Protesters in St. John's decry 'gender apartheid' in Afghanistan, demand more international action

About two dozen people showed up to a rally Saturday in St. John's for Afghan women and girls. While two women read the group's statement, one in English, one in Farsi, others held up posters. (Henrike Wilhelm/CBC - image credit)
About two dozen people showed up to a rally Saturday in St. John's for Afghan women and girls. While two women read the group's statement, one in English, one in Farsi, others held up posters. (Henrike Wilhelm/CBC - image credit)
Henrike Wilhelm/CBC
Henrike Wilhelm/CBC

To demand action for women's rights in Taliban-ruled Afghanistan, about two dozen people came together on Memorial University's campus in St. John's on Saturday.

They hoped to highlight the struggles girls and women in the Central Asian country have been facing since the Taliban's government takeover almost one and a half years ago.

Rally co-organizer Maisam Najafizada said the restriction of women's rights in the country "has reached a different level."

"It's not just the basic gender discrimination that we have got in some parts of the world, and patriarchy, of course," said Najafizada, a professor in the university's faculty of medicine.

"It has almost reached a level of apartheid, a gender apartheid."

The Taliban seized power in Afghanistan in August 2021 after a 20-year Western military campaign to rebuild the country after the U.S. invasion in 2001.

While they initially promised a moderate rule that would respect women's rights, a strict interpretation of Shariah, the Islamic law, has been implemented since. Women are banned from many jobs, ordered to completely cover themselves in public, and denied access to parks and gyms.

In March, Afghan girls were banned from attending middle and high school. On Dec. 20, female students were banned from universities — a decision that was condemned by many Western governments and sparked protests in the country. Most recently, on Dec. 24, Taliban authorities also announced a ban on women working in non-governmental organizations.

But outrage isn't enough, said Najafizada.

"We need to put the pressure that we have on the de facto authorities to make changes.… This is international catastrophe," he said.

"If you can't go to education, if the curriculums are very radicalized, you've got 40 million people who would be radicalized in the next decade. So [it's] very, very significant, not just to the people in Afghanistan."

Henrike Wilhelm/CBC
Henrike Wilhelm/CBC

Speaking up for Afghan women's rights, said Najafizada, has always been important to him. When the Taliban first took over power in 1996, his younger sister was denied access to school. His father, keen on ensuring his daughter would be able to go to university, decided the family would leave the country.

"We were refugees for two years and we made sure my sister go to school. So it was very dear to my father, who passed away last year," said Najafizada.

Luckily, he said, his sisters are all educated now. And he doesn't want any other girls or women in Afghanistan to be denied education.

"I want them to have the same opportunities … that men have."

Najafizada, who is in touch with family and friends still in the country, said the bans on female education have far-reaching impacts.

"It's basically taking your rights to almost breathing," he said. "I heard from family and friends' daughters who are like 13, 14, and they tell [me], 'We can't even dream of becoming a nurse or a doctor or a teacher or a lawyer.'"

Henrike Wilhelm/CBC
Henrike Wilhelm/CBC

For Adela Kabiri, education is still possible. The student received a scholarship and came to the province in August to complete her PhD in sociology.

"As a woman who's suffering from extremism and some traditional limitations and patriarchy, I can understand all women, they have this problem," said Kabiri, who calls herself a social activist.

"I'm trying to do something that can help for the people to achieve to equality."

While she said she was too young to remember the Taliban's 1996 government takeover and subsequent ban of girls' education, the current situation makes her understand its consequences. Thinking of the "hopeless" students in Afghanistan, Kabiri becomes emotional herself.

"Now I can understand the girls and the woman who are not allowed to study, learn, go to work and free life," she said.

"I was working at the university in Afghanistan, so I'm in touch with many student who are studying at university and now they are not allowed to go to the university. So it is very painful for me and I worry about. I talk with them every day, with the student, with the girl, and try to motivate them and try to make some hope for them."

Henrike Wilhelm/CBC
Henrike Wilhelm/CBC

Kabiri, who wants the international community to intervene, criticizes the prioritization of political and economic interests.

"They spent many money in Afghanistan during the past 20 years. Many soldier of the developed country killed in Afghanistan because of fighting extremism. Why today all of them are silent?" said Kabiri.

"Everything is not economy. Everything is not power. The people are struggling, the people are trying to solve their problem in Afghanistan but they are just watching, just looking, and nothing more."

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