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“Stand alongside women in Afghanistan,” Fawzia Wahdat tells the world

For more than a decade, Fawzia Wahdat worked as a journalist in Afghanistan. In addition, she spent two years serving as a provincial commissioner of the Election Complaints Commission during presidential and parliamentary elections. She was forced to leave Afghanistan after the Taliban regained power in 2021 and following the death of her husband. She hasn’t given up her work, however. She subsequently founded the Afghanistan Powerful Women Movement.  

Zan Times interviewed Fawzia Wahdat in June about her steadfast defence of women’s rights in Afghanistan, including her role in the women-led protests against the Taliban.  

Zan Times: It has been nearly two years since the Taliban took power in Afghanistan. Can you explain why you and other women took to the streets in protest, and why you eventually had to leave the country?  

Fawzia Wahdat: On August 15, 2021, the republic fell, and control of Afghanistan fell into the hands of the Taliban regime. Women’s protests began from that moment. Three days after August 15, the first protest by three women took place at the Presidential Palace. I was also among the protesting women [as] we raised our voices against the Taliban. I was a journalist and worked for one of the television channels. Additionally, I was the voice of women’s protests against the Taliban and their policies. My life changed drastically because of participating in the protests. I lost my husband and was eventually forced to leave the country. Currently, I live in Berlin, Germany. 

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ZT: You are at the head of the Afghanistan Powerful Women Movement, which emerged after the Taliban’s takeover. What are the goals of this movement?  

Wahdat: When spontaneous movements of protesting women emerged in Kabul and the provinces, the number of protesting women reached hundreds. When we wanted to protest in one square, the Taliban would become aware of our plans in advance and arrive at the scene. Therefore, we divided ourselves into separate groups to coordinate better and to keep the Taliban unaware of our plans. This is how the Afghanistan Powerful Women Movement took shape; our goal was to protest against oppression, tyranny, inequality, and the Taliban’s policies aimed at eliminating women from society and demanding justice. 

ZT: Who are the members of this movement, and how do you trust and collaborate in these adverse circumstances?  

Wahdat: The Afghanistan Powerful Women Movement comprises a diverse range of individuals: Women’s rights activists, human rights activists, students, schoolgirls, government employees, and even some military personnel form part of this group. The majority of our members are women, and we are active in Kabul and all provinces. As well, members are located in Islamabad and Berlin. 

As you may be aware, two women set fire to pictures of the Taliban prime minister, the acting minister of higher education, and Mullah Hibatullah in front of a school. This act, despite the risk of torture and imprisonment, demonstrated the courage of women against a terrorist group. Sadly, some women have been imprisoned due to their involvement in these protests and activities, and I lost my husband. The Taliban often imprison women and coerce them into working with their intelligence agencies, which poses a threat to the women’s movement. Therefore, we do not allow our girls to engage in dangerous activities that could jeopardize their lives.  

ZT: Do you know of individuals coerced to work with the Taliban’s intelligence after their arrest?  

Wahdat: Yes, there have been cases where individuals, including some of our girls, were coerced into working with the Taliban’s intelligence after being arrested. Unfortunately, I cannot disclose their names for their safety. We are aware of these incidents and understand the risks involved. Our priority is to protect the lives of our members, so we cannot reintegrate those who have been coerced back into our group. We hope that such cases do not occur again. 

ZT: Are you aware of the situation of women in prisons? And what actions have you taken to support them?  

Wahdat: Currently, none of our members are imprisoned, which is fortunate. However, we are aware that there are many women in Taliban prisons, and we do not have accurate information about their exact numbers or the conditions they are facing. Women have been imprisoned on various charges, including for posting critical content on platforms like Facebook. Among the detainees are former military women [who] endure unimaginable forms of torture at the hands of the Taliban. You may be aware of the case of professor Mashal, who was subjected to torture in a Taliban prison and is currently hospitalized. 

ZT: Is it possible that there are other female prisoners alongside those reported by the media?  

Wahdat: Yes, it is highly likely. Our society is deeply rooted in traditional values, and when girls who participated in protests with us were imprisoned, their families often preferred to keep it private, fearing the impact on their honour and dignity. The Taliban, being a terrorist group with no regard for principles or regulations, does not care about anyone’s honour or dignity. It has been a challenging and distressing process for us to convince these families to allow us to share the news of their daughters’ imprisonment with the media after a few weeks. 

ZT: What are the biggest challenges to the activities of the Afghanistan Powerful Women Movement, and how should they be addressed?  

Wahdat: The activities of the Afghanistan Powerful Women Movement face multiple challenges, with the primary obstacle being the Taliban itself. The presence of the Taliban and their violent behaviour severely hinder women’s protests in Afghanistan. Unfortunately, the Taliban has realized that imprisoning women weakens the protestors, and they exploit this vulnerability. 

Women face challenges on two fronts: resistance from their families and the fight for their fundamental rights such as education, employment, and freedom. Families often fear the repercussions of their daughters’ imprisonment and prohibit them from participating in protests. Moreover, there are obstacles imposed by the Taliban and traditional society. Men have not genuinely stood alongside women, and there is a lack of belief and conviction in women’s rights. If men truly supported women’s rights, when schools closed, universities would not have been shut down either. Male family members should have stood beside their sisters, wives, and daughters.  

Unfortunately, very few raised their voices, and the majority accepted Taliban decisions without resistance. Schools, universities, clubs, parks, and other public spaces accessible to women were closed down. Today, we find ourselves alone as the international community has turned away from us. We are fighting against a terrorist group with empty hands, without political, moral, or financial support from civil groups, political circles, and all those who should have stood beside women.  

