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The Taliban should be brought to trial, not the negotiation table: Rishmin Joyanda

After the return of the Taliban to power, women protested Taliban restrictions on women’s education and employment through demonstrations in Afghanistan and around the world. Though the Taliban cracked down violently, sending many protesters to jail and hospital, the peaceful fight against their misogynistic edicts continued. One of the most prominent protesters was Rishmin Joyanda, who conveyed the voices of protest to the world and who was jailed for her actions.  

Today, Rishmin Joyanda lives in exile in France, yet remains firmly committed to her goals and commitments in defending human rights and fighting the Taliban. She strives to play an effective role in pushing for women’s rights in Afghanistan. Importantly, she calls for the global community not to abandon the people of her country, and to bring the Taliban to trial rather than negotiating with them.  

Rishmin Joyanda spoke to Zan Times about her experiences after the Taliban gained control of Afghanistan on August 15, 2021. The interview was conducted on the second anniversary of the fall of the republic, and has been edited for clarity and length.  

Zan Times: Tell us about your life – how was it before the Taliban returned and how did it change after the Taliban? 

Rishmin Joyanda: Last night, I wondered when I first came to know about the Taliban. I recalled when I was a child, my older brother, Hamid, who was almost four or five years old, would go out to play. When he returned home, he had empty bullet casings in his pockets. It was the time of the Taliban in the 1990s. The streets were littered with these casings every day. I used to love the sound of the casings jingling in Hamid’s pocket, even though he wouldn’t share them with me. I was unaware that every night these bullets were intended to take human lives, and it was these same bullets that kept my family and me awake.  

On nights when there was fighting, my family and I would go to a neighbour’s bunker. I could walk, but my sister Nastaran often remained in my mother’s arms. On some nights, we could see the bullets flying over our kitchen. My elder sister, Halima, would count them. I preferred staying in the kitchen more than in the bunker because it was more intriguing. We had to turn off the lights.  

Ghor was liberated from the Taliban about a year later. The war lasted longer. I joined the Sultan Razia School, and, after coming to Kabul, I took the university entrance exam and succeeded in getting into the sociology department at Kabul University. [I was fascinated by the] high birth rate in Afghanistan. The people are poor, yet they have many children. They don’t consider the fate of their offspring. I often heard people from our village saying it doesn’t matter if they are with ISIS or the Taliban; they’ll side with whoever pays more. I realized how children become prey to Taliban thinking. I identified poverty as the root cause; poverty resulting from a high birth rate exceeding family income.  

I thought of starting a campaign, but not like the hundreds of projects that came to Afghanistan and bore no results. I believed that I would start in the Ghor province. I’d work sincerely so that people would recognize my honest efforts, and then I could bring more people into this circle. In my opinion, the point where we can reform Afghanistan is by controlling the birth rate. But when we came to Kabul, after a while, I realized that while we were thinking of improving, Ashraf Ghani was thinking of sinking the nation. In the end, he handed over the country to the Taliban. 

ZT: Can you describe your feelings and experiences when you decided not to remain silent and join the anti-Taliban protests. There was a great risk involved 

Joyanda: The day the Taliban came, I cried all day. I was planning to start life, but I realized life had come to an end. Then I joined the protests. I can’t recall the exact date, but that night, I found out that three girls had gone out and protested. I didn’t know these girls very well. My sister, my brother’s wife, and I – excluding my parents and my eight-year-old sister – were a group of nine, and we all went out. Naturally, my parents were worried and advised against it. We said, “Even if we get killed, it’s still not enough, and we should have started fighting much earlier.” We couldn’t reach the protests because the Taliban had blocked the roads. Every taxi we got into, they would get us out. We got into one taxi and promised the driver 1,000 afghani. We were close to our destination when the Taliban stopped him. Eventually, they pulled him out of the car and slapped him hard. The driver gave up. On our way home, we started crying, frustrated that we couldn’t shout in the protests.  

On another day, which I don’t recall the exact date, we participated in protests in front of the Pakistani embassy. I wasn’t in favor of my married siblings going. I only wanted those who were single to go because if someone with children dies, then their children become orphans. But for singles, it doesn’t matter since they don’t have a future here. When I told my sister not to go, she didn’t listen and said she doesn’t think about anything anymore. She said her kids had no future, and she no longer cared if they had a mother or not. In the end, she came with us. When we reached the protest site, we saw the Taliban beating the protesting women. Some with sticks, some with the butts of their guns, and others with hands and feet. We tried to protect ourselves by moving through the crowd. After a few moments, I heard a very loud sound. When I looked around, I saw my older sister had fallen. I ran to her and helped her up. I asked what happened. She said she could not move her shoulder. She said she was hit on the shoulder with the butt of a gun. They had hit her so hard that she couldn’t move her arm. When we took her to the hospital, we saw that her shoulder and waist had turned black and blue. I kept it hidden from my mother. We took her back to her house and didn’t let her participate in other protests. After this protest, my sister Nastaran and I participated in other protests, and we didn’t let our other sister participate.  

