Tuesday, 12 October 2021

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

This article was published by Al Jazeera.

Nazira Yousofi Bek

ATHENS, Greece - When Taliban militiamen ransacked Shagufa Noorzai’s home, she wan’t there. The parliament member from Helmand province had gone into hiding as the hardline Islamic group proclaimed a theocracy in Afghanistan following the withdrawal of US and European troops last August. 

“I was in a washroom without a window for 15 days,” she says. “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’.”

“The [Taliban] are going to kill people who were working in government, and they will do it quietly,” says Homa Ahmadi, who served three terms as an MP for Logar province. “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.” 

Noorzai and Ahmadi spoke to Al Jazeera in Athens, where they were evacuated among more than a dozen female MPs and their families since last month. Since the fall of Kabul, two non-governmental organisations, Melissa Network and Human Rights 360, worked with international organisations and individuals to extricate them and secure Greek government entry permits. The two groups are in contact with people on the ground around the clock to secure the evacuation of many more. 

“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.” 

One more chartered flight of female lawyers and judges arrived this month. Greek diplomatic sources put the figure of evacuees at 177 people so far. 

Melissa works on integration, empowerment and advocacy, offering informal education programmes and counselling to migrant and refugee women. On the day of their interview with Al Jazeera, it hosted an emotional reunion for the MPs, who had arrived at different times, offering a traditional Afghan lunch.  

While grateful for Melissa’s hospitality, the women, many of whom are teachers and academics, lamented that this was the first Afghan national education day in 20 years when no women were allowed in high schools or university campuses. The Taliban has forbidden women to be educated beyond elementary school. 

Changing perceptions

Under the protection of US and European troops, Afghanistan held parliamentary elections in 2005, 2010 and 2018, encouraging women to run for office for the first time in the country’s history. 

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

In October 2018, two weeks into the election campaign, a motorcycle-mounted bomb went off during a rally 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 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,” says G, an MP who wished to remain anonymous. 

Perhaps these MPs’ most profound achievement over two decades 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,” says G.  

“Society’s mind changed about us. People joined us in asking for human rights,” says Noorzai. 

“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 Z, 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 says. “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 Afghanistan’s foreign deposits will create widespread poverty, because the new regime cannot pay state salaries. But many call for sanctions against Pakistan, which they blame for unleashing the Taliban on their country. 

Since they have never been voted out of office, the MPs still consider themselves representatives of their constituencies. Most have plans to relocate to the UK, the US and Canada to advocate for women’s rights. 

“Afghan women are very strong and will not back down,” says Z. 

Melissa and Human Rights 360 are offering their premises as temporary office space, and they are in the process of 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,” says 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.” 

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