The U.S. Has a Moral Obligation Toward Afghan Women

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Habiba Sarabi (send from left) attends the Women’s Gathering for Peace on Feb. 9, 2019. (Twitter)

Under Taliban control, the situation for Afghan women has become dire as they suffer the ongoing loss of basic rights and freedoms. Control of the Taliban has been disproportionately unbearable for Hazara women, who throughout history have suffered the double oppression of being both women and part of an ethnic minority.

Over the past two decades, despite seemingly insurmountable challenges, Hazara women in Afghanistan reached previously unthinkable milestones, fighting for meaningful participation in every aspect of daily life—including the first head of the Women’s Affairs Ministry of Afghanistan, the first female head of the Human Rights Commission, the first female governor of a province, and the first woman mayor in Afghanistan.

For the past 20 years, since myself fleeing Afghanistan as a refugee, activist and researcher, I have witnessed the achievements of Hazara women leaders, journalists, lawyers and activists. Their incredible strength and leadership pushed beyond my own fear, allowing me to return to Afghanistan on two academic journeys—the first in 2004 to document five massacre sites of the Taliban and interview women activists and public officials, like Habiba Sarabi, Afghanistan’s then-minister of women’s affairs. I interviewed Sarabi again on my second trip in 2011 when she was serving as the first female governor in Bamian.

The interviews shocked my soul, filling me with rage and hopelessness. But the incredible leadership of these women helped me see possibility and hope for women of Afghanistan.

Sarabi in particular exemplified the confidence, resilience and determination I saw in many Afghan women I spoke to. Young women and girls looked to her as role model; she encouraged them to work hard to obtain an education and fight for their rights, providing vision and a sense of possibility for women in Afghanistan.

Unfortunately, most of the progress for women—especially Hazara women—has vanished overnight. Many of these fearless pioneers reluctantly went into hiding when the Taliban overtook the government in August; they now struggle daily for their survival. Sarabi and women like her all over the country have been left alone to struggle for survival for themselves and their families.

Even still, hundreds of Afghan activists and leaders who worked alongside Western countries, NGOs or the Afghan government have already been arrested and kidnapped.

The fear of what the Taliban might do in the coming days has forced many Hazara women to try to flee the country. But they are also not safe in many neighboring countries. Though Pakistan was once considered relatively safe, the Pakistani government has taken a harsh stance towards Hazara refugees in recent months, deporting many back to Afghanistan or sending them to new border camps—increasingly becoming hotbeds of terrorist groups including Jaishi Tayyaba (a Pakistan-based terrorist group) and the Taliban. Sending a Hazara back to Afghanistan, or otherwise knowingly putting her in the hands of terrorists, is handing her over to a very bleak fate.

Hazara people have not forgotten the many suicide attacks, the targeted and genocidal killing of Hazara people, including attacks on a maternity ward, a peaceful protest  and a girls’ school in Kabul. The fear of more ruthless attacks grows among Hazaras, especially girls and women.

As a naturalized U.S. citizen, activist, author and filmmaker, I and many like me feel a moral obligation to help these women. Therefore, I beg the U.S. government to revisit the Humanitarian Parole Application process, creating a designated platform for those at high risk right now. Slow processing, unknown timelines and vague criteria the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) has adopted to process current parole applications have put many vulnerable women in limbo and at risk.

As I write, I am working tirelessly to bring women activists and my Hazara family members here to safety in the United States. I, and many other Afghans in U.S.—who like me, are U.S. citizens, professionals with stable full-time jobs—have filed humanitarian parole applications for family members or other women activists. We have taken on full financial responsibility for them. But we still don’t know when the USCIS will review their applications and based on what criteria.

My country, the U.S., has failed to protect those people who were U.S. allies and supported their mission in Afghanistan. We have a moral obligation to make the humanitarian parole application process fair, reliable and swift. Lives are at stake and story will judge our actions.

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About

Zareen Taj is a women’s rights and human rights activist. She is a Feminist Majority scholar. She has a dual bachelor’s degree in women's studies and political science and a master's degree in women studies. She is currently a LLC Ph.D. student at the University of Maryland-Baltimore County.