Godmother of Afghan women’s rights stays to fight for the future

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Despite the phase her country is going through, Mehbooba Seraj is remarkably happy with how women like her have suddenly eroded their rights since the Taliban takeover. This is because the godmother of Afghanistan’s women’s rights movement believes the Taliban cannot win this time.

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The situation, she admits with a defiant smile, is very dire at the moment. The country’s economy is collapsing, and a huge humanitarian disaster is on the way. The Taliban’s withdrawal means the resumption of their separatist rules, in which girls go to school only up to grade 6, and professional women are asked to stay at home.

Similar laws were last applied to women in Afghanistan between 1996 and 2001, when Islamic extremists came to power. But Ms. Seraj, 73, believes she will not survive this time. She says the country and its women are very different from 20 years ago – even though the Taliban mentality remains the same.

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“The most important thing is not [whether] The Taliban has changed, but Afghanistan has changed. We have changed as women. We are not the same people who were so scared because someone beat us on the head,” Ms Seraj said in an interview at her Kabul home, which also doubles as the office of the Afghan Women’s Network she founded.

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“There are 18 million of us, and there are a lot of educated people who have gone to school, a lot of people who are now professionals. These people are here and here to stay. Not all of them – because a lot are leaving – but Some of us are staying.”

Ms. Seraj is a symbol of progress made during her two-decade-long NATO presence here. The niece of Afghan King Amanullah Khan, who presided over the country’s 1919 independence from Britain, Ms. Seraj fled her country in 1978 and lived in New York for 25 years while Afghanistan went through Soviet occupation, civil war, and then Taliban rule.

Since returning in 2003, she has pushed for the inclusion of women in Afghanistan’s political processes – which was dominated by men despite the Taliban ousting power – repeatedly addressing international conferences on her country’s future. Happened. She was also a participant in the High Peace Council, an Afghan-led effort to end fighting that had been usurped by direct talks between the United States and the Taliban, which heralded the withdrawal of US and NATO forces on August 31.

On this year’s Time magazine’s list of the world’s 100 most influential people, there were two Afghans: Mullah Baradar, a senior Taliban figure who led talks with the US, and Ms. Seraj.

When asked what she would say if Mullah Baradar agreed to meet with the other Afghans on the schedule, Ms Seraj has a ready answer: “If he gave me 15 minutes to talk Granted, then I would say ‘Please drop all prejudice. On one hand. Let’s take a look at Afghanistan, not from the point of view of men and women, but from the point of view of its people. And let’s see how we look at this country What can we do to improve the lives of both men and women.’ “

He is not sure that the meeting will take place. “That’s it. I don’t know if they’re willing to listen.”

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But Ms Seraj says she does not want to give the Taliban any choice but to listen to her and other Afghan women. His message is simple: the country cannot prosper except for half the population from education and work. Despite the scale of the country’s woes – the World Food Program says 14 million people now face “acute food insecurity”, the situation is rapidly deteriorating – Ms Seraj says to stop direct aid to the international community. unless the Taliban at least allow everyone. girls to return to school.

She says she is not worried about being punished for speaking out. “Why should I be afraid to tell the truth? I can shout it from the top of the mountains. Not a single lie [what I’ve said]. I haven’t accused anyone, I haven’t said anything bad about anyone – and I don’t plan to either. But I plan to talk about it. all the time Until something changes,” she says, her confident words interspersed with hilarious giggles.

When asked how she maintains her optimism, she laughs again. “To be honest, I don’t really have a choice. I mean, what should I do?”

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Of course, many women are scared and trying to run away. For example, a female journalist I met in Kabul last week. She wore a face mask – although some Afghans are concerned over COVID-19 among all the other problems facing the country – because it hid her identity as she walked off a Taliban patrol across the street. Granthshala is not identifying him because he fears for his safety.

The woman said she was afraid she would be arrested and punished for an article she wrote last year, and is now desperate to escape to Afghanistan by any means possible. Hundreds of thousands of women, children and men have fled the country since the Taliban takeover on August 15.

Ms. Seraj is careful not to criticize the many women who have decided to leave. After all, he had chosen exile once.

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“It’s a very personal choice. … As for me, I’m 73. I already lived [part of] My life is somewhere where I can live any way I want. It was my freedom, my decisions, whatever I wanted – so any other person has the right to do that,” she said.

But this time, “I want to stand with the people who are here and can’t get out. At least they should know that someone is standing right next to them, even though the whole world thinks people should go.”

She doesn’t believe that her royal legacy gives her any special protection in today’s Afghanistan – but she thinks it gives her the strength to keep fighting. “I’m sure they [her ancestors] Some things in his life must have been encountered when he needed to be courageous. “

Heather Barr, the Pakistan-based associate director of the women’s rights division at Human Rights Watch, called Ms Seraj a “pioneer” and an “institutional memory” of the women’s rights movement in Afghanistan.

“It is very valuable that Mehbooba is still in Kabul, playing a unique role – effectively saying to the Taliban, ‘I am here. I don’t want to go. You won’t drive us all away – you have to put up with our demands. Have to pay attention.’ “

Ms Seraj said she was living primarily to send the message to young Afghan women that they need not simply accept the fate handed to them by the Taliban. And to pass on to the next generation.

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“I’m looking for my girls. They’re young, and they’re bloody adventurers,” she says with a laugh that seems mischievous this time. “They just found me, and I found them — and we call it something real powerful working to create. He is taking his place, and I want to be here to see him take his place.”

Our Morning Update and Evening Update newsletters are written by Granthshala editors, giving you a brief summary of the day’s most important headlines. .

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