Hunted by the Taliban because she fights for women’s right to education

medico international

21. June 2023- 5 min read

Eine Frau schiebt eine Schubkarre mit

For more than 20 years, Ms P. has campaigned for the rights of girls and women. As a teacher and director of a girls' school as well as an activist in various women's rights organisations – and most recently co-founder of a protest network against the Taliban – she has passionately dedicated herself to the feminist struggle for women's self-determination. She dreamed of an Afghanistan where girls and women have inalienable rights to education, to work freely and choose whether to marry, to political participation and representation. She dreamed of the liberation of Afghan women. Barely two years after the Taliban took power, this dream has given way to a totalitarian, misogynist dystopia.

Today she has lost everything she fought for all her life. Traumatised by physical violence by the Taliban, by countless death threats via phone calls or Whatsapp messages, the arrest of former colleagues and the impending forced marriage of her 17-year-old daughter, Ms P. has been hiding for months in fear of her life with her children in Mazar-e Sharif with the few people she still trusts.

Although she has long vowed never to give up, her last hope today is to be admitted to Germany through the Federal Admission Programme (BAP). The suspension of visa procedures by the German government has nearly stifled this hope - because she does not know how long she can hide until the Taliban find her. The BAP's many delays and hurdles put her life at risk. Every day she has to hold out, the danger increases.

She dedicated her life to resisting the oppression of women…

Born in Baghlan* (location changed for security reasons) in the mid-1980s, Ms P. experienced the horrors of civil war and the rise and cruel rule of the Taliban as a teenager. While girls and women were locked away, disenfranchised and made second-class citizens by the Taliban throughout the country, Ms P. vowed to dedicate her life to non-violent resistance against the oppression of women. As an inquisitive young woman and teacher, she saw education as the key to empowering girls to take their lives into their own hands with confidence and to shape their future independently and freely. She motivated her students to continue their schooling up to secondary school and to start university studies.

Driven by her feminist ideals, Ms. P. continued to network within Afghan civil society, joined various associations, cooperated with diverse organisations and state institutions, founded her own initiatives and took on important positions in NGOs. In this way, she made a name for herself nationwide as a respected women's rights activist. She received an award from the president, was nominated for political office and participated several times as a representative in nationwide peace negotiations.

…and became a prime target for extremists

At the same time, she increasingly became a despised person in conservative and extremist circles. Publicly denounced as an "infidel", disparaged as a "collaborator of the West" and a "spy", she repeatedly became the target of intimidation and violent attacks against her. In autumn 2015, for example, she was able to hide at the last minute with neighbours when a group of mullahs attacked her house and tried to break in.

At the same time, she and her children were subjected to violence from her own husband, who fiercely resisted her work and tried to deny her daughter an education. When the domestic violence became unbearable and he threatened to marry off the daughter, who was only 12 years old at the time, she decided to leave him and raise her children alone.

But although she faced numerous hostilities as a single mother and activist, she never stopped pursuing her goals. When the Taliban gradually took power in the country in the summer of 2021, she spearheaded the formation of a nationwide network of women's rights activists that organised mutual support and numerous protests. Although the Taliban's repression against the activists increased, Ms. P. decided to continue working underground with her group and build safe spaces for women.

Released from prison, she is forced to marry her daughter to a Talib

But her continued activism did not go unnoticed – she received increasingly frequent threatening phone calls from unknown persons claiming to be "mujaheddin" and even from the Taliban governor from Baghlan himself. In the spring of 2022, she was visited at home by ten Taliban and summoned to the governor's office, where she was severely intimidated, arrested and brutally beaten in a cell. After two days of ill-treatment, she was released on bail through the intervention of elders in the district. Even though the elders managed to prevent Ms. P's forced marriage, the Taliban forced her to hand over her daughter for marriage to a Talib fighter in exchange. The only condition they were able to negotiate was to hold off the marriage until their daughter was of age.

After her release, Ms. P. immediately arranged for her children to stay with friends in Mazar-e Sharif while she remained in Baghlan to comply with the house arrest imposed on her. However, when a wave of Taliban arrests hit some of her fellow women last winter, she decided without further ado to flee. She later learned that several of the women have since disappeared, while others have been raped.

On her way to Mazar-e Sharif, she was arrested at a checkpoint when her name was found on a wanted list. She was taken to an interrogation centre where she was so badly beaten that at elders from the region intervened, saying that it was a disgrace to kill a woman. They negotiated to take Ms P. to a hospital, from which she managed to escape to Mazar-e Sharif to be with her children.

Having been arrested and severely abused, she is afraid every day that the Taliban will find her

In the meantime, her house in Baghlan was confiscated and numerous relatives and former colleagues have since been interrogated by the Taliban and questioned about Ms. P's whereabouts. After an acquaintance of hers had a document notarised for her by an authority, which he required for her application to Germany’s Federal Admission Programme, he was visited at home by Taliban two days later and beaten up. In addition, despite her new number, she has been receiving more threatening phone calls and messages for several weeks now. The governor of Baghlan also called her again and told her that they were looking for her – she should turn herself in immediately or she would be punished by death. Earlier this month, a former colleague was detained and taken to a notorious torture prison in Kabul.

To protect her children, Ms P. has since been hiding alone with a former colleague in Mazar-e Sharif, while her daughter looks after her little brothers. Ms P. is severely traumatised, suffers from panic attacks and fears of persecution. The joints of her arms have been severely damaged since the last arrest and have never been able to heal properly. Every day she is afraid that the Taliban will find her. Every day she waits for a positive response to her application in the Admission Programme. The prospects of a life in safety are slim, she knows that. And yet she dreams of one day living in a country where she and her daughter can lead a self-determined life and continue the fight for the rights of Afghanistan's women together in the diaspora.