We wanted to show what we wanted. On October 30, in a demonstration with colourful and black chadors, we wanted to convey a message to the world. Before the 14 of us could reach the square, 300 Taliban forces arrived, the media reported. They had come armed with both light and heavy weapons. From their clothes and vehicles, it was evident that senior Taliban officials were present. We were besieged for about three to four hours. There were 14 of us, they were 300. I laughed and said to one of them, “Look how much you fear us.” I take pleasure in the pain he was enduring, and how proud I am that, against the 14 of us girls, armed with paper and pen, they confronted us with cannons and guns. This pride is enough for me, and I’m sure the struggles of women will become a model for women worldwide. I’m certain that history will never forget the struggles of women in this country. 

In another protest in front of the Ministry of Women’s Affairs, which later became known as the notorious Taliban Ministry for the Propagation of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice, I had taken my aunt with me. During an aerial raid, my aunt got injured, her face was wounded. I was hit by shrapnel, fell to the ground, and one side of my face got so badly injured that I had to extract one of my teeth. Every time I went to a protest, I returned home injured. Once, my sister Nastaran’s hand was injured. My mother used to say that I had turned her home into a hospital. But my parents were gracious. By the time I reached home, the blood in their veins would run cold, but they knew that if they didn’t let us go out, we’d die at home. I’m grateful to them for letting us go and fight. 

ZT: Can you provide more details about the struggles in which you were arrested? How were you captured and what happened to you? 

Joyanda: All women were imprisoned with the coming of the Taliban to power. But some of us, for the crime of not following the rules of a prison called Afghanistan, were transferred from one cell, named “home,” to another cell. We were already prisoners, but we were moved to another cell for the crime of not obeying rules that demanded women die.  

Why do I say die? Because the injustice against women in this country surpasses violence, oppression, bullying, discrimination, and gender apartheid. There’s no word capable of defining the Taliban’s behavior towards women. Gender apartheid is worse than racial apartheid, because those who suffered from racial apartheid had some space – for instance, markets were segregated between blacks and whites, and blacks somehow managed to make a living, however meager. A tiny amount was considered for their survival, but even that trivial consideration does not exist for women in my country. When a woman loses her husband in a suicide bombing, she cannot have a source of income. She must die simply because she’s a woman. There’s no sentence that can capture the cruelty and behaviour of the Taliban against women. Therefore, we did not accept these prison rules; we stood against the injustices. Under the Taliban regime, the reward is either being injured and killed or being imprisoned. We received our “reward.” 

We were three girls in a safe house. Because the arrests by the Taliban had increased, we realized that we could no longer stay in Afghanistan. That’s why we were considering escaping from Afghanistan. I also had an issue with my passport, so I couldn’t go to the passport office. My family was supposed to move to France, but they had been waiting for two weeks because of me. I was perplexed about what to do. An organization had messaged a few of us girls, saying they would transfer us to a safe house and then, in a few days, to Qatar. I told them there was an issue with my passport, but they said it doesn’t matter and that they would transfer me. But we weren’t transferred soon. I can’t say it was due to negligence because everyone in that safe house had received multiple warnings and was known to the Taliban.  

On the second night, as I was talking to Wahida, the door was slightly open. At one point, I noticed a Taliban member in the corridor. Typically, for the previous two months that I’d been on the run, the first thing I’d do was look for an escape route in case the Taliban entered. I planned to head to the balcony and climb down using a wooden ladder. When I saw the Taliban, the first thing I did was put on my burqa and tell Wahida that the Taliban had sneaked in. I had imagined my arrest thousands of times. But when I saw the Taliban, despite practicing not to be shocked or scared, it was still very terrifying. It felt like death. I locked the door and told Wahida to come behind me. I went towards the balcony, but the first thing the Taliban had done was block the escape route. So, I went inside the room, and Wahida also entered. Wahida was very scared too. Both of us were so frightened that we didn’t know what to do. 

