International aid groups are suspending their relief programs in Afghanistan after the Taliban government announced on Saturday that humanitarian organizations are barred from employing women. The edict is the latest blow to women’s rights in the country as the Taliban reimpose draconian rules they employed in the 1990s, when they were previously in power. Last week, the government also barred women from attending universities. We speak with Jan Egeland, head of the Norwegian Refugee Council, which is one of several NGOs to suspend operations in the country, as well as Afghan educator and women’s rights activist Jamila Afghani, who leads the Afghanistan section of the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom and was evacuated from Kabul last August.
This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.
AMY GOODMAN: We begin today’s show in Afghanistan, where the Taliban government issued an order over the weekend that women can no longer work for nongovernmental organizations. This includes relief agencies. Groups that employ women could lose their license to operate in the country. Five top nongovernmental organizations have now halted work in Afghanistan as a result: CARE International, the Norwegian Refugee Council, Save the Children, the International Rescue Committee and Islamic Relief. In a joint statement from CARE, the NRC and Save the Children, the groups noted they, quote, “would not have jointly reached millions of Afghans in need since August 2021” without their female staff. A Taliban spokesperson accused female workers at the aid groups of breaking dress codes by not wearing hijabs.
The Taliban’s new edict came just days after it banned women from attending university, prompting a protest Wednesday in Kabul. Taliban forces arrested five protesters, three journalists, and some of the women said they were beaten by security forces. Guards also prevented hundreds of women from entering their colleges a day after the ban was announced. This is Maryam, a student at Kabul University who was turned away from her campus.
MARYAM: [translated] When I got close to the university, I saw a strange environment. Taliban Humvees were parked at the entrance gate, and the Taliban were behaving so badly, telling us, “Return to your homes. Girls have no right to study anymore.” This situation has a very bad impact on every female student.
AMY GOODMAN: This comes after the Taliban barred Afghan girls from attending secondary school earlier this year.
For more, we’re joined by two guests. Jamila Afghani is an Afghan educator, women’s rights activist, who leads the Afghanistan section of the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom. She’s the founder of the Noor Educational and Capacity Development Organization and created the first gender-sensitive training in Afghanistan for imams. She’s joining us from Kitchener, Canada. She has lived there since she was evacuated from Kabul last August, after spending time in Norway. And in Oslo, Norway, we’re joined by Jan Egeland, secretary general of the Norwegian Refugee Council, one of the groups that’s now pulled out of the country.
We welcome you both to Democracy Now! We’re going to begin with Jamila Afghani. If you can respond to this series of edicts? And then we’ll go to Norway, where you were evacuated to, from Afghanistan, more than a year ago, to talk with Jan Egeland, whose group is now halting work there because of this latest edict. But first, Jamila, your response?
JAMILA AFGHANI: Yeah. Thank you very much for having me on your program.
Unfortunately, the ban on women education and, later on, the ban on women from employment in national and international NGOs, which were the main source of aid support for Afghan women and children in this peak situation of humanitarian crisis and very cold winter, this was an act against humanity. And it was very shocking news for all Afghans, and especially for those women who were breadwinner of their family. So, the situation inside Afghanistan is very chaotic on daily basis. I am in contact with my colleagues, with my network around the country, and everybody is disappointed from this action of Taliban, the Taliban who promised to be changed, to allow women for their education, for their employment, but, unfortunately, they are not keeping their promise with the international community, with the people of Afghanistan.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And could you talk about the — what’s been the situation with women attending higher education or the universities since the Taliban took over? And what, from what you can tell, prompted this action now?
JAMILA AFGHANI: Actually, Taliban from the very beginning banned girls from going to school from grade six up to grade 12. And in the past one year, we were engaged in multilayer of advocacy for reopening of the school. Unfortunately, nothing worked. Nothing worked. And we were expecting that Taliban may ban girls from the higher education and just of education area. But with the latest announcement, Taliban has banned women, girls from all level of education, even from religious educational centers where women and girls are barred.
