Afghan MPs, in exile, pledge to work for women’s rights

Female legislators forced to flee following the Taliban’s takeover arrive in Greece as they plan to relocate to the West.

Shagufa Noorzai, left, was one of the more than a dozen of female Afghan legislators evacuated to Greece last month following the Taliban takeover [John Psaropoulos/Al Jazeera]

Athens, Greece – When Taliban fighters ransacked Shagufa Noorzai’s home on August 29, she was not there.

The member of parliament from Helmand province had gone into hiding following the fall of Kabul to the Taliban on August 15, as US and NATO troops were withdrawing from the country after 20 years of war.

“I was in a windowless room for 15 days,” she told Al Jazeera. “Even my family didn’t know where I was … The Taliban told my father, ‘tell her to come out of hiding and we will work with her’.”

Homa Ahmadi, who represented Logar province in parliament three times, said “They [the Taliban] are going to kill people who were working in government and they will do it quietly.”

“They break into people’s homes to show people that they have no rights, and to create fear that they can take whatever they want.”

A day after retaking Afghanistan, the Taliban announced a “general amnesty” for government workers, but reports have emerged of Taliban fighters killing members of ethnic Hazara men and torturing journalists. However, top Taliban leadership has reiterated that they will not target their opponents.

Noorzai and Ahmadi are among more than a dozen female MPs and their families who have arrived in Athens, the Greek capital, after being evacuated from Afghanistan in the past several weeks with the help of two non-governmental organisations, Melissa Network and Human Rights 360. The two groups worked with international organisations and individuals to extricate the families, and many more are en route.

“We created a list of 150 women of influence who were mostly on death lists, who were facing tremendous risks and were willing to take any risk in the process of accessing the airport or exiting the country,” says Melissa co-founder Nadina Christopoulou.

“What they kept telling us before the withdrawal of US troops was [that] going back home means facing certain death.”

Greek diplomatic sources put the figure of evacuees at 177 so far, which includes female lawyers and judges arriving by chartered flight this month.

An emotional reunion

Melissa works on integration, empowerment and advocacy, offering informal education programmes and counselling to migrant and refugee women based in Greece.

Al Jazeera met the Afghans, who had arrived at different times, at an emotional reunion in Athens, where a traditional Afghan lunch was offered.

While grateful for Melissa’s hospitality, the women, many of them teachers and academics, lamented that this year was the first Afghan national education day (October 5) in 20 years when no girls were allowed in high schools.

Last month schools reopened but the resumption of classes for teenage girls was delayed – though boys in similar age-group have been allowed to attend schools, raising questions over the Afghan group’s commitment to women’s education.

Zabihullah Mujahid, the armed group’s spokesman, had said on August 17 that women will be allowed to study and work, and that their rights will be protected within the framework of Islam.

Late last month, Mujahid said girls high schools will open as “soon as possible”, without providing a timeframe.

The Melissa Network works on integration, empowerment and advocacy, offering informal education programmes and counselling to migrant and refugee women [John Psaropoulos/Al Jazeera]

Changing perceptions

Since the Taliban regime was removed from power in a US-led military invasion in 2001, Afghanistan held parliamentary elections in 2005, 2010 and 2018, with nearly one-third of seats reserved for women.

“We received a lot of threats even before entering parliament,” says Nazifa Yousofi Bek, a professor of education, who was elected to parliament from Takhar province.

In October 2018, two weeks into the election campaign, a motorcycle-mounted bomb went off during a campaign rally that Bek was late to attend, killing a dozen supporters and injuring twice as many.

“We tried to push for policies to support women. It was difficult for us. Even inside the parliament, women were second-tier,” she says.

“We tried to pass a law banning violence against women, but the head of the parliamentary committee was a man and he didn’t accept this … two or three times we tried to table the bill without success.”

The law would have allowed women to take legal action against their husbands for physical abuse, something the MPs say was especially important in provincial towns and villages.

“Women in Afghanistan have to deal with toxic masculinity. They don’t even have money to spend. The suicide rate in Herat is high. Women self-immolate because of the violence they suffer,” said *Shakira, an MP who wished to remain anonymous.

Perhaps these MPs’ most profound achievement over 20 years was to alter perceptions of women.

“Twice a week we met with people to hear their problems and try to solve them. We sat from morning until late evening,” Shakira said.

Women politicians were able to bring about change in societal attitude.

Noorzai, the MP from Helmand, said: “Society’s attitude changed about us. People joined us in asking for human rights”.

“We met with interest groups and offered them our voices in parliament. They said ‘women have power and knowledge’, and I was often asked to run in other provinces. We changed people’s minds about us inside parliament as well. We fought discrimination successfully.”

Collapse came as a surprise

US intelligence agencies famously failed to predict the speed with which President Ashraf Ghani’s government would collapse, but so did Afghans.

“We didn’t think it was going to happen so fast, so we did not think to react,” says *Farzaneh, an MP who wishes to remain anonymous to protect family members left behind.

“We didn’t believe we would return to the past and lose the achievements built up over such a long time,” she told Al Jazeera.

“We didn’t believe that all the nations which had supported our country and promised to stand by us would abandon us.”

The MPs are concerned that freezing of Afghanistan’s foreign deposits will create widespread poverty, because the new regime cannot pay salaries to government employees.

But many called for sanctions against neighbouring Pakistan, which they blame for unleashing the Taliban on their country. Pakistan has denied that it backed the Taliban’s uprising.

The MPs still consider themselves representatives of their constituencies, but they plan to relocate to the UK, the US and Canada from where they would advocate for women’s rights.

“Afghan women are very strong and will not back down,” said *Farzaneh.

Melissa and Human Rights 360 are securing laptops and helping the MPs to network.

“It’s vital that in this process they maintain their agency and continue their advocacy work instead of waiting for somebody else to design the next step in their journey,” said Christopoulou.

“They’ve been very much engaged in public life, so we want to provide the support needed for them to continue … We believe in their resilience and the roles they can play.”

*Names changed to protect identities

Bek said female legislators in Afghanistan had tried to push for policies to support women despite opposition from male counterparts [John Psaropoulos/Al Jazeera]
Source: Al Jazeera