“Afghan Women Days” – a special experience

Women’s rights activists being kidnapped, intimidation attempts targeting women who demonstrate against the obligation to wear a burqa, school closures for girls … since the Taliban took power in Afghanistan, the situation for women and girls in the country continues to deteriorate. The Taliban have up until now excluded women from all political positions and negotiations.

The European Parliament therefore organised the “Afghan Women Days” this week: Members of the European Parliament, prominent Afghan women shortlisted for the Sakharov Prize 2021 , representatives of the European Commission and the United Nations, as well as representatives of other international organisations met to discuss the extremely worrying situation of women and girls in Afghanistan.

I had the opportunity to meet a number of incredibly brave and impressive Afghan women who continue to fight for their country even in exile. Pictured above are – alongside my colleagues Maria Arena (2nd from left) and Heidi Hautala (4th from right) – the following women (from left): the former Chairperson of the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission, Shaharzad Akbar; former Mayor Zarifa Ghafari; film director Sahraa Karimi; former Vice-President and Minister for Women’s Affairs Sima Samar; and peace negotiator and former Vice-Chairperson of the Afghan High Peace Council, Habiba Sarabi.

The workshop I led, „Solidarity with Afghan women parliamentarians“, included former Vice-President of the Afghan National Assembly, Fawzia Koofi; Chair of the Human Rights, Civil Society and Women’s Affairs Committee, Naheed Farid; and Afghan MP Shagufa Noorzai, currently in exile in Greece. I had met Shagufa Noorzai during my recent trip to Greece.

"For us, women's participation is a matter of national security"

Shagufa Noorzai, the youngest of the Afghan MPs, painted a bleak picture of the situation: “I get so many calls from my constituency, from people who need help, but my hands are tied. […] Here I am just a simple refugee. I have lost my people, all my achievements, my soil. Many people from Afghanistan have fled and are now living everywhere in the world.”

Fawzia Koofi expressed similar sentiments. Regarding the particularly disastrous situation of women and girls, she explained, “Many see women’s participation in politics or public life as a political or social issue. For us who have been in the conflict zone of Afghanistan – most of us grew up and spent our lives there, some died there and are still dying in this conflict –, for us this participation is a matter of national security.”

All three women agreed that the EU should stand by the women of Afghanistan and empower them. I also took away some more demands from the workshop:

  • The Taliban should not be recognised as long as they do not respect human rights and freedom of expression and as long as the situation of women does not improve. (The non-recognition of the Taliban by the EU has so far been a political consensus across all party lines in the European Parliament).
  • As long as women and marginalised groups in Afghanistan themselves do not have a platform for political discourse, this must be ensured in another format. This can be done, for example, by regularly organising the “Afghan Women Days”. We need to ensure that we also include those who are currently in Afghanistan, without putting them in danger.

Of course, the EU has a duty to defend human rights, especially women’s rights, and to promote democracy worldwide. But beyond that, we also have a responsibility to the people of Afghanistan, many of whom are starving right now. We urgently need to help them. Reconciling these two goals is often a balancing act. In any case, we must stand in solidarity with the Afghans and make our decisions in consultation with the Afghan people – which of course includes the groups that are particularly oppressed by the Taliban.

Fawzia Koofi also found encouraging words in her speech: “The challenges we face will not destroy us. We will destroy these challenges because Afghan women are strong.” This was illustrated by a touching moment in the plenary hall. The European Parliament had invited, among others, Aryana Sayeed, an Afghan singer and songwriter who had broken taboos before the Taliban took power. Women were not allowed to show their hair under the Taliban, and they were forbidden from singing and from entering stadiums. Aryana Sayeed had done all three of these things at the same time: she had sung in a stadium without a headscarf. Now that the Taliban are back, all of that has again become impossible. But Aryana Sayeed has not fallen silent – she now sang her song„Lady of the Land of Fire“ in the European Parliament.

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