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‘Widespread’ Taliban Rights Abuses In Herat Cause Fear Among Women

Afghan women protest in Herat on September 2.

Human rights defenders say the Taliban is committing “widespread and serious” rights violations against women and girls in the western Afghan city of Herat, which they say raises serious concerns about the ability or willingness of the group’s leadership in Kabul to control the actions of its members across Afghanistan.

Since taking over Herat on August 12, members of the hard-line Islamist group “have instilled fear among women and girls by searching out high-profile women; denying women freedom of movement outside their homes; imposing compulsory dress codes; severely curtailing access to employment and education; and restricting the right to peaceful assembly,” Human Rights Watch (HRW) and the San Jose State University (SJSU) Human Rights Institute said in a statement on September 23.

The two organizations say they have interviewed seven women in Herat by telephone, including activists, educators, and university students, about their experiences since the Taliban took control of the city. The women spoke under condition of anonymity out of fear for their safety, they said.

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The women told HRW and the SJSU Human Rights Institute that their lives had been “completely upended” the day the Taliban seized Herat, finding themselves trapped indoors, “afraid to leave their house without a male family member or because of dress restrictions, with their access to education and employment fundamentally changed or ended entirely.”

They said they faced “economic anxieties due to lost income and their inability to work,” as well as “distress and other mental health consequences as they contemplated an abrupt end to the dreams they had worked toward for many years.”

“For the women in Herat we interviewed, life as they knew it had vanished overnight, and they were left hiding indoors, waiting in fear to see whether the Taliban would come for them,” said Afghanistan scholar Halima Kazem-Stojanovic of SJSU’s Human Rights Institute.

“For these women, the best-case scenario is to be unharmed but forced to live a drastically diminished existence. The worst-case scenario is to be arrested or attacked for their past achievements or for their fight to keep their hard-earned rights.”

When the Taliban imposed its brutal rule on Afghanistan from 1996 to 2001, girls were not allowed to attend school and women were banned from work, education, and sports.

After the Taliban captured most of Afghanistan and toppled the internationally recognized government in Kabul on August 15, the Taliban suggested that it is now more moderate, but the Taliban-led, all-male government has rolled back the rights of girls and women in recent days.

On September 2 in Herat, the Taliban did not intervene when up to 80 women took to the streets calling for the Taliban to respect their rights.

However, two men were killed and at least eight other people were wounded when fighters fired indiscriminately to disperse a similar rally held five days later.

The militants subsequently banned protests that did not have prior approval from the Taliban-led government in Kabul.

HRW and the SJSU Human Rights Institute say the women they interviewed expressed particular concern that the Taliban would again require them to have a mahram -- a male family member as a chaperone -- with them in order to leave their homes, as the militants did during their first stint in power 20 years ago.

This requirement “barred women from most public life, cut them off from education, employment, and social life, and made getting health care difficult,” they say.

It also made women “completely dependent on male family members, blocking them from escaping if they experienced abuse at home.”

Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid said on September 7 that being accompanied by a mahram would only be required for travels longer than three days, but some of the women interviewed claimed they had been stopped on the streets, at universities, and other public places, and barred from going about their business if they were not accompanied by a mahram.

Kazem-Stojanovic urged the Taliban leadership in Kabul to “ensure that their statements upholding rights are respected in practice in all Afghan provinces.”

“Claims by Taliban leaders to respect women’s rights will be meaningless if women and girls have to live in constant fear of abuse by the Taliban on their street.”

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