ZT: How has the approach of men towards women’s rights issues not changed during the 20 years of democracy?  

Wahdat: Regrettably, the 20 years of democracy in Afghanistan were not genuine. It was mostly symbolic, merely a facade of democracy. For instance, in an office where 30 men were employed, there would be only three women. Some women were hired to fulfill gender quotas and secure project funds that were being allocated to Afghanistan. The foundations and essence of democracy were not firmly established during that time. 

ZT: Women have been protesting for two years, yet these struggles have not spread widely nationwide. In your opinion, what should be done to expand these movements?  

Wahdat: I believe that raising awareness is crucial. Until people are aware of their rights, we cannot expand these protests and mobilize the entire population against the Taliban. The international community must stand in solidarity with women. Our movements require financial, material, and moral support. We have limited access to resources such as WhatsApp and the internet, but even with these constraints, we have achieved a lot. People need to stand alongside women and support their cause. 

ZT: How can human rights organizations support the women of Afghanistan?  

Wahdat: Unfortunately, human rights organizations did not show a willingness to support and help us when they were supposed to raise their voices. They remained silent, including organizations like UNAMA [United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan], Amnesty International, and other women’s rights and human rights organizations. The United Nations and these organizations receive billions of dollars monthly, and while they have expanded their platforms, they have done very little for women in Afghanistan. We have had several meetings with the United Nations, where we shared our problems, and they promised to cooperate with us. However, they have acted worse than the Taliban towards us: They used the name of women’s rights, and human rights, and received funding, but apart from issuing a few statements, they have done nothing substantial for the women of our country. 

ZT: How do the women who continue to protest envision a future political system in Afghanistan?  

Wahdat: Women envision a democratic system in which all ethnic groups are included and no one is excluded. Women want their place in this system to be clear and secure. Transparent elections are important. Unfortunately, even in the previous Western-supported republic, the system was largely dominated by a single ethnic group, and individuals from other ethnic groups were often overlooked for positions. If the international community aims to establish a government similar to the previous republic, where women and the broader population have no meaningful representation, the outcome will likely be the same, and everything will collapse again. 

ZT: Why couldn’t women establish large and powerful independent political institutions? 

Wahdat: We are currently working on forming a political umbrella to unify women’s protests and amplify their voices in the international community. We want to participate in international discussions about Afghanistan’s future and advocate for women’s rights and the political destiny of our country. While there are some recognized women from the pre-Taliban era, we cannot fully trust them; they have often used the names of women and women’s rights for their own interests without making significant contributions. Therefore, as women, we are striving to create a unified political platform to achieve our goals. 

ZT: Do some political figures from the republic era participate in the Afghanistan Powerful Women Movement, either inside and outside Afghanistan? What is your opinion of them?  

Wahdat: Women who are not active members of the Afghanistan Powerful Women Movement but seek to associate themselves with our movement are not our representatives. Some of these women may even be aligned with the Taliban and benefit from the current situation, sometimes using women’s platforms to speak in favor of the Taliban. I openly mention Mahbouba Seraj as someone who works in favour of the Taliban, utilizing platforms designated for women. She has no right to participate in meetings or receive awards on behalf of women.  

Similarly, Fawzia Koofi and several other representatives have made deals behind the scenes during the Doha talks with the Taliban, exchanging money and projects. They now attend conferences, but they can never represent the women who stand against the Taliban on the streets, protesting with empty hands. Among the protesting women and girls, we have highly capable individuals who can defend themselves, advocate for their rights, and truly represent women. 

ZT: Do these women you mentioned participate in conferences and receive awards in the name of Afghan women?  

Wahdat: Yes, they still receive awards in the name of Afghan women. However, we do not accept them as representatives. We have directly addressed them and shared their photos on social media, stating that they do not represent us. We have requested that the international community allow protesting women to defend their own rights and speak for themselves. In the past two conferences, we managed to have a few protesting women participate. For instance, Hoda Kamosh represented the protesting women at a conference held in Austria. I believe that women who protest on the streets should be invited to such meetings. 

ZT: How can protesting women attract the attention of the international community to support them, and how can their protests yield positive results?  

Wahdat: We can only continue our protests both inside and outside the country. This is how we can attract the attention of the international community. Unfortunately, we have limited resources. However, we have sent letters to the UN secretary-general, the Security Council, and the parliaments of UN member countries. Through these channels, we are striving to draw the attention of the international community to the dire situation faced by women in our country. We cannot say that women’s protests have been completely ineffective. One result of our protests is that the Taliban remains unrecognized after two years. Despite the international community providing financial assistance to the Taliban, no country has officially recognized them yet. 

ZT: Some women within the country have expressed support for the Taliban and signed a letter calling for the continuation of UN activities in Afghanistan. What is your opinion on this?  

Wahdat: These women, such as Mahbouba Seraj, Negina Yari, and others who signed the letter, are aligned with the Taliban. They have had indirect dealings with the Taliban and the U.S. in the past. You may have observed the strong reactions from people on social media regarding these women.  

We have no message for the Taliban, nor do we make any requests to them. Our plea to the international community is to stand alongside women in Afghanistan and support women’s rights and human rights, which have been violated for years, and truly support the people of Afghanistan, preventing millions from suffering in the flames of war and misery. We also call upon men to stand with women and strengthen our fight for securing women’s rights. 

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