The international community finds a way to give a platform to a terrorist group, so why can the international community not find a way to not recognise them so easily, and give more platform and opportunity to the people of Afghanistan?” Filmmaker Sahraa Karimi said.
“The key element of empowerment to women of Afghanistan is going to work, so why are you not finding any way to push [the Taliban] to send women back to work so they don’t need to sell their daughters?”
Zarifa Ghafari, Sakharov Prize finalist 2021 and Mayor of Maidan Shar, is shocked and hurt by the abandonment by the international community. “We cannot abandon 35 million people for a few thousand Talibs. But you are giving them the floor for speeches - for what exactly? Is there a price they have to pay? We are committing terrorism already by supporting them.”
"Do not recognise the Taliban government until or unless women have full human rights." Aryana Sayeed, singer-songwriter
Ghafari urged that the Taliban must be pressurised to pay a price if they are to be allowed a platform.
“Giving everything for free to them – we have seen it in the deal between the US and Taliban, then why will the EU make this mistake once again? I am not asking you to abandon my nation, but if you are giving a platform, ask for a price. And if they are not ready to pay that price, we are ready to die of hunger.”
The Afghan singer, Aryana Sayeed, who performed her song “Lady of the Land of Fire”, left a succinct message to the Parliament: "Do not recognise the Taliban government until or unless women have full human rights."
Shaharzad Akbar, another Sakharov Prize finalist and Chair of the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission, sees no choice but to engage with the Taliban, while highlighting that “engagement should not mean recognition”, and “should not mean compliance with Taliban’s gender apartheid”.
“They are brutal, repressive, took power by force, they support suicide attacks and terrorist tactics, but they have power over the lives of 35 million Afghans,” says Akbar. “It is a moral dilemma, but we have to put human rights at the heart of our engagement.”
Akbar also urged the international community to form its engagement with the Taliban tactfully and symbolically: “If a foreign delegation is going to meet with Taliban and it is an all-male delegation, that’s not acceptable.”
In the end of January, Senior Taliban leader Zabihullah Mujahid announced that they are looking to open classrooms for all girls by March 21. This is an opportunity to see if, this time, the group is going to keep their promise.