I couldn’t accept that the route was closed. We were on the fourth floor. I told myself I’d jump off the balcony. Even if my arms and legs break, at least I can escape. I realized that in the alley, the Taliban had their gun barrels pointed at us. They told me either to go inside or they’d shoot. I decided to open the door myself because there was no other way. I opened the door, and two women entered the room. A Taliban, wearing a black turban, was standing. I didn’t understand much of what they were saying because they spoke in Pashto, but I heard them calling us the word “Khabis” (degenerate). Because we didn’t give them our phones, the women asked him to beat us. Eventually, they took our phones. They took us to the first floor. My problem was that I had taken my young nephew with me. He was a sixteen-year-old boy whom I had taken as a chaperone. All I was worried about was that his mother only had two sons, and her husband had previously passed away. She had entrusted me with her son, but I had put him at the mercy of the Taliban. I was afraid of prison and kept asking them not to take us to one. I could hear the noises of the male companies being beaten in another room. Some girls had their husbands with them, some had their brothers. When I went out, I saw they had tied my nephew’s hands and he was among other men, all with their hands tied and their heads down. 

Now, I really am not afraid of death because I’ve experienced it. We witnessed the Taliban’s behaviour with girls who were arrested before us, who had been captured in Mazar and Kabul. While I saw my own death, I also saw the death of hundreds of girls with whom we had fought in Kabul for our rights; I imagined the death of my nephew right before my eyes, and it was not just death, it was something much harder.  

They transferred us to the Ministry of Interior’s children’s department. When they took us to jail, I thought to myself that they would quickly interrogate us. They didn’t come that night because one of them was killed. They didn’t show up until the next morning, either. Although they had interrogated a few of the girls in the morning, they hadn’t interrogated all of us. From the Taliban’s perspective, we were all guilty, and one of our crimes was that we had caused the Taliban to not be recognized as the legitimate government. We were responsible for freezing Afghanistan’s assets in the US. We were at fault because we were women.  

Every day, we were interrogated multiple times. We were insulted daily and were warned that we would be imprisoned forever, and that they intended to torture us. While it’s true that some of us were not physically tortured, the Taliban knew how to inflict mental torture on us all. Nothing happened by chance; they knew how to hurt us. Among us were women who had their children with them. They didn’t give us food for several days or bread once a day. The children were very hungry. Due to their restlessness, the prison atmosphere became even more stifling and challenging. There were women and mothers among us who, due to high blood pressure and diabetes, needed medication – they would take away the medicines from them, and we witnessed their suffering. 

Every time they interrogated us, they threatened us with imprisonment for an indefinite period. Even though I was very afraid of the Taliban, I asked several times to see my family. No matter how serious our crimes might have been, even if we had committed murder, we have the right to see our families, who need to know what happened to their daughters. In a traditional society like ours, this was important. There were girls who cried so much out of concern for their families that they would faint. The Taliban never allowed us to contact our families. We understood the pain our families were enduring; for months, our participation in the protests had tormented them. We understood that our families were dying every moment. We weren’t alone; with each of us, hundreds were dying. We were dying inside the prison, and our families were dying outside.  

The moment they took us into the ministry building, we were all scared and did not realize it was a kindergarten. As we entered, we saw paintings of mothers on the corridor walls, holding their children. The Taliban had crudely defaced the painted faces of the mothers so much that even the wall paint had come off. Seeing that, I realized that the Taliban’s problem was not just with me, but with my very existence as a woman. On the third or fourth night, I saw women being brought in who looked more distressed than we did. They were all shivering and their eyes were full of tears. Initially, we were not allowed to speak to those women, but after several days, we were given permission. According to one woman, she was a businesswoman, and all her staff had been detained. Among the men, there were two foreigners, and a woman who was an employee of the businesswoman. She had two children and her two servants were also brought in.  

I realized there that the women who worked for them were also prisoners. They were even more imprisoned than we were. We hoped to be freed one day, but they had no escape. They were women soldiers from the previous regime, but now the Taliban had forced them to support them. Among the six women who worked night shifts, there was a lady named Estori, who went to great lengths to torture and harass us. She showed no mercy, not even to the children. She denied us even basic facilities, like toilets. At night, she would tell us not to turn on the lights, forcing us to stay in the dark. Even if the jailers of the Taliban are women, it is still a prison there, and the United Nations and human rights organizations need to be aware of this. They need to know that such women are imprisoned even if they are the jailers. I hope that justice will be sought for them. 