And the reason Taliban are giving, that is about hijab or not observing hijab, which is totally wrong justification. None of Afghan women, even before the Taliban such a decree, was not without hijab. Everybody was wearing their hijab. But the special black dress code the Taliban is taking, most of the girls are doing that. And the special dress code which Taliban is dictating on women of Afghanistan, it has no space in Islamic teaching. There is no space in Islamic history about that. Islam has given a proper justification or dress code about women, and the limits and everything is clear-cut in Qur’an mention. There is nothing the Taliban is claiming, and even this claim of Taliban as an act of criminal, putting wrong blame or bad blame on the women of Afghanistan, that they are demoral or they are engaged in demorality. And I’m ashamed of having such an Afghan person talking about these things in this way in front of international community. And this is not the word of an Afghan person.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: You participated in the Doha talks with the Taliban back in 2019, and you directly questioned them about their position, with what their position would be on women accessing education and being able to work. What did they tell you then? And has anybody responded to why they’ve changed their policies so dramatically?
JAMILA AFGHANI: Yeah. During my visit in Qatar in 2019, we directly raised the question, and they totally were very open with the current dress code of Afghan women, and they were very open about the education of women. And they were saying that this is an Islamic right, this is the Sharia right, so nobody can take away the Sharia right.
But the current acting minister of virtue, minister of virtue, and the other minister, acting minister of higher education, it seems that they have no knowledge of Islam. They haven’t studied Islam. They have been ignorant about the Islamic teachings, that they don’t know what is Sharia, what is the rights of women in Sharia of Islam. The only thing that I can see, this stubbornness that is part of their tribalism, that this is the type of patriarchal mindset that they have. There is nothing with Islam.
And people of Afghanistan, Alhamdulillah, we are Muslims. We understand what are the limitation in Sharia. And most of us, we are observing. And this person who is very ignorant, and Taliban leadership must remove these people from the system as soon as possible. They are breaking the bridge between nation and the acting current government, who has not recognition on the international level, and now they are not forcing people to believe them or to be part of them. With this type of mindset, no one will stand beside them.
AMY GOODMAN: Jamila Afghani, if you can respond to the Taliban trying to frame this as the West versus them, and Western organizations, like Jan Egeland’s Norwegian Refugee Council — who we’re going to go to in a minute — trying to tell Afghanistan what to do, trying to frame it as the West versus Afghanistan, rather than Afghanistan versus the women? Your response?
JAMILA AFGHANI: Yeah. Afghan women are part of humanity. Afghan women are not a special creature from somewhere else. We are part of humanity, and Afghan women are making half body of the nation of Afghanistan. How Taliban or any government can ignore that?
And currently the aid organizations, including the local organizations, they were acting to provide humanitarian assistance for women and children of Afghanistan. This is what international community should do, and they should be engaged. Although the sanctions in Afghanistan, on the economic situation in Afghanistan, but still these organizations were working, with so much difficulty, but now Taliban banned them to work. This is a criminal act the Taliban is doing. This is not responsibility of West. This is the responsibility of Taliban as an acting government to look after the people of Afghanistan. If they are putting this much pressure on people of Afghanistan, on whom they are going to have their kingdom, to have the rulership?
AMY GOODMAN: I want to bring in Jan Egeland into this conversation, secretary general of the Norwegian Refugee Council, speaking to us from Oslo. Jan, a U.N. official told the BBC that the United Nations could stop humanitarian aid delivery in Afghanistan if the Taliban don’t reverse their edict banning women aid workers. Now you — the Norwegian Refugee Council has already decided to halt your work there as a result of this latest Taliban edict. Can you talk about what went into your decision? Who were the women who worked for you? And what this could mean?
JAN EGELAND: Well, it came out of the blue, really, on Christmas Eve, 24th of December. And it was a circular from the minister of economy that sits on our permits to operate. And it went to all of — virtually all of the nongovernmental organizations, Afghan and international, and they said that females cannot anymore work. We are totally dependent on our committed, hard-working, professional female workforce. They are colleagues that we have promoted to management positions. They are central to our work. So, that’s why we didn’t pull out, as some phrase it. We’re still there. We did not go with the West, that left a year ago. We have been there ever since, and we have been in Taliban-controlled territory and other territory for decades.
