They held up signs and chanted, demanding women’s rights. Two days later, protesters – led by women – marched with the Afghan flag adopted in 2004, a rebuke to the Taliban. It is difficult to overstate how brave it is for these women to do this in the face of a group known for violent reprisals, no toleration of dissent, and notorious for its abuses against women. Many are speaking out, too. Mary Akrami, head of the Afghan Women’s Network, says the Taliban must engage with women’s rights leaders. If they try to impose rules upon them: “I’ll just say clearly, and I say bravely, it is not acceptable to the women of Afghanistan.” Pashtana Durrani, another activist, was equally blunt: “As much as they feel entitled to this land, I am as much entitled. It’s as much my country as theirs and right now we fight back, we ask for our rights.” When they ruled Afghanistan from 1996 to 2001, the Taliban banned almost all education for women and girls, imposed punishments including stoning, lashing, and amputation for adultery and other “crimes,” and confined women to their homes unless they were escorted by a male family member, denying them access to most employment – or even the freedom to take a walk. As they have regained territory in recent years, the Taliban have often instituted practices – indistinguishable from those in 2001. Will these protesters and activists be able to compel the Taliban to demonstrate greater respect for women’s rights, even just incrementally? The question hinges largely on whether they stand alone. If troop-contributing nations, such as the UK, chalk up the Afghan war as a failed adventure best forgotten, these women’s voices – and lives – may be swiftly lost. But if the international community, led by countries that had a presence in Afghanistan during the last 20 years, take seriously their responsibility to Afghan women, and stand by them, it will make a real difference. If countries like the UK amplify their voices, and insist on respect for women’s rights, it will help protect these individual women. It will also convey to the Taliban that no entity that treats women as the Taliban did in 2001 can be seen as legitimate. Women’s rights were used to sell the Afghan war to voters in the UK and elsewhere. In November 2001, in the early days of the US-led invasion, the prime minister’s wife Cherie Blair hosted Afghan women at Downing Street and told the media: “We need to help them free [their] spirit and give them their voice back, so they can create the better Afghanistan we all want to see.” Afghan women are desperately, urgently asking for this kind of support right now. We owe it to them.
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