ZT: How much impact have women’s struggles had on the international community, and how do you view the role of the international community? Have they listened to these voices?  

Joyanda: We have said that our problem is not with the Taliban’s rules, but with the very existence of the Taliban. We do not want the Taliban. We are not demanding a change in the Taliban’s policies towards us; what we desire is the prosecution of Taliban leaders as killers of the people and destroyers of our homes, our wealth, our possessions, our identity, and our culture.  

Today, the world is just observing. They invite the Taliban and seat them at decision-making tables. This is another injustice and atrocity against the people of Afghanistan. It is a significant betrayal that, instead of putting the killers of thousands on trial, they are seated at negotiation tables. This is a major crime that America has committed against our people.  

We are not seeking a change in Taliban laws or policies. Good laws need good implementers, not terrorists. We, the people of Afghanistan, cannot accept our killers as our rulers, regardless of whether they change or not. This is our first and last message. 

The United Nations, powerful countries, and world politicians say they are trying to change the Taliban. The Taliban, who were sanctioned and condemned in the mountains of Afghanistan for years, did not reform. Do you think they will reform with the power, money, tanks, and guns they now have? The Taliban are only focused on killing and exterminating people and are beyond reformation. This is not a logical expectation; both they and we know it. The only change was to get rid of the Taliban. Our demand is also to eliminate the Taliban. We want nothing else. 

ZT: In your opinion, what should the international community do? What is the right path?  

Joyanda: If they genuinely want to help, their first step should be to exert pressure on the Taliban. There are many tools for exerting such pressure. They should not allow Taliban leaders to travel and should halt the millions of assistance given to them weekly, as that money does not reach the people; it all goes directly into the Taliban’s pockets. Similarly, they should pressurize countries that, for their own interests, want to engage with the Taliban to stop their contact. 

Firstly, we are not seeking the world’s engagement with the Taliban. They shouldn’t assume that once the Taliban is accepted, their treatment of women will change. They shouldn’t think that the Taliban, if legitimized, will open schools for girls or allow them to attend school, university, or work. If the Taliban do that, they are no longer the Taliban. The Taliban is unchangeable, so the only thing that can be done is for the world not to aid this group, overtly or covertly.  

People are already fed up with the Taliban’s self-imposed laws. With the behaviour that the Taliban exhibits in Afghanistan, they can’t last. The people themselves are standing against the Taliban. Eventually, they’ll run out of patience and act. Now, some countries, because of their economic interests, want to use the Taliban. Some countries want to use the Taliban to exert their dominance over neighboring countries. The world shouldn’t think that only the people in Afghanistan will suffer; the Taliban’s story doesn’t end here but will spread globally. Thousands of children fall victim to the Taliban’s policies and are ready to join the ranks of the Taliban’s suicide bombers. The Taliban doesn’t prepare a suicide bomber to kill me; this group needs a battlefield where we aren’t their only victims this time. 

Zan Times: In your opinion, where would be this battlefield? 

Joyanda: If the Taliban grows in this manner, it could be any country. Maybe today the Taliban are our problem, but tomorrow they will be a problem for the whole world. The only solution is for the people of the world to unite with the men and women in Afghanistan, and us to together eliminate the enemy that threatens the world.  

ZT: How do you see the prospect of women’s struggles? Can it continue and what’s its importance?  

Joyanda: When we were in prison and were taken for forced confessions, we were told to mention specific names, claiming they were the reason for our protests. I asked the girls to recall any name, even though the names were being read from a script. They turned off the camera several times, got angry, and said if I didn’t want to be beaten, I should say what they wanted. I named two people other than the ones they suggested. I expected the other girls to do the same.  

Be assured that the girls have been fed up with the Taliban since the days we protested. Their condition has worsened, their hunger has grown, and their dedication to their studies, learning, and work has intensified. The oppressions have suffocated them. If they cannot protest today, it does not mean that women are content. It’s only because they have been suppressed by the Taliban.  

ZT: In conclusion, do you have a message you wish to convey to readers?  

Joyanda: I mentioned the female prison guards who were treated just like prisoners themselves. About four or five months after our release from prison, I saw a picture in the media of someone who had been killed due to a severe beating. Her family had found her on the streets of Kabul. She was a Taliban prison guard. She was the one who would read the forced confessions from a script, and we would repeat after her. She appeared to be with the Taliban. Her name was Zarghona.  

The injustices inflicted upon women in our country are indescribable with any word or phrase. When I was imprisoned, I managed to witness other cruelties of this group in the corners and margins of the prison.