The reason we did halt work are twofold. Number one, we cannot operate without our female staff. It would be inferior operations. Males cannot directly give aid to women. Women and children are the people that are those who are in greatest need. The second reason is really that we would disintegrate as a principled and good employer. We have a global program and have said to the Taliban many times, in Kabul and even when they came to Norway, that we respect the traditional Afghan values, and we live by them when we are in their country. But we also have values, too. We cannot compromise on this, the equality of males and females to work together in a common cause.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Jan Egeland, the claim of the Taliban that those Afghan women who work for international aid organizations have not been wearing the hijab, had they raised this at all previously as a concern of theirs, or did this just come, as you mentioned, out of the blue?
JAN EGELAND: No, it came out of the blue. I mean, they’ve been — they came banging on our door when they took over in the places where they took over. They told us that they would strictly enforce the Islamic standards, the traditional values. And since then, we have — our female colleagues have used the hijab. We have separated males and females in the workplace. And we even have male relative guardians traveling with our female colleagues on longer travel. All of this is in accordance with what they instructed. Actually, it’s true, as the previous speaker said, much of this we did during the previous government, as well. Maybe they have one or two examples of an office where the hijab was not in place when they came. So, give a warning to that group. To paralyze work for millions of people in the midst of the winter is really a gut blow to the population, to the people of Afghanistan. We cannot compromise on this. We cannot work with that ban.
AMY GOODMAN: And how —
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And what do you —
AMY GOODMAN: Go ahead, Juan.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: What do you perceive to be the impact, the continuing impact, of the Western sanctions in Afghanistan? Obviously, the inability of some of the international organizations that are there to function will only make things worse. But what is right now the impact of those sanctions?
JAN EGELAND: Well, the sanctions are still a problem, in the sense that there’s still a lot of money sitting in Washington, for example, that was meant for the Afghan people. Money belonging to the Afghan central bank, development money, was withdrawn. This was a place where the West spent hundreds and hundreds of billions of dollars to provide for the 40 million civilians. And when they left, they closed many of these development streams. And Western banks were so afraid of the sanctions, especially the American sanctions, that they stopped financial transfers.
We do have now the permits to do our work. The Biden administration has a humanitarian carveout, which is pretty good, but we still struggle with having Western companies work with us. However, today our problem is squarely the Taliban hard-liners that were able to enforce extremist lines of late out of Kandahar and elsewhere, where they are now siting. So, it’s a struggle of values, really, also, within the Taliban. And we need to win that. And I’m glad that the U.N. seems now to take the lead in working for a reversal of this ban.
AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to ask Jamila Afghani about whether you support these groups pulling out at this point, and what you think the chances are of the Taliban reversing themselves on this. It’s also just so interesting that we have you on, Jamila, with Jan Egeland, because you appealed to the Norwegian authorities, as the U.S. was pulling out, to evacuate you. You’re very challenged. As a child, you suffered from polio, physically challenged. Then you were shot in the head during the Soviet occupation. You had to get yourself and your children out, and it was Norway that helped you get out to Norway?
JAMILA AFGHANI: Yeah. I’m really thankful, as an Afghan woman, as an individual, on behalf of all my sisters and people of Afghanistan, for these organizations, like Norwegian, CARE, IRC, and some other organizations, that they have been beside women of Afghanistan and people of Afghanistan for decades by providing multilayer activity and support for the people of Afghanistan. Even during the former government when fighting was going on in many provinces, they were present there, and they were supporting people of Afghanistan. And their holdback means a lot for us in terms of that they are in solidarity with us, with women of Afghanistan, with people of Afghanistan. And they are really understanding what is the situation on the ground.
And the way we are disappointed from the Taliban authorities, especially from the hard-liner authorities, that they are not belong to Afghanistan. They do not understand people of Afghanistan. They do not have the knowledge of what’s going on, the situation on humanitarian crisis in Afghanistan.
