The black days of Taliban rule in the 1990s, which ended when the U.S. invaded in fall 2001, have returned with a vengeance, according to a new report by Amnesty International, released in July.
“In less than a year, the Taliban have decimated the rights of women and girls,” reads the report. “… The group’s draconian policies are depriving millions of women and girls of the opportunity to lead safe, free and fulfilling lives. They are being sentenced, as one Afghan woman put it, to death in slow motion.”
As a concerned citizen and journalist of nearly 40 years, I’ve followed events in Afghanistan since the mid-1990s, when the Taliban first came to power, imposing their particularly extremist brand of Islamic ideology on women. And, like most Americans, I’ve closely followed developments there since the U.S. invasion, which paved the way for 20 years of positive, albeit gradual, improvement in women’s rights, and in human rights in general, up until the chaotic withdrawal of U.S. forces last year.
But, while deeply disturbed by all I’ve read, any personal connection with, or intimate appreciation of, events 7,000 miles away has always been sorely lacking. That is, until I met Fariha Easar, a 36-year-old lawyer and activist who has fought fiercely for human and women’s rights in Afghanistan since she was a child growing up under the Taliban in the 1990s.
Easar is friends with my niece, who recently moved from Albuquerque to Washington, D.C., where Easar now also lives after fleeing Afghanistan last year. My niece invited Easar to dinner while my wife and I visited over Labor Day weekend.
She shared her perspective on women’s rights in Afghanistan with my family, and with me in follow-up phone conversations. Her story is deeply personal, offering me a penetrating view for the first time into Afghan women’s daily struggles.
Easar experienced first-hand the Taliban’s repression from 1996-2001, when she and her five sisters were barred from school or even leaving their home.
“The Taliban took six years of my life,” Easar said. “It felt like being erased, because women were being erased from everywhere in society – from work, school, and the community.”
Despite the dangers, Easar and her sisters fought back. Her older siblings, who were preparing for college when the Taliban took over, ran a free, underground school at home for girls in the neighborhood.
At one point, the Taliban raided Easar’s home to dismantle the school. But the family got advance warning and either hid or burned all teaching materials before the soldiers arrived.
“We were terrified, but they couldn’t find anything,” Easar said. “Everyone was terrified in those days … The Taliban arrested, tortured and executed people for menial crimes and left their bodies hanging on the road for everyone to see.”
Women faced “gender apartheid” through “systemic discrimination,” Easar added.
“Those were the darkest days of our life,” she said. “We still remember and feel that pain today.”
The U.S. invasion, however, marked a historic turning point for women’s rights, allowing Easar and her sisters to reenter society, return to school, and pursue professional careers.
She graduated from high school in 2007, earned a law degree from Kabul University in 2011, and an MBA in 2018.
And for more than a decade, she worked as a contract employee under the U.S. State Department’s Justice Sector Support Program, serving as a legal adviser and team leader to help build institutional capacity in various government departments, including Afghanistan’s ministries of justice, interior, and women’s affairs.
She helped change discriminatory laws and institute new legal protections for women. And she spearheaded action to combat human trafficking and prosecute crimes of domestic abuse and gender-based violence.
She also co-organized national efforts against discrimination, such as a “Where’s my name?” campaign to boost women’s identity and self esteem by legally requiring that a mother’s name be included for the first time on all official individual IDs, not just the father’s name.
Through another campaign, dubbed “I Am My Voice,” Easar helped roll back a government decree that banned schoolgirls older than 12 from singing in public at official ceremonies by posting dozens of videos on social media of women singing in protest.
Through her work and activism, Easar gained international recognition in world media, with stories that cited or profiled her on Fox News, ABC, the BBC and The Washington Post, among others.
But all that came to a crashing halt last year, when the Taliban returned, forcing tens of thousands of Afghans into exile, including 82,000 who evacuated to the U.S.
Easar escaped under U.S. protection on a military flight out of the country. But now, her family remains trapped under the Taliban, in danger of retribution given her and her sisters’ social activism.
“They all lost their jobs and are now in hiding,” Easar said. “There are no laws in place now to protect them. If you’re killed, or experience domestic violence, there’s no justice system to turn to anymore.”
Easar’s story illuminated Afghanistan’s harsh reality for me in a personal way, something we can perhaps all benefit from given the U.S.’s direct role in that country for 20 years.
It’s hard to grasp from 7,000 miles away, but worth the effort, given that New Mexicans are directly touched by Afghanistan’s turmoil. Some 5,000 of its citizens were evacuated to Holloman Air Force Base last year, and many of our own military residents served lengthy tours there during the U.S. occupation.
Now, after 20 years of relative progress, the Taliban have reimposed the repression and discrimination that group became notorious for in the 1990s, with the “scope, magnitude and severity” of its violations increasing month by month, according to Amnesty International.
“The stakes could not be higher,” the organization said in its new report. “If the international community fails to act, it will abandon millions of women and girls across Afghanistan and embolden others to undermine the human rights of women and girls around the world.”
UpFront is a Journal news and opinion column. Comment directly to Journal staff writer Kevin Robinson-Avila at firstname.lastname@example.org.