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October 1, 2021 10:49 am
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Continuing to Try to Save Afghan Women Is ‘the Only Thing We Can Do’

avatar by Phyllis Chesler

Opinion

France, Paris, 2021-08-28. A few hundred feminist activists gathered in solidarity with Afghan women threatened by the Taliban takeover. Photograph by Serge Tenani / Hans Lucas

We now know that the stubborn, almost incomprehensible way in which President Biden pulled out of Afghanistan was against military advice; that it led to the deaths of 13 American soldiers and those of countless Afghan civilians; that it caused traumatic pandemonium in the streets — and the swift takeover of the country by the Taliban.

In the newly proclaimed Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan, women cannot attend Kabul University, and they cannot be members of parliament. Women must wear a black hijab and female city workers have been told to remain indoors. The media is being censored. Music is not allowed. Amputations, stoning, and poppy-growing are back. Men cannot shave their beards.

But there’s more, much more.

Because the Taliban opened all the jails and freed the rapists and murderers, Afghanistan’s female judges are also on the run. The criminals whom they imprisoned are hunting them down, vowing revenge, swearing to do to them what they did to their murdered wives or raped children. According to the BBC:

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One [judge], Masooma, said a man she sentenced for murdering his wife told her: “I will find you and have my revenge.” … [o]ne judge said she had received “more than 20 threatening phone calls from former inmates who have now been released.”

There’s still more.

The Taliban have begun to shut off the Internet in specific neighborhoods. This will render communication with the outside world impossible or intermittent. There will be far fewer pleas for rescue, and a diminished ability to be guided (via the “digital Dunkirk”) to safety.

My friend and colleague Mandy Sanghera is an international human rights activist based outside of London. She has been working with the British government since the beginning of this year, helping to evacuate and resettle Afghan interpreters and staff who worked for the UK.

Mandy and I have worked together before on many other issues. In July, Mandy asked me if I wanted to help rescue some Afghan women. We created a small, ad hoc, grassroots team of women, which included two lawyers, two psychologists, a diplomat, and an academic.

She estimates her team helped more than 80 women, activists, journalists, and minorities apply for asylum. “Then, as you know, in August the situation rapidly deteriorated and I’ve been inundated with requests. I still have 100 people who are left in Afghanistan.”

Brishna Bayat, one of the Afghan women whom we helped evacuate and who is now in America, confirms that there are recent Internet difficulties.

“I have had no contact with some women we know for a few days now,” she told me. “It’s not clear when and why (the Internet) is being taken down in different neighborhoods.”

A source involved in chartering rescue flights was told Tuesday that “the Taliban had just grounded some flights. Thousands are waiting in safe houses in Mazar-i-Sharif.” He was also told that the Taliban are demanding high ransoms for each such potential passenger awaiting a plane.

Another person involved in the rescue efforts told me: “Meanwhile, tragic little groups on foot or in cars are crying out for rescue [on the streets of Kabul and Mazar-i-Sharif]. Babies, toddlers, elderly. Most are so terrified they aren’t being wise or careful. Desperate stories with no happy endings in sight.”

He is right. But what is the alternative? Re-occupying Afghanistan? Doing so only in order to rescue more Afghans?

Can the West, other non-Muslim countries, and moderate Muslim countries, absorb every Afghan woman who wishes to leave?

Bayat was working on a Master’s degree in business administration when the Taliban took over. But even though she worked at the US embassy, she said, “we were not helped by the Americans. It was a group of French people who helped us. After we (failed to get through) the crowds, we were taken by car to the entrance gate [of the airport]. I said to myself: ‘Maybe I die and maybe I will taste freedom.’ The possibility of death was very high, but we were saved.”

I asked if she thought it was a good idea to keep exposing the Taliban while she is here, safely in America, when it might put other women who are still trapped at greater risk?

“We should go public in America, talk, make forums, hold debates about the Taliban,” Bayat said. “It is the only thing we can do for Afghan women from here. The Taliban is going to punish women anyway for any reason.”

Still, she holds out some hope for her country’s future. “American education has changed the society. Afghan women can’t even breathe in the current situation. Several generations have experienced freedoms.”

Because of that, Bayat does not believe that the majority of Afghans can return to the 7th or 8th century.

I hope she’s right, but I doubt it.

Phyllis Chesler is an Emerita Professor of Psychology and Women’s Studies at the City University of New York (CUNY), and the author of 20 books, including Women and Madness, and A Family Conspiracy: Honor Killings. She is a Senior IPT Fellow, and a Fellow at MEF and ISGAP. A version of this article was originally published by the Investigative Project on Terrorism.

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