As I was individually in a very hard moment, that everybody left Afghanistan. Everybody left Afghanistan — U.S., NATO, everybody. But still I was supported and evacuated, and I spent one year in Norway. With the very good intention and support, I was there. But due to climate and some other reasons, I was shifted here in Canada.
So, if these international organizations are not working with people of Afghanistan, there will be a dilemma, a dilemma that humanitarian might not have such an example of it. Taliban are ignorant. They are not understanding what’s going on. Because U.S. is injecting $40 million cash money in Afghanistan, and a good sum of this money are going to their pocket, they have good life. They are marrying for the second time, for the third time, for the fourth time. And they do not understand what people of Afghanistan are suffering. So —
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Jamila Afghani, I wanted to ask you: What has been the response of the masses of Afghan men to these latest acts of the Taliban, especially young men in Afghanistan? What have — have they risen up in protest at all or expressed solidarity with the women who are being put under this almost fascistic rule?
JAMILA AFGHANI: Yes, Afghan men also stand in solidarity with Afghan women, and some of the university boys rejected to go for the final exam, because the announcement of Taliban came right on their last paper, on the last day of the final examination. Some of the boys, some of the students, walked out from the examination. And some of them joined the protests. But Taliban was very harsh, very brutal with them, especially in Kandahar and some other provinces, as men are more exposed to the beating, killing, torture of Taliban. That’s why the situation is very hard. And you can see that even the journalists are not also protected from any kind of coverage of the scenario. But yesterday and day before yesterday in Kabul and Herat and some other provinces, men and women stand on the top of their roof, and they were shouting for the right of women, in the darkness, from the fear of execution, from the fear of beating and killing. So, this is the situation. The situation is very bad.
And even we had a lot of good support from of ulema of Afghanistan, from prominent scholars of Afghanistan, about the support of women’s participation in education and empowerment and their employment. They stood beside us, and they invited Taliban for a religious dialogue. I am also inviting Taliban for a religious dialogue. If it is Sharia, we need to know what type of Sharia they are understanding. The Islam we know and the world is practicing is totally different from the interpretation of Taliban. We are inviting them to sit on the table and discuss about the Sharia. We will bring men and women ulema to discuss with them to find out what is the reason. With this type of ignorance, with this type of ban on the women of Afghanistan, that is totally insane.
My question from the Taliban are — they are in this world because of a mother. This is their — a hatred with their own mothers and with their own sisters? They are putting blame on the women of Afghanistan that they are not moral, they are doing some act of demorality? This is such a big shame. You are putting this name on the name of all women of Afghanistan? This is such a big shame. All men and women of Afghanistan are dignified people. They are Muslim before Taliban, they are Muslim now, and they will remain Muslim after Taliban. They should understand what they are saying. And this is too much for us to accept it.
AMY GOODMAN: We want to thank you, Jamila Afghani, for joining us, Afghan educator and feminist who leads the Afghanistan section of the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom, founder of the Noor Educational and Capacity Development Organization. And finally, Jan Egeland, we just have 30 seconds, but is it your sense that there is a division within the Afghan leadership, that this could turn around?
JAN EGELAND: Yes. It’s very clear that this is hard-liners who wanted this. They have the upper hand now. We can reverse it. We must reverse it. And, by the way, we’re not pulling out. We’re there. We can start to resume our work for millions of people in need tomorrow, but then we need to do it with our female colleagues.
AMY GOODMAN: And there are how many Afghan colleagues at your organization, Norwegian Refugee Council, out of how many?
JAN EGELAND: Well, one-third of our staff, 500 nearly of our 1,400, 1,500 aid workers, are female. And they are highly professional, highly committed, working very hard. They are very often the breadwinner of their family. We need them to be able to communicate with and work for the Afghan people.
AMY GOODMAN: Jan Egeland, secretary general of the Norwegian Refugee Council, speaking to us from Oslo, Norway.
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