Afghan woman in her sewing studio

In Afghanistan, women are being targeted for assassination

Violence is not new to Afghanistan. But the recent spate of targeted killings of some of the country’s best and brightest – many of them women – is a new cause for concern. Journalists, judges, and human rights activists have all been targeted or threatened. No group has formally claimed responsibility for the assassinations, but most Afghans are convinced that these murders are the work of the Taliban.

For the past 20 years, the United States and its allies have been fighting to support the Afghan civilian government in a war in which it has increasingly lost ground. The Taliban, which led a ruthless regime of terror prior to the U.S. invasion in 2001, has been demanding the withdrawal of U.S. troops to make way for peace negotiations between the Taliban and the Afghan government. In February 2020, the Trump administration fulfilled its vow to withdraw America from a war no one seemed to be winning. The Doha Agreement calls for the U.S. to draw down its remaining troops in exchange for a commitment from the Taliban to defend the country against ISIS (which in recent years had gained a frightening foothold amid the country’s vast, ungoverned areas). But since then, the peace negotiations between the Afghan government and the Taliban have gone nowhere. What’s worse, male and female professionals and activists who represent the new, democratic face of Afghanistan are now in the crosshairs.

In March, two female judges from Afghanistan’s Supreme Court – Qadriya Yaseni and Zakia Herawi – were gunned down in the street. Zakia was just 34 years old. This followed the killing of Fatima Natasha Khalil and Ahmad Jawid Folad, employees of Afghanistan’s Independent Human Rights Commission on June 27. An improvised explosive device planted on their car detonated killing the employees and wounding their driver. One of the few female negotiators in the ongoing peace talks, Fawzia Koofi, was shot in the arm in a failed attempt at her life. And late last year, 22 students at Kabul University had their young lives and promising futures cut short after militants assaulted the campus. The killers are stalking the educated urban elite who are openly voicing their views in support of a modern, democratic Afghanistan that respects the rights of all people. The specific targeting of these brave women and men is terrorizing the country in what feels like a new kind of war.

Streets in Kabul

Families mourn the loss of loved ones in a climate of fear

Since the Trump administration’s agreement, more than 150 Afghans have been murdered. These days, if you are actively engaged in advocating for democracy, human rights, or the rule of law, you are vulnerable to an assassin’s bomb.

Women fear for their lives when they leave their homes to go to work. Friends and family worry they won’t come back. Growing numbers of professional women are quitting their jobs and leaving their homes and communities in search of safety. The group behind the killings appears to be telling the world that its goal is to set the clock back to the dark days when men ruled by violence and women were locked away and denied the most basic human rights, including education.

According to the UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA), a total of 65 human rights defenders and media professionals were killed between January 1, 2018 and January 31, 2021. Eleven have lost their lives just since the start of peace negotiations last September.

“This trend (of killing activists, journalists, and media representatives), combined with the absence of claims of responsibility, has generated a climate of fear among the populations,” reports the UNAMA.

Women in classroom in Afghanistan

Afghanistan risks losing its best and brightest at a critical time

At a critical time for the country’s future, increasing numbers of university students and young professionals view Kabul as too risky. Crowded around tables in cafes, they talk among themselves about getting out. The killings have persuaded scores of young people to try to flee to Turkey, India, and Europe. But few countries welcome asylum seekers, and desperation forces some individuals to seek out smuggling rackets. 

The tragedy is that these young professionals are recognized as one of the country’s biggest achievements of the past 20 years. Their departure risks yet another “brain drain” in a country that needs them more than ever.  For many of their elders who devoted their lives and talents to seeing Afghanistan restored to a thriving, democratic society, the loss is bitter. Theirs is the generation best prepared to rebuild their country after decades of conflict. Yet western diplomats and officials report an onslaught of calls from desperate Afghan staff and contacts, pleading for help to leave the country.

Shaharzad Akbar, Chair of Afghanistan’s Human Rights Commission, had this to say about the exodus of the educated youth: “People are leaving, people are being killed or threatened and then people are nervous about speaking out. It’s very worrying. I worry what is next, how might this end. More and more people are thinking about leaving, or they have left.”

“People leave thinking it’s temporary, but I think everyone who has left is watching the situation on the ground to see if things improve and if temporary becomes six or nine months, it’s just a challenge for people to come back.”

Looking ahead

Going forward, no group is more critical to the future of Afghanistan than its women. The very fact that educated women are being targeted is evidence of the threat they represent for those who wish to reimpose an oppressive regime. It’s no longer just the Americans or Afghan national army that they’re fighting – they now see educated, progressive women and men as the obstacle in their way.

Yet for many Afghans, especially educated women, there is no going back; for them and the men who support them, there is no giving up the hard-fought rights and freedoms. There is no stepping back into the shadows.

The Biden administration is reviewing the previous administration’s agreement with the Taliban, including the May 1st deadline for U.S. troop withdrawal. The pressure is mounting for the U.S. to delay the final exit or renegotiate the deal to allow the presence of a smaller, intelligence-based American force. Many fear that without this leverage, the country will dissolve into an all-out civil war. The Biden administration should not abandon the Afghan people at this critical time. The suffering and violence that Afghans have experienced over the last few decades cannot have been in vain. Any withdrawal agreement should be contingent upon the rights of Afghans, especially women, being preserved. We cannot let the darkness win.

Where does this leave the education of girls and women?

Over the past two decades since the fall of the Taliban, significant progress has been made in literacy rates and education. During this time, Central Asia Institute has been supporting an array of programs designed to increase access to quality education, especially for girls and women. Our programs are designed to address many of the barriers girls in particular face in accessing education, including security concerns and conservative cultural traditions that value their role in domestic life over education. Programs like community-based education — classes that take place in the home of a teacher or a community building — have proven especially effective in ensuring community buy-in and providing a private and secure environment in which girls can learn. And as we’ve learned over time, once families see the enormous benefits that flow from educating their girls, whether it’s improved health or greater economic opportunity, more and more Afghans are demanding education for their children, both boys and girls.

Yet the challenges ahead are significant. Despite progress, more than 40 percent of Afghan children are still out of school, the majority of them girls. The Taliban have indicated a willingness to allow girls to be educated. But in light of the recent killings of women’s rights activists, one wonders.

If anything, the current spike in assassinations magnifies the urgent need to educate more Afghan girls and women, especially in remote regions. Education unlocks their potential and prepares them to play a role in their country’s future in the challenging years ahead. We cannot leave them behind. Many Afghans, including our partners and their beneficiaries, are fighting back despite the danger. They’re desperate to make Afghanistan better. They won’t be silenced. And we are standing with them.

Now more than ever, Central Asia Institute remains committed to standing with Afghan women and men who embrace education as the lens through which to envision a more peaceful and prosperous future for their families, communities, and country. 

In memory of Mohammad Yousef Rashid

This blog is dedicated to Mohammad Yousef Rashid, who was shot and killed by an unidentified assailant on December 23, 2020, presumably for his work as a civil society activist. Mr. Rashid was the Executive Director of the non-governmental organization Free and Fair Election Forum of Afghanistan and the Chairman of the Board of Directors at Shining Star, Central Asia Institute’s Afghan partner.

Sources used for this article:

  • Brookings Institute – Feb 17, 2021
    AP News – Feb 16, 2021
  • Modern Diplomacy – Feb 16, 2021
  • Relief Web – Feb 15, 2021
  • The Telegraph – Feb 14, 2021
  • PBS Newshour – Feb 9, 2021
  • The Christian Science Monitor Daily – Feb 8, 2021

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