‘I Am Erased!’: Afghan Women Leaders Urge International Community to Take Action

Fawzia Koofi receives the Casa Asia Award on Nov. 5, 2021 in Barcelona, Spain, in recognition for her work in favor of women’s rights in Afghanistan, for her role in the Doha peace talks, and for her commitment to the education of girls and women. (David Zorrakino / Europa Press via Getty Images)

This article originally appears in the Winter 2023 50th anniversary issue of MsBecome a member today to read more reporting like this in print and through our app.

In August 2022, women around the world joined their Afghan counterparts in marking the one-year anniversary of the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan.

In the months since, little has changed for Afghan women. There is despair over the growing intransigence of the Taliban, who have reneged on their promise to the international community to allow girls to return to school. Instead, the Taliban have instituted further restrictions and a crackdown on dissent—which continues despite the tremendous risks to protesters for speaking out. Their latest action: a ban on the sale of contraceptives.

There is also despair over the growing sense that the world, somehow unable to deal with more than one crisis at a time, has moved on and is now exclusively focused on the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Meanwhile, as former Afghan diplomat Asila Wardak noted at the launch of the U.S.-Afghan Consultative Mechanism in July, the Taliban have not moved an inch toward the implementation of any promises they made to the international community to respect women’s rights. She stressed that in addition to monitoring and reporting on the regime, action was needed, and she urged the United States to use all of its leverage—economic and political—to pressure the Taliban.

The Taliban have not moved an inch toward the implementation of any promises they made to the international community to respect women’s rights.

The Afghan women leaders forced to leave their country have continued to speak out forcefully, but they are increasingly frustrated by the seeming hypocrisy of the international community—professing its commitment to human rights, women’s rights and Afghan women on one hand, while failing to take any effective measures on the other.

In June, addressing the U.N. Human Rights Council, Shaharzad Akbar (former chair of the now-dismantled Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission) warned of the deteriorating situation for women and girls. While welcoming the dialogue with the council, she expressed concern that it was not an adequate response to the unfolding crisis and noted that “women are taking to the streets every day at great risk to their lives because they understand the urgent need for action.”

Speaking on behalf of the Women’s Forum on Afghanistan, Akbar voiced their collective distress over the council’s inactivity. “We have heard you repeatedly say that you will judge the Taliban by their deeds, not their words,” she said, warning, “We too will judge the international community by their deeds, not their words.”

The mandate of the U.N. special rapporteur on human rights in Afghanistan was renewed by the Human Rights Council in October, but strong calls from Afghan women for a stronger mechanism that would do more than monitor and report human rights violations and would actually hold human rights violators accountable have thus far been unsuccessful.

Mahbouba Seraj, a longtime Afghan women’s rights advocate, shared her despair with the U.N. Human Rights Council, asking, “Do you know what that feeling is? To be erased? I am erased and I don’t know what else to do. This is the last hope and the last time I am going to talk about this to the world. Because I am sick and tired of doing it, and I am not going to do it anymore. How many times am I supposed to yell and scream and say, ‘World, pay attention to us—we are dying’?”

We have heard you repeatedly say that you will judge the Taliban by their deeds, not their words. We too will judge the international community by their deeds, not their words.

Shaharzad Akbar

In September, Fawzia Koofi, another longtime Afghan women’s rights advocate and former second deputy speaker of the Afghan Parliament, addressed the U.N. Security Council. She said the message many women and men inside Afghanistan had asked her to bring to the council was their sense of betrayal “that the world is still not vocal about the current gender apartheid under the Taliban.”

She also conveyed the desperate hope that the Security Council, as the main international body accountable for world order, would act on behalf of the Afghan people. She challenged the predominantly male council members to try to imagine a world ruled by women where they, as men, were not allowed to leave their home without a woman to accompany them, not allowed to wear what they wanted, not allowed to go to school or work.

“Can you put your feet in Afghan women’s shoes and feel the pain?” she asked.

More than two decades ago, in 2000, the U.N. Security Council adopted Resolution 1325, recognizing the critical role of women in maintaining peace and security, and multiple studies have recognized a significant correlation between women’s status in a country and that country’s propensity for war.

A blog run by the World Bank has noted, “Gender equality is an essential factor in a country’s security and stability. Excluding women from actively participating in society can increase the risk of instability.” Koofi called on the Security Council to facilitate a political dialogue, using all leverage over the Taliban to press for real commitment to the peace and security “desired by the international community but, more importantly, deserved by the Afghan people.”

She told the council that it was dangerous to rely on one violent extremist group to dismantle other violent extremist groups, saying that only the people of Afghanistan and its brave women can dismantle all military extremist groups and reminding council members that peace and security in Afghanistan is in the interest of regional and global peace and security.

In conclusion, she urged the Security Council to “please stand with the people of Afghanistan and their struggle to return to a constitutional order. It’s time for all of us to stand on the right side of history.”

In October 2001, just one month after the attacks of 9/11, “The Rifle and the Veil,” an op-ed I coauthored for The New York Times, began, “Anyone who has paid attention to the situation of women in Afghanistan should not have been surprised to learn that the Taliban are complicit in terrorism.”

As terrorist attacks escalate, Afghan women are again the canaries in the coal mine. Is anyone listening?

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Jessica Neuwirth is a lawyer and international women's rights activist. She is one of the founders of Equality Now, an international women's rights organizations established in 1992, and the founder and director of Donor Direct Action, a project hosted by the Sisterhood Is Global Institute to support women's organizations around the world. She is the founder and president emerita of the ERA Coalition and Fund for Women's Equality.