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Afghan Women’s Network Pres.: Women’s Rights May Go Back 200 Years If Taliban Not Held Accountable

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Mahbouba Seraj, president of the Afghan Women’s Network and a longtime advocate for women’s rights, says the Taliban have already restricted women’s freedoms since taking over the country, despite their assurances that they have shifted their views since the last time they were in power. “If they continue like this, … Afghanistan will go back another 200 years,” says Seraj. “One cannot just disregard the women of Afghanistan and say they don’t exist. This doesn’t work.”

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, with Nermeen Shaikh, as we turn to Afghanistan, where the Taliban held a parade in the country’s second-largest city Wednesday to display the American-made military equipment they’ve seized or that was left behind after the withdrawal of the U.S. troops. Pentagon Press Secretary John Kirby responded by claiming the U.S. has deactivated all the gear U.S. forces abandoned at the airport.

Meanwhile, General Mark Milley, chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told reporters Wednesday it’s possible the United States will coordinate with the Taliban in the fight against the Islamic State. He declined to say whether the U.S. would collaborate with the new Taliban government.

GEN. MARK MILLEY: We don’t know what the future of the Taliban is, but I can tell you from personal experience that this is a ruthless group, from the past. And whether or not they changed remains to be seen.

AMY GOODMAN: This comes as the deputy head of the Taliban political office in Qatar told the BBC Wednesday that women may not be able to hold senior positions in the new government.

SHER MOHAMMMAD ABBAS STANIKZAI: Women also, I cannot say that they will be at the top. If they are not on the top, maybe they will be in the government in the lower part of these things, because in every department of the government and ministries, you can see almost half of the sector workers are women. So, they can come back to their work and they can continue. But maybe in this new government which has been announced, in the top posts — I mean to say in the Cabinet — they may not be women.

AMY GOODMAN: The Taliban also have said that women can go on to higher education, to university, but they have to be in separate classrooms from men and taught by women or the elderly.

For more, we’re joined in Kabul, Afghanistan, by Mahbouba Seraj. She is the president of the Afghan Women’s Network, longtime advocate for women’s rights.

We welcome you to Democracy Now!, Mahbouba. And thank you so much for being with us. You have said that it is a relief that the U.S. military is gone. Can you talk about what’s happening in the streets right now and what has happened to women over these last 20 years, for the United States the longest war in U.S. history?

MAHBOUBA SERAJ: Well, thank you, Ms. Goodman.

First of all, going to the part of your question that I said it’s a relief that the United States left, because especially if you were in Afghanistan in the past two years, and then when they started making the deal with the Taliban as far as the peace agreement was concerned, and then in the — specifically, in the last two months of it, with the way — you know, because the United States made this agreement with the Taliban that we are going to — you know, you can have — as long as you don’t hurt any Americans, you can go right ahead and have that war. Although they were helping the military of Afghanistan from the air, but the rest of it was like, you know, they were just spectators, and the war was going on.

And in the last two months of it, the situation got a lot worse. The soldiers of Afghanistan were dying left and right. And, I mean, everybody was like — it was like such a disaster. And then there were all of these thugs all over the city of Kabul or in the provinces, and they were doing their thing. And then there was this war. It was so chaotic that, honestly, when they left, at that night, at one minute to 12:00, I was like — I took a deep breath, and I said, “Thank god this is over,” because it was very hard on all of us. It was very hard specifically because of the deal that was made, that we never knew how it was, why it was made like that, because the United States had an agreement with Afghanistan to be with us until 2024, and then they did all of that. So, it’s like — it was very disappointing, and it was extremely upsetting, the whole thing, for me.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Mahbouba, you’ve also said that what’s happening in Afghanistan now could set the country back 200 years.


NERMEEN SHAIKH: Could you explain what you mean by that?

MAHBOUBA SERAJ: Well, the thing is that, you know, Afghanistan — Afghanistan went through — in the past 20 years, when the U.S. and the world was in Afghanistan, the whole attention, more than anything else, I mean, purposely and deliberately and for all the good intention, was given to the women of Afghanistan. The women of Afghanistan actually advanced tremendously during this time. The education of women advanced, from the health point of view, from the point of view of the death of mother and child that decreased so much, from the women taking place in the government and having high position, from the Parliament of Afghanistan, which 30-something percent of it were women. All of these, they were achievements for the women of Afghanistan.

And the way the Taliban have started with the Afghan women, especially with education, because, you see, the same words that are being said right now as an excuse for the children, for example, for the older girls, you know, not up to the class of six, but above, for them not to go to school, or the excuse that is given at the university because of the fact — that’s a fact: We don’t have enough cadre people, teachers, professors to teach at the university. So, all of this was actually said before, you know, years before, in 2004 and '05, when the Taliban were here in Afghanistan. So it's a repeat of the same thing, honestly. And that is very disheartening.

And that is why, if they continue like this — and this is just another excuse — Afghanistan will go back another 200 years. So, this is — because the population of Afghanistan, half of it right now are women, the same way the population of the world, more than 50% of it are — 52% of it are women. So, it’s like, you know, one cannot just disregard the women of Afghanistan and say they don’t exist. It just doesn’t work. I mean, for the advancement of the country, for the economy, for the work of every single one of the ministries, for the whole machinery of the government to turn, Afghan women are needed. So, if they are not going to be there, so who’s going to do the job? Who’s going to be doing filling up their place? And that’s why I’m saying that it’s going to go back 200 years, if they are not allowed to take their full part and participate in making Afghanistan a better place for everybody to live.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: And, Mahbouba, could you talk about — respond to those who say that, in fact, it was really only in urban areas where the situation for women, minorities, journalists, etc., improved, whereas in rural areas there wasn’t so much improvement in the last 20 years, and the war was much more visible there. Could you respond to that and explain what you know of the differences between rural areas and urban areas? Here, of course, the focus is principally, if not exclusively, on Kabul.

MAHBOUBA SERAJ: Yeah. Well, you know, to a point, that is the truth, but — and the reason for it being but to a point. And I will explain. You know, that is the truth. But the reason for it being that the Kabul is the capital of the country. So, all of the help, all of the — everything was kind of concentrated in Kabul. But this also, throughout the years, changed. Other big cities of Afghanistan, you know, like Kandahar, like Herat, like Mazar, they all — like Jalalabad — they all started coming up and taking their part. So, then the situation really changed, and women started taking their place even in all of the provinces of Afghanistan a little bit more — or, a lot more, actually, than before, but, of course, never as much as the center. So, that was the truth.

But then, I believe, when it comes to the question of development, in a way, that is the truth anywhere in the world, because it takes a long time for the whole system to be adjusted so and to be planned so that everybody, A to Z, in the country takes advantage of it. So, that’s what it was. It was nothing done purposely. It was nothing done to keep the women of the provinces of Afghanistan in the dark. But that’s how it happened, and it took a while. But right now if we go back to this situation, it’s going to be a lot worse, because then the provinces and the — you know, they’re all going to be completely forgotten, and it’s going to make it a lot more difficult. So, that’s where we are right now.

AMY GOODMAN: Mahbouba is president of the Afghan Women’